Some of the 200 clergy questioned could name only two -"Thou shalt not commit adultery" and "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife".
The results of the poll provoked anger among traditionalists, including Conservative MP John Redwood, who has called for stronger moral leadership from the church. He said: "It's their job to remind us of the laws of Christianity. The commandments are central to the faith and I am amazed that so few could recall them."
One vicar, the Rev Geoffrey Shilvock, of Wolverley, Worcestershire, who could not remember all the commandments, said: "The trouble is that they are very negative. Most people prefer a more positive approach."
Lord Coggan, 87, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, defended the clergy. "They were just caught on the hop that's all. Of course they know they are very important indeed. [The commandments] provide a framework for life. Within the perimeters of these commandments you have a healthy society. Step outside them and you have a recipe for disaster."
A Church of England spokesman said: "When people are put on the spot like this, of course they can't remember. Given time they would recall them."
However, Canon Peter Goodridge, from Truro, Cornwall, said it was right they were forgotten. "They were right for a community from a different time living a nomadic life."
The poll, conducted for The Sunday Times, also found that many vicars do not believe in fundamental aspects of traditional Christian faith. Thirty one per cent of those questioned did not believe in the Virgin Birth; 12 per cent did not expect a Second Coming; and 5 per cent did not believe Jesus performed miracles.
Asked which politician offered the best Christian leadership, 49 per cent said Tony Blair, 9 per cent Paddy Ashdown and 7 per cent John Major.
The Ten Commandments are:
1.Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2.Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image...
3.Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain...
4.Honour thy father and thy mother...
5.Thou shalt not kill.
6.Thou shalt not commit adultery.
7.Thou shalt not steal.
8.Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
9.Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house.
10.Thou shalt not covet they neighbour's wife...Reuse content