A fierce debate over the growing influence of the Catholic Church was sparked yesterday when research revealed that churchgoing Catholics now outstrip the number of practising Anglicans.
The findings were revealed the day after it was confirmed that Tony Blair had been received into the Catholic Church following years of speculation over his faith.
In the first study of its kind, estimates for church attendance in 2006 showed that 861,800 Catholics attended services on a typical Sunday compared with 852,500 Anglicans.
Peter Brierley, a former executive director of charity Christian Research who compiled the study, said it was premature to talk about Britain becoming a Catholic country for the first time since the Reformation in the 16th century, insisting the more rapid rate of decline among Catholic congregations meant that Anglicans were likely to be back in the majority within two years.
Dr Brierley said: "By 2010 the situation will be reversed and there will be more practising Anglicans than Catholics. There is a rapidly dropping number of Catholics caused, I believe, by disillusionment with Catholic teachings and the recent paedophile scandals. In the end people get fed up with that," he said.
Dr Brierley's study, based on figures obtained from half the 38,000 churches in England and Wales, did not, however, take into account the recent wave of Polish immigration which is likely to widen still further the gap between active members of the two denominations. Some estimates put the number of Poles arriving in Britain at up to 100,000, 85 per cent of whom are Catholic. But he said the failure of the Government to provide accurate data on migration from eastern Europe since 2005 made it impossible to include them in the study.
Dr Brierley said the success of Church of England initiatives, such as "Back to Church Sundays", was helping pull people back into the denomination, stabilising the overall congregation despite the large numbers of elderly Anglicans dying each year.
At its peak in 1930, the Church of England could boast 3.6 million members, though not all of those were regular attendees. In the same year the Catholic Church in England and Wales had 2.2 million followers. That number was given a significant boost in the late 1950s and 60s by Irish immigration to Britain, swelling the numbers to 2.8 million.
Dr Brierley said Catholic churchgoers had had the edge on their Anglican counterparts for the past 20 years. Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former bishop of Oxford, said many Anglicans considered converting to Catholicism. "The diversity of the make-up of the Catholic church has huge appeal. So too, for some, does its sense of its own authority.
"In contrast, the Church of England can sometimes seem too bound up with English life and closely allied with the state," he said.Reuse content