British Catholicism's dark night of the soul

British Catholicism's dark night of the soul

The numbers of Sunday churchgoers continue to fall in England, according to a report published on 18 September 2006 by the British organisation Christian Research. The decline, however, seems to be slowing.

The report, the 2005 English Church Census, shows that from 1998 to 2005 ‘only’ a half-million people stopped going to church. The good news was that this was half the loss sustained in the nine-year period prior to 1998.

The census found that there are two major reasons for the slowing decline: the number of churches is growing and there has been a considerable increase of ethnic minority churchgoers, especially blacks.

The data were collected from surveys sent to 37,500 churches, of which about half responded. The attendance figures are those for Sunday, 8 May 2005. According to the census 6.3% of the population, just over 3.1 million people, are now in church on an average Sunday, compared with 7.5% in 1998.

The Catholic and Anglican churches accounted for over half of the numbers in the census, with each having just over 800,000 people in church the day the data were collected.

Numbers for the Catholic Church were slightly ahead of the Anglican level. But compared with 1998 the decline in attendance for the Catholic Church was much greater than for the Anglicans. In 1998 the Sunday participation for Catholics was just over 1.2 million, meaning that in the previous seven years their numbers have dropped by almost a third.

Another problem is that churchgoers are significantly older on average than the population. No fewer than 29% of churchgoers are 65 or over, compared with 16% of the population. Believers in the younger age groups also tend to go to church less often, and there is a progressive decline in belief as age drops, with very few churchgoers in the younger age brackets. Less than 10% go to church in the 20-29 age group, and this falls to 5% in the 15-19 group.

A more detailed look at the situation of the Catholic Church came in another report, published by the Pastoral Research Centre. Over a three-decade period Mass attendance has declined by 40%, according to a summary of the report published in The Times on 4 July. The report covered the period 1963-1991.

Over the same period baptisms were halved, while marriages and confirmations plunged by 60%.

As well, first Communions declined by 40% and the number of adult converts fell by 55%. More recent figures, from 2004, show little improvement in the situation. Numbers going to Mass on a Sunday in 1991 in England and Wales stood at 1.3 million, declining to 960,000 in 2004.

The website for the Catholic Church in England and Wales also publishes statistics that reveal similar trends. The number of diocesan clergy fell from 4,755 in 1981 to 3,765 in 2003. Religious-order clergy fell from 2,266 to 1,363 in the same period.

The number of marriages in Catholic churches fell precipitously, from 29,337 in 1981 to 11,013 in 2003. The website estimated weekly Mass attendance at 915,497.


On 10 April The Telegraph published a detailed article on the situation of Catholic monasteries and convents. Citing official figures the article said that only a dozen people entered monasteries in 2004, thus continuing a decline that has persisted in recent decades.

Vocations to monastic orders were 107 in 1982. By 1990 this had fallen to 52, and in 2000 only 20 entered. The total number of monks in England and Wales now stands at 1,345, many of them elderly.

The situation of nuns is similar. In England and Wales their numbers stand at 1,150, and vocations continue to decline. In 1982, 100 women entered convents; by 2000 this fell to 22. In 2004 there were only seven vocations, with a slight increase to 13 in 2005. An increasing number of monasteries and convents are being sold due to the declining numbers.

In Scotland the situation is no better. Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Archbishop and Metropolitan of St Andrew's and Edinburgh, has published a plan involving closing many parishes. According to a report on 11 June in the newspaper Scotland on Sunday, the number of priests could halve in some areas due to parish amalgamations.

The average age of priests in Scotland is now above 60 and the number of active priests in the Edinburgh Archdiocese is expected to fall from the current 63, to just 34 in a decade's time.

Scotland now has just over 200,000 practising Catholics, a decline of 20% compared with a decade ago.

The Chicago Tribune on 11 May examined the crisis of faith in Britain. It noted that 72% of the British people called themselves Christian in the 2001 census, but only eight percent regularly attend services.

‘Britain is showing the world how religion as we have known it can die,’ Callum Brown told The Tribune. Brown is a historian at the University of Dundee in Scotland. He was pessimistic about the future, observing that after two generations of people with little experience of regular church participation, it will be difficult to turn the situation around.

Amid doubts over the future of organised religion in Britain, a column from Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting called for a greater contribution by faith in today's society. In her 19 June column, Bunting observed that there is ‘a vacuum of purpose, value and meaning,’ in the major groupings on the political spectrum.

Moreover, she commented, scientific developments are in danger of ‘outstripping our ethical imagination.’ Britain needs religion more than ever, even if it doesn't seem to show it.

With acknowledgement to Zenit News Service

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