Survey claims Catholicism is vanishing in traditionally strong areas
By Luke Coppen MASS ATTENDANCE has fallen dramatically in the Church's northern heartlands. according to a major new church attendance survey published this week.
While all areas of England have seen a sharp decline in congregations, a staggering 40 per cent of Catholics in the north of England gave up going to Mass in the last decade. The largest exodus was in the North West region which includes Liverpool and Salford dioceses — where Sunday attendance fell by almost 300,000 in ten years. The West Midlands and the South West lost almost a third of Church-goers in the same period.
The only area to avoid a steep fall in attendance is the South-East, where nevertheless one in ten practising Catholics have stopped going to church in the past decade. Brentwood, Northamption and Westminster were the only dioceses to slow the rate of decline.
The English Church Attendance Survey, issued on Tuesday, paints a disturbing picture of the decline of Christianity in England (see graph). It suggests that barely eight adults in 100 go to church on a Sunday, compared with 12 in 100 twenty years ago. Although it claims that double this figure are at church at least one Sunday of the year, the report will make disturbing reading for leaders of the main Christian denominations.
Catholics are still the largest group at worship on a Sunday. In 1998, one in every three church-goers was Catholic. But the Church has seen a large fall in attendance over the past 20 years, with the decline in the 1990s twice as rapid as that in the 1980s. The survey found that over 50 per cent of practising Catholics go to church every Sunday, while 22 per cent attend twice a year.
Fewer young people go to Mass than before. Half as many 15 to 19-year-olds attend church on Sunday now compared to twenty years ago, while the Catholic Church has fewer special youth services than any other denomination, including the Orthodox. Worshipping Catholics are, concentrated in a few large urban churches. Almost half of England's Catholics squeeze into just 27 per cent of the nation's churches. There are also fewer churches left each year. according to the survey. with more Catholic churches are closing than opening in the Nineties. Only 31 per cent of churches are open for midweek Mass.
The survey explains that the decline is due mainly to people reducing the frequency of church-going, rather than breaking the link with Church completely (see pie chart). However, one in five former church-goers left because they were dissatisfied with the Church. The same number left because they moved area.
The survey reports that although Catholic churches have more worshippers than other churches. they have poorer facilities. Only 28 per cent of our churches have wheelchair access, while 29 per cent have publicly available toilets. the lowest proportion of any Christian denomination.
The survey echoes recent developments in the Church. In November, Shrewsbury Diocese published the results of a pastoral review, which forecast "smaller congregations and diminished revenue" and proposed the closure of churches and the sale of Church property. In the same month, Bishop John Brewer of Lancaster, bemoaned the sharp fall in Mass attendance in his diocese.
Next month, representatives of the National Conference of Priests and the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales will develop a national strategy to draw people back to Church.
Dr Peter Briefly, Executive Director of Christian Research, which carried out the Church Attendance Survey said that the results showed "a haemorrhage akin to a burst artery" in the church.
"The country is littered with people who used to go to church but no longer do. We could well bleed to death. At the present rate of change we are one generation from extinction," he said.
The survey's full results are in The Tide h Running Out (ISBN 1 85321 137 0), available from Christian Research priced £8.99.