by Paul Goodman CHURCH attendance in the established denominations is falling, while the numbers of those worshipping in the new house churches continues to rise, a major census of English church-going has revealed.
If present trends continue, it is claimed, there will be an overall decline in church attendance during the coming decade of over a quarter of a million people.
The census, published by the evangelically-based MARC Europe organisation and based on reports compiled in parishes around the country, contains mixed news for Britain's Catholics. There has been a 14 per cent decline in Sunday mass attendance, according to the survey's projections, since 1979, and Catholics account for 30,000 of the 45,000 Christians a year who have stopped going to church.
However, this decline is now slowing markedly. Between 1985 and 1989, the fall in mass attendance slowed to 2 per cent or 150 people per week.
The Catholic church has also been less severely affected by falling numbers of worshippers than some other established denominations; attendance at United Reform and Methodist churches has dropped by 18 and 16 per cent respectively.
Furthermore, more Catholics than Anglicans still go to church on Sunday — although there has been a pronounced falling-off in the number of those deserting Anglican services.
One of the most marked features of the census is the significant increase in those attending Orthodox liturgies a recorded rise of 34 per cent.
The most spectacular growth in Sunday worship, however, is happening among the house and independent churches, whose vivacious liturgical approach allied to a strongly celebratory
mows of churcn government, and an emphasis upon charismatic gifts and the healing ministry — has witnessed a 114 and 46 per cent growth respectively. The Pentecostal and Afro-Caribbean churches have also experienced an increase in church attendance. This growth is especially marked among young people, in contrast with the falling number of teenagers attending Sunday mass. People in their 20s and 30s are under-represented among Catholic mass attenders.
Child attendance in Catholic churches also dropped during the period measured.
The response rate by Catholics to the survey was one of the lowest recorded. This factor provides one of several reasons for viewing the survey's result with distinct qualifications, observers said this week. Another, they added, is the nature of the poll, which assessed church attendance on only one Sunday: small percentage shifts in patterns of worship would invalidate some of the conclusions drawn from the census.
In addition, commentators have noted that church attendance is not necessarily a reliable guide to church membership.
However, one influential commentator felt that the survey's assessment of the Catholic church as being in a state of slow and orderly decline was not inaccurate.
Dr Michael Hornsby-Smith, a Catholic member of MARC Europe's council of reference and a specialist in the field, said he was particularly concerned with the inward-looking nature of the church during a Decade of Evangelisation. "I would hesitate," he said, "to say that the survey signifies major change, but the Catholic church shows, according to the census, evidence of stagnation and some decline."
Christian England: What the English Church Census Reveals is published by MARC Europe, £10.99.