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Theological Notebook: Articles from the Telegraph (UK) & America spinning out of Blair's Conversion

Britain has become a 'Catholic country'
By Jonathan Wynne-Jones
Last Updated: 1:36am GMT 26/12/2007

Roman Catholics have overtaken Anglicans as the country's dominant religious group. More people attend Mass every Sunday than worship with the Church of England, figures seen by The Sunday Telegraph show.

This means that the established Church has lost its place as the nation's most popular Christian denomination after more than four centuries of unrivalled influence following the Reformation.

Last night, leading figures gave warning that the Church of England could become a minority faith and that the findings should act as a wake-up call.

The statistics show that attendance at Anglican Sunday services has dropped by 20 per cent since 2000. A survey of 37,000 churches, to be published in the new year, shows the number of people going to Sunday Mass in England last year averaged 861,000, compared with 852,000 Anglicans ­worshipping.

The rise of Catholicism has been bolstered by an influx of immigrants from eastern Europe and Africa, who have packed the pews of Catholic parishes that had previously been dwindling.

It is part of the changing face of churchgoing across Britain in the 21st century which has also seen a boom in the growth of Pentecostal churches, which have surpassed the Methodist Church as the country's third largest Christian denomination.

Worshipping habits have changed dramatically with a significant rise in attendance at mid-week services and at special occasions - the Church of England expects three million people to go to a parish church over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

In an attempt to combat the declining interest in traditional religion, the Anglican Church has launched radical new forms of evangelism that include nightclub chaplains, a floating church on a barge and internet congregations.

The Rev Alister McGrath, prof­essor of historical theology at Oxford University, said that the church attendance findings from the organisation Christian Research should act as a wake-up call to the Church of England.

"While it can rightly point to the weight of history, the importance of cultural memory, the largest number of church buildings and nominal church members in defence of its continued status as the established church, there is clearly a problem emerging," said Prof McGrath, one of Anglicanism's most respected figures.

"What happens if the established church becomes a minority church?"

The Catholic Church has also suffered a serious fall in the size of its congregations, but the expansion of the European Union in 2004 resulted in its numbers being bolstered by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Poles and Lithuanians.

Attendance at Mass in 1991 was recorded as 1.3 million, a drop of 40 per cent since 1963. But over the past six years it has fallen by only 13 per cent, with the rate of decline slowed by immigrants from Catholic countries.

The Rt Rev Crispian Hollis, the Bishop of Portsmouth, said that the Roman Church had been active in trying to win back lapsed worshippers, but conceded that mass immigration had been a significant factor in swelling its numbers.

"The number of Catholics attending church has been catching the Anglicans over a number of years," he said.

"We don't want to be seen to be scoring points over the Anglican Church as we are in no way jealous of its position as the national church, but of course these figures are encouraging. It shows that the Church is no longer seen as on the fringes of society, but in fact is now at the heart of British life."

Danny Sriskandarajah, the head of migration, equalities and citizenship for the Institute for Public Policy Research, said that its research indicated that pews would not stay packed for long.

"We are already seeing numbers from eastern Europe dropping and many of them have already returned home," he said. "It is an important phenomenon, but it is likely to be temporary. I doubt we'll be seeing this level of attendance in another 10 years."

Churchgoing in Anglican and Catholic parishes had stood at about a million each for the past 10 years, though the relative equality in their numbers over recent years is surprising considering that there are 25 million people who regard themselves as Anglicans, and only 4.2 million Catholics.

"It isn't a competition. I'm delighted to see all Christian denominations flourishing," said the Rt Rev Graham Cray, the chairman of the Church of England's report on evangelism.

"Large numbers of eastern Europeans have come in to the country, which has certainly strengthened them as has happened with non-whites in central London churches."
• Additional reporting: Vikki Miller.

The changing face of British Christianity
By Jonathan Wynne-Jones and Olga Craig
Last Updated: 1:36am GMT 26/12/2007
Attendances are falling at traditional churches, but are booming in unlikely places. Jonathan Wynne-Jones and Olga Craig reveal the plans for a mainstream revival

Pastor Michael is in full flow. Arms outstretched, he strides purposefully across the stage, extolling the glory of God. ''Something has touched me inside and I'm waiting to explode," he thunders, drowning out the gospel choir and fixing his gaze heavenward. Below his platform, a swaying sea of worshippers cheer and clap.

As they chant ''Hallelujah", Pastor Michael's voice soars. ''We need an eleventh-hour miracle," he cries. ''Our God is a miracle-worker!"

The response is immediate. The congregation choruses ''Amen" over and over. They surge towards the stage, their hands outstretched toward the charismatic Nigerian preacher, begging him to lay his hands on them.

One woman convulses, her arms whirling wildly, her head shaking to and fro. Glassy-eyed and giddy, she almost topples over but is held upright by a steadying arm. Moments later, as the Pastor passes among his congregation, the mood calms. Many seem lost in religious reflection. Some clutch their Bibles to their foreheads or clasp them tightly between their fingers.

For those more accustomed to the solemn ritual and reverence of Sunday service in Britain's traditional houses of worship, the World Evangelical Bible Church and its congregation may seem somewhat bewildering.

In this disused Royal Mail delivery office in a London backstreet there are no stained-glass windows or pulpits. No polished and well-worn oak pews from which generations of the same family have worshipped. Instead, there are post office counters and the service is spontaneous and impromptu.

Yet there can be no denying that the congregations who gather weekly in Pentecostal churches across Britain have deeply and passionately held religious convictions - or that the infectious enthusiasm with which they embrace their love of God is both impressive and uplifting.

The real story of the success of these charismatic, predominantly black, churches can be measured by the size of their thriving congregations. Attendance at Britain's 2,480 Pentecostal churches - the majority of which are based in London - rose sharply between 2000 and 2006, with membership growing by 23 per cent.

The Kingsway International Christian Centre, in Hackney, east London, for example, regularly attracts more than 12,000 worshippers at its Sunday service. About 500 new churches have been built since 2001 which, incredibly, equals the expansion of the Starbucks coffee bar chain.

But as the ranks of Pentecostalists swell, a new study, revealed by The Sunday Telegraph, today indicates a less healthy picture when it comes to attendance at the country's mainstream Christian churches.

Britons are most certainly still a Christian people - culturally and politically the country continues to be shaped by our Christian heritage - but declining numbers are choosing to display their religious conviction in the time-honoured manner of attending Sunday service.

According to figures from a survey by Christian Research, attendances at Church of England Sunday services have almost halved in a generation - from 1.6 million in 1968 to just over 850,000 in 2006.

Between the years 2000 and 2006 alone, the numbers attending C of E Sunday services in England fell by more than 210,000, or 20 per cent. By 2010, the projected congregation size is expected to hover around 780,000, reflecting a 26 per cent decrease in a decade.

For members of the Methodist church, the rates of decline are even steeper. In 2000, 372,600 Methodists went to church in England each Sunday. Last year, that had dwindled to 281,300 and by 2010 it is expected to fall farther to 248,800, marking a 10-year decline of 33.2 per cent. In Wales over the same decade, the fall is expected to be 15.3 per cent.

The Methodist Church, which grew out of the evangelistic work of John Wesley in the 18th century, has been the third-largest denomination in Britain for decades, but now has fewer members than the Pentecostal churches. Worryingly, in its traditional heartland, the mill towns of Yorkshire, statistics indicate that only three per cent attend church.

Among Baptists, too, the figures are disheartening. About 270,900 went to church weekly in England in 2000 and that figure is expected to drop by 10.6 per cent to 242,100 by the end of the decade.

The study highlights another intriguing trend: while the Roman Catholic church in England is also diminishing in number, it is attracting more people to its Sunday masses than the Church of England is to its services. The numbers of RC weekly worshippers was 990,400 in 2000 and, while this had fallen to 861,800 last year, it was 9,300 more than attended C of E Sunday services.

Despite this relative success, by 2010 the decline in those attending Catholic mass in England is predicted to be 25.6 per cent over a decade. In Wales the figure is 22 per cent, in Scotland 39 per cent.

One explanation for the overall fall is the changing social fabric of our lives. Once the family pew was sacrosanct and the church was a social hub. But as individuals became more mobile over the last decades of the 20th century and the first few years of the 21st, the importance of the local community and its parish church began to wane.

In the past, whole families would walk to church together. Children would be sent to Sunday school and church-going in adulthood followed seamlessly.

''Now it is likely that everyone will sleep in late, get up at different times and watch television in different rooms," says David Voas, professor of population studies at the University of Manchester's Institute for Social Change.

''With the introduction of the internet and social-networking sites, people are free to surround themselves with the community of their choice, rather than going to the fixed community that church offers."

The increasing independence of teenagers, he believes, who no longer dutifully join their parents in the pew, as was commonplace less than 40 years ago, means that a sizeable part of this generation has grown up with little interest in religion.

The number of children under the age of 16 in the Church of England has plummeted in the past 20 years, from 226,000 to about only 135,000 today.

One result of this is to leave a gap in children's general knowledge and understanding of the origins of faith. One recent survey discovered that 36 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds did not know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Young children are, it seems, now more likely to be taught compassionate understanding through their families' daily demonstrations than through the tenets of a religious creed.

Changing social attitudes have also contributed to our laissez faire attitude to Sunday service attendance. The end of the Second World War and the social changes of the 1960s were pivotal moments, Prof Voas believes.

''It used to be expected that going to church was what you did," he says. ''It was socially desirable, but after the social upheaval of the war people no longer felt that they had to get their children baptised and, after the 1960s, came a time of greater individual liberty."

The introduction of Sunday shopping in 1994 also had a dramatic impact, with more and more people now likely to treat the Sabbath as just another day. With intensely consumer-focused lives and the longest working hours in Europe, British families are increasingly finding it difficult to fit in Sunday service.

For those who belong to the Pentecostal churches, however, the reverse is the case. For many of the churches, finding premises large enough to accommodate their congregations is a common headache.

At the Ruach Ministries' Christian Centre, on Brixton Hill in London, for example, such is the queue to get in that a notice warns worshippers that ''the doors will be closed for 30 minutes once the service has commenced".

As more and more Anglican and Methodist churches are being turned into office blocks, apartments and art galleries, Tunji Adebayo, a property consultant for the Pentecostal churches, says he has about 350 clients waiting to move in to warehouses.

''We are growing at such a fast pace that our only problem is finding enough places to worship," he says. "People tend to focus on the decline of other churches and have been largely unaware of our success. But that is beginning to change."

Many of these churches, such as the Redeemed Christian Church of God - the largest branch of Pentecostalism in Britain - were established by African leaders and their congregations are overwhelmingly drawn from the immigrant community.

Increasingly, this has also been the case for the Roman Catholic church, whose ranks have been augmented by the recent influx of Eastern Europeans.

Francis Davis, the director of the Centre for Faith in Society at the Von Hügel Institute - the Roman Catholic research institute of St Edmund's College, Cambridge - believes that many parishes are sustained by migrants rather than the indigenous population.

These new arrivals, many from Poland, Lithuania and Croatia, have so swollen some Catholic congregations that several parishes are struggling to cope with the demand for services.

''The traditional Catholic community had a class and ethnic base," he says. ''It was essentially for the working classes and the Irish. But as the communities have become more integrated and economically successful, there has been a drop in their instinctive reach for the institution.

That said, Catholicism has moved from being a community on society's fringes to being much more acceptable politically and culturally. This has taken away some of its identity and solidarity that used to hold Catholics together in the past."

Significantly, he points out, the pattern of attendance numbers is directly linked to where, geographically, the new migrants settle. ''There has been an influx of Filipinos, Africans and Eastern Europeans to areas such as Southampton, Crewe, Manchester and Glasgow, but in the North West, which was once the bedrock of Catholicism, there has been a steep decline because there are few migrants there."

St Edmund's Catholic Church in Southampton illustrates vividly the effect population shifts have had. Last Saturday, the church was full 15 minutes before the beginning of evening mass - arranged to cater for the huge Polish congregation. Latecomers were forced to stand and many were still queuing when the Rev Krzysztof Olejnik began the service.

''The mass helps the community improve their relationship with God and allows them to meet fellow Poles," says Mr Olejnik, estimating that in the past four years Polish worshippers have increased from 60 to 400.

''Religion is very important to us Poles," says Janusz Matela, a taxi driver who is a regular worshipper. ''More so than for the English, I think."

If the service at nearby Woolston Methodist Church was anything to go by, Mr Matela could be correct. At its service, the few who attended were mostly pensioners.

Jean Rothwell, 74, has been a member of the congregation since she was eight and recalls a time when 300 would attend regularly. ''It used to be full, as were the balconies which overlooked the main hall," she says. ''Now we use the smaller side halls. But I find peace here, regardless of the numbers. It will always be a church."

As the country prepares for Christmas, it would be tempting to view the downward trends among Britain's mainstream religions in a gloomy light. But those on the frontline remain upbeat.

There are, according to the Rev Lynda Barley, the Church of England's head of research, many hopeful signs of recovery. Between 2001 and 2007, she points out, the number of people attending church weddings rose from 39 per cent to 48 per cent.

There have been increases, too, in the number of baptisms, which rose from 29 per cent to 39 per cent in the same period.

''Modern life is so frantic that people don't seem able to commit to being attached to a church," says Ms Barley, ''but at important times they still want to turn to it and this is increasingly the case."

Another encouraging trend can be detected on the internet: i-Church and - two online churches - attract thousands of members. Their originators have realised that, in a culture in which immediacy is all, it is vital that people should not have to wait until the weekend to worship.

Another promising sign is that the C of E is reporting a significant rise in attendance at its midweek services - from 164,000 in 2001 to 184,000 last year. Almost half that number are teenagers.

''But we can't rely on people coming to us any more," says the Rev Steve Croft, who heads Fresh Expressions, a joint initiative between the Methodists and Anglicans which was set up by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the hope of luring back into the fold those who have become disillusioned or unfamiliar with traditional church-going.

''For decades, society has been changing and there has been an ever-widening gap between where much of what the church is and where society has got to. The Church of England may be struggling and declining, but being born within it are new types of churches that are committed to closing that gap."

Among the more radical ventures are ''street vicars" who have been attached to nightclubs, skateboard parks and amusement arcades. One novel gathering - on a barge in London's financial district - regularly attracts City workers.

This weekend there is much, it would seem, to remind us that Britain's relationship with Christianity is both enduring and ongoing.

One in six will attend some type of service over the Christmas period and the Church of England is confidently predicting that three million worshippers will file into its pews on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day alone. And in our cathedrals, Christmas attendance has increased by 37 per cent since the millennium.

''We know we face a challenge," says Mr Croft. ''Now our mission is to rise to it."

• Additional reporting by Vikki Miller

Tony Blair takes final step to Catholicism
By Jonathan Wynne-Jones and Andrew Alderson
Last Updated: 1:36am GMT 26/12/2007

It was Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former spin doctor, who once famously interrupted an interview with the Prime Minister with the words "We don't do God".

The truth, of course, is quite the opposite. Mr Blair has "done" religion all his adult life and has a deeper faith than perhaps any other post-war prime minister. For the most part he has preferred to keep his views to himself.

Behind the scenes, however, Mr Blair has undergone a highly unusual, 20-year journey from evangelical Anglican to high church Roman Catholic.

His long and emotional road to Rome ended on Friday night when, in front of family and friends, he was accepted into the Catholic faith by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the head of the Church in England and Wales.

Mr Blair, the son of a lawyer, was brought up in the Church of England although his parents were not deeply religious. It was as a student at Oxford University that he became interested in religion. He once told Third Way magazine: "I was brought up as [a Christian], but I was not in any real sense a practising one until I went to Oxford.

"There was an Australian priest at the same college as me who got me interested again. In a sense, it was a rediscovery of religion as something living, that was about the world around me rather than some sort of special one-to-one relationship with a remote Being on high. Suddenly I began to see its social relevance. I began to make sense of the world."

The death of Mr Blair's mother, Hazel, in 1975 is said to have greatly affected him and prompted his renewed spiritual commitment while at Oxford.

His first major involvement with Catholicism came when he began dating Cherie Booth, a fellow barrister and a practising Catholic, in the late 1970s. The couple married in March 1980 - in a Church of England service.

Mr Blair started attending Catholic Mass some time before he became prime minister in 1997. In 1996, while Labour Party leader, the was reprimanded by Basil Cardinal Hume, the then Archbishop of Westminster, for receiving Holy Communion at Mass despite not being a Roman Catholic: a contravention of Catholic Canon Law, but criticism that is said to have left Mr Blair "bemused".

It was during his decade as prime minister that Mr Blair fully embraced Catholicism. He began worshipping at the Saturday evening service at Westminster Cathedral, until security issues forced him to receive Mass privately at Number 10 and also at Chequers, his country residence.

Behind the closed doors of his Buckinghamshire retreat, Mr Blair built a close relationship with Father Timothy Russ and he celebrated Mass with his family. Latterly, he turned for advice to Father John Walsh, a chaplain at RAF Cranwell and Father Mark O'Toole, the cardinal's private secretary, who has been preparing him for his conversion.

The anticipation that his conversion was imminent was heightened ahead of his visit in June this year to Rome where he had a private meeting with Pope Benedict XVI.

Mr Blair took into account his faith when making some important decisions as prime minister. In an interview with Michael Parkinson last year, he referred to the role of his Christian faith in his decision to go to war in Iraq, saying that he had prayed about the issue, and that God would judge him for his decision

Yet, after leaving office, Mr Blair said he had declined to discuss his faith, fearing that he would be regarded as a "nutter". He added: "You always get into trouble talking about it [religion]."

It is not known when Mr Blair initially decided to convert, but it may have been several years ago. He is said to have delayed because he felt sensitive about the place of Catholicism in public life. He had weekly audiences with the Queen, who is head of the Church of England, and he was involved in delicate peace talks in Northern Ireland.

Converting can take time, depending on readiness and aptitude, and is described in a 44-page document called The Rite of Christian Initiation.

From Thames to Tiber
Tony Blair and the politics of conversion
By Austen Ivereigh | JANUARY 7, 2008

The reception on Dec. 21 into the Catholic Church of the UK’s former prime minister, Tony Blair, has echoes of America’s JFK moment, when the old ghosts of suspicion about divided allegiances (“Rome or home”?) were laid to rest. Yet the fact that it has happened some months after resigning as prime minister points to the difficulties Catholics continue to face in public life–that is the reason he himself has given.

His formal instruction began four months ago, under the care of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s private secretary. The announcement of his reception was originally planned for June, when Blair—then still prime minister—saw Pope Benedict. But he was advised, on that occasion, to wait until after he stepped down. Things were “not as resolved as they might be,” he told the London Times at the time, giving a clue to some of the delicate negotiations behind the scenes.

Blair opted, instead, for a highly symbolic gesture, presenting Pope Benedict with three framed pictures of John Henry Newman, the famous nineteenth-century convert from Anglicanism who “poped”—as Anglicans then scornfully put it—in 1845, and became a cardinal in 1879. “Here is a well-known convert who is on his way to sainthood,” Blair told Benedict XVI. “Ah yes,” sighed the pope. “But the trouble is that miracles in England are rather hard to come by.”

Tags: europe, political, secularism/modernity, theological notebook

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