Yet with 2000 fast approaching, this 10-year Advent is beginning to look uncannily like Pur-gatory. Far from being born-again, church membership according to the newly published UK Christian Handbook, the respected annual statistical survey of religious trends, has fallen by almost 5 per cent in the first half of the decade - a rate of decline that is predicted to increase up to the year 2000. With 5.9 million members projected by the millennium, the churches will have dwindled by one-fifth in just 20 years.
All the main players are seeing their market share drop - by 1.6 per cent per annum for both the Church of England and the Catholics, and 1.7 for the Methodists. The decline in Methodism's fortunes has been sufficient to reinvigorate 25-year-old plans for a merger with the Anglicans.
Only on the fringes of Christianity is there any sign of vigour and, there, growth is measured in hundreds rather than thousands. On the traditional wing, the Orthodox church is growing in Britain at the rate of 2.3 per cent per annum, while, at the other end of the spectrum, happy-clappy evangelicals from the so-called house-church movement have soared by 5.7 per cent over a 10-year period, and mainly black-led Pentecostals by 2.6 per cent in just one year.
The trick, it seems, is whatever you do, do it to extremes. It's a message that a handful of Anglican churches - like Holy Trinity, Brompton, in central London - have taken on board. Holy Trinity boasts a congregation of thousands each Sunday, but there is no altar, candle or dog collar in sight. Instead, according to the novelist and former editor of the Catholic Herald, Cristina Odone, "Stiff upper lips melt in a Teletubby's gormless smile as they pray for Jesus, shout for Jesus and weep for Jesus."
Odone believes that this charismatic style of worship is virtually a church within the Anglican church, geared in particular towards the young and perhaps more impressionable. Yet if the faltering church preparations for the millennium are to amount to more than a youth rally, George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is going to have to find more broadly based solutions to dwindling numbers. At times he appears bemused by the task. In the most recent edition of Third Way magazine, for instance, he dismisses the idea that Britain is a multi-faith society and claims that 90 per cent of the population is Christ-ian. The most generous estimate possible based on the UK Christian Handbook figures would put it at nearer 65 per cent.
On a more thoughtful tack, back in October, he suggested, in a much-quoted lecture, that the outpouring of grief surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales proved that we are still a spiritual nation, despite all the signs to the contrary. This has become something of a mantra for those fearful that Britain is spiritually ailing. Indeed, Carey's words were a watered-down version of the Holy Trinity, Brompton, line that the national mourning for Diana heralded the dawn of a revival for Christianity.
Society is "not antagonistic to faith," the Arch-bishop claimed, "but in many cases distant from the claims of organised religion." He made great play of the fact that Westminster Abbey was the focus of the nation's mourning for Diana - "an accessible, inclusive and yet distinctly religious setting in which to place their collective memories, sorrow and thanks."
Many consider the Archbishop to be clutching at straws. Among their ranks are some prominent religious figures. "What the response to Diana's death highlighted was a need for ritual as a way of dealing with things that hit us very deeply, but for many it was not spiritual," says Rabbi Julia Neuberger. "All this pouring out of our emotions that we are encouraged to do in therapy is not spiritual."
Moreover, protest the sceptics, if the Arch-bishop is to be believed, why was it that Charles Spencer and not George Carey himself captured the public mood at the funeral? If Diana's tragic, lonely, needy life proved anything, they add, it is that, far from remaining attached to spiritual concepts, we are now truly a therapy nation, searching for answers to the eternal questions inside ourselves with the help of doctors, quacks and New Age gurus rather than looking to intervention from an external divinity.
By such judgements, the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the sea of faith that Matthew Arnold predicted in 1867 in his poem "Dover Beach", looks more likely to accompany the chiming of Big Ben on 1 January 2000 than any spontaneous chorus of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus". The millennium, far from representing a rebirth in the spiritual health of Britain, as the churches had hoped, could merely emphasise their irrelevance.
Talk of F Mass-going statistics always conjures up in my mind the unholy image of an army of tweed-skirted monitors with clipboards standing in the church porch, counting people in each Sunday. However, given that for Catholics, at least, missing Mass is rather like voting Tory - something that you never voluntarily own up to in public - it would take quasi-military scrutineers to provide a copper-bottomed reading of Britain's spiritual health.
With the meagre resources currently dedicated to such avenues of enquiry, though, this is unlikely to happen. Despite all their committees and good cheer about the millennium, you also get the impression that the churches are afraid to risk so open an empirical survey for fear of what it may show. The current confusion may just suit the interested parties.
The UK Christian Handbook is at least produced by an independent and reputable organisation, Christian Research. But its Heather Wright, who helped put together the handbook, is the first to draw attention to its flaws. With the Anglicans, membership is a question of counting those who are on the parish's electoral roll - entitling them to vote for members of local and national synods, but not requiring them to attend every Sunday. With Catholicism, the process is even more archaic. Membership is based on a notional percentage of those baptised in Catholic churches. With Methodism and the other Non-conformist churches, you have to sign up as members to count. As Wright remarks: "With Catholics and Anglicans you end up with a figure for members that probably exceeds regular attenders, while with Methodist and Presby-terians, the final figure will be smaller because many people may attend each week without wanting to sign up as members."
She hopes that these shortcomings balance each other out in the final total. But when you turn to the smaller churches, the figures are based on data supplied by their headquarters with no independent verification. Moreover, the Handbook makes little mention of non-Christian denominations; Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism and "others" are lumped together with scant attention to their differences. In total they account for 7 per cent of the British population. Some - like Islam - would appear to be growing to beyond one million adherents, but there are no accurate figures. In taking the nation's spiritual pulse, it seems, that the only real gauge perhaps is impressions and anecdotes.
The Victorian chapel has a strange, pointed roof that gives it an exotically Eastern feel in the middle of a very bland English graveyard, in a leafy suburb of Chester. When it was built in the last century with a clinical brown and beige tiled interior, there could have been no ink-ling that its archi- tectural eccentricity might one day assume a practical symbolism. But in 1985 this by then deserted chapel was taken over by a group of Orthodox as their parish church. Now lined with icons and prayer screens, Saint Barbara's, as it has become known, has 30 or so regular worshippers and is one of many small but thriving strongholds of the current Orthodox revival dotted around the country.
The Eastern church has traditionally been something of an optional extra on the British ecclesiastical scene, its handful of centres and cathedrals in the major towns and cities acting as meeting places for expatriate and first-generation Greeks, Cypriots and Slavs. By contrast, the new generation of Orthodox are home-grown converts.
At first glance, the regulars at Saint Barbara's are an unlikely bunch of trendsetters. Sensibly clad and shod, middle-aged and middle-class, they are naturals for the parochial church of any prosperous town. Which is indeed where many of them used to worship until they became so disillusioned with the speed and nature of change in the Church of England that they jumped ship.
They are not, they were anxious to point out, in any way related to the firebrands who objected so vehemently to General Synod's 1992 decision to ordain women that they left in a fit of pique a la Widdecombe and Gummer. Instead they are stoical middle-Englanders who, over many decades, came to despair at the failure in the national church to hold anything dear.
Father Alban Barter, parish priest emeritus at Saint Barbara's, epitomises the new breed. A tall, initially stern man in his sixties, with the trademark beard and pillar-box hat of Orthodox clergy, his patience with the Church of England finally snapped in the 1970s. "There was such a gulf between the Anglican church of my baptism and the present-day church. As a child, the basis of my faith was encapsulated in the Creed. But some within the church felt the need to re-evaluate and change this every 10 years to suit the needs of the moment. You can't forever be modernising your beliefs. Something has to be more enduring."
In Orthodoxy, Father Alban - or the Very Reverend Proto-Presbyter Alban Barter to give him his full title in a church that is much concerned with forms and courtesies - has found a spiritual home. "For the Orthodox, it would be unthinkable to start redefining the dogmas of the church. We accept that if something was considered true in the 4th century, there is no reason to think that after 1,600 years we have to change it." He might also add that the Orthodox liturgy, unaltered from the early centuries of the church, has a grace, stillness and contemplative feel banished from the mainstream churches by nuns with guitars and a laudable, but perhaps misplaced, desire to dumb down church language.
Three factors, he believes, are holding back an even greater Orthodox revival. First, the old-style Orthodox - of Greek and Slavic extraction - haven't quite worked out whether to welcome their new brethren or shun them as interlopers at an ethnic feast. Secondly, the growth of the network of English-speaking converts is hampered by the scarcity of priests. And thirdly, Father Alban feels that there is something about Orthodoxy that marks it out as a minority taste in 1990s Britain. "It appeals primarily to thoughtful people who have an un-satisfied need for God. It does not have the mass public appeal of, say, evangelicalism. We feel that Christianity goes far deeper than being cheered up by joyful music."
Terry Virgo, the founder of the 24,000-strong New Frontiers International evangelical ministry, would certainly claim that there is a place for love songs about Jesus set to simple guitar chords. But they are, he says, just one part of the house-church that he started 18 years ago in Brighton. More important are the roots of New Frontier's theology and practice in what Virgo describes as "the primitive Christian church". Like the Orthodox he, too, is harking back to the first centuries after Christ's death, but, apparently, he has a different impression of what went on then.
"We have recovered the authentic form of Christianity and have returned to biblical values," Virgo says. It is a community-orientated, democratic, informal approach, devoid of ritual, that has a special appeal to young people and students in the university towns where New Frontiers thrives.
A softly spoken man of 57, Virgo chooses his words with care. Privately far-removed from stereotypical evangelical tub-thumpers like Billy Graham and Morris Cerullo, in public he has the power as a speaker to inspire. From initial gatherings of 30-odd people in a Brighton school hall in the 1970s, New Frontiers now has 140 affiliated churches in the UK and 60 more overseas.
The industrial warehouse, just off the main London road in the centre of Brighton, that is the headquarters of New Frontiers International, has few claims to architectural merit. But thanks to a pounds 3m investment by Virgo's organisation, it certainly has permanence. This is one of the cathedrals of the 1990s.
Virgo believes that the key to success - and by association to regenerating spiritual life in Britain - lies in being faithful to Jesus's message. "You have to take what He said straight on, however unpopular it may sound and however out of step with what secular society preaches," he says. "So it's about loyalty - loyalty within marriage for instance and placing sex within the proper context of marriage. What we need to deal with is the fruit of a couple of generations that God forgot, causing devastation in social and family life."
With over 25 major groupings, the house-church movement can no longer be ignored in measurements of Britain's spiritual well-being. Though its success in attracting young people has yet to be matched by a capacity to keep their loyalty as they grow older, it has proved that it is not, as many once predicted, a flash in the pan.
Spiritual health , however, cannot only be measured by looking within religious organisations. Indeed it could be argued that the majority of the signs of life are to be found outside the churches.
It is part of the privatisation of belief that George Carey touched upon in his comments about the Princess of Wales's funeral. People no longer feel they have to go to church, or claim any denominational attachment, in order to have a sense that there is something more to life than the here and now. But, once again, reliable facts and figures are scarcer than fans of Harriet Harman.
The current popularity of Do-It-Yourself prayer manuals is one obvious manifestation. Despite its image as something learned along with potty- training and then rejected again at graduation from childhood, prayer remains for many the only way they know to explore that nagging sense of another dimension to life. Prayer may not even be addressed to any deity, but it can be done in the privacy of homes, heads and hearts rather than, as in the past, in houses of God.
Just as it is the churches that look back to long-lost traditions that are now thriving, the most popular prayer books of the moment tend to be those that refer to ancient wisdom. Volumes on Celtic night prayer and Celtic day prayer have been best-sellers for HarperCollins in recent times.
The chants and practices of the early Celtic monks, who brought Christianity to these shores from the 5th century onwards in the wake of Saint Patrick, are also something of a star turn on the burgeoning retreat circuit. At centres like the old Celtic chapel of Saint Cedd on a cliff top outside Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex the custodian, Revd Martin Wallace, believes that the simple earthy wisdom of the Celts has a particular appeal in our age. "It is a less formal way of praying, finding a rhythm, following your own heartbeat, natural energies and evoking strong imagery."
Another attraction of the Celtic approach is that it is mystical, decidedly unchurchy and profoundly anti-establishment. Indeed the Celts' dislike of hierarchy and ecclesiastical trappings, and their treatment of men and women, ordained and laity, as equals - views that led to their suppression by Rome - has a particular resonance at a time when the institutionalised church is deemed by many people to be irrelevant, introspective and too restrictive for their spiritual needs.
But, in keeping with the privatisation of faith, signs of spiritual revival do not need to be contained within institutions or movements. Often they can be witnessed in the gestures of individuals that we have grown so accustomed to seeing that they no longer register. Much was made of the habit of laying flowers and making a shrine to the Princess of Wales out-side her Kensington Palace home, but Father Alban Barter believes it was symptomatic of something that had been happening on a smaller scale for years. "Just down the road from me there was a terrible car accident six months ago and people have turned it into a road- side shrine, with fresh flowers each week. That is something new. You used to see it in the Mediterranean countries and perhaps Ireland, but never here. And I've also noticed this penchant for lighting candles. Twenty years ago in Britain that would have been dismissed as a Rome-ish superstition."
"There is undoubtedly a phenomenal hunger and thirst for religion about," says Cristina Odone, "and I believe that it could be satisfied if the churches find a way of reining in those strong collective emotions that we saw on display this summer outside Kensington Palace." But she has no illusions as to the scale of the task ahead after six years of church attempts to exploit the coming millennium. "How do you deal with a mass instinct for worship in a new way? It represents a huge challenge to all the churches."
But in case church leaders are feeling like throwing in the towel, they would do well to remember that spiritual health has peaks and troughs. Their predecessors have been here before - and survived. Two hundred years ago, Samuel Butler, the Bishop of Bristol, misread the signs of the times and declined the then Prime Minister's offer to be Archbishop of Canterbury on the grounds that there is "no hope for this failing church".