A typical Sunday in an ordinary English town. Church, anyone?

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor says Christianity is 'vanquished'. Do the people of his home town agree?
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The Independent Online

At 11 o'clock this morning the doors of Reading's Oracle shopping centre will swing open and another consumerist Sunday will be under way. Debenhams, House of Fraser and all the other leading high street retailers will look forward to doing good business, with little to distinguish the seventh day of the week from any other, and no sense that this is also, traditionally, the day of Christian worship.

Shopping on Sunday, sport on Sunday, and just about anything else on Sunday is now so much a part of the British way of life that only those aged about 30 or over can remember the time when you were lucky if you could find a newsagent open on a Sunday morning, and children were not allowed to play outside in case the noise disturbed the neighbours.

So when Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster and leader of the Catholic church in England and Wales, said last week that he thought Christianity no longer provided even a background to the way most people went about their lives, he painted a bleak picture of a "demoralised society where the only good is what I want, the only rights are my own, and the only life with any meaning is the life I want for myself". And if that means the end to any last vestiges of Sundays as they were once known then so be it.

Reading – county town of Berkshire, population 150,000, beneficiary of the economic boom enjoyed along the Thames Valley in recent years – is Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor's birthplace. So what do the people he has left behind make of his views?

"I think he's got it wrong," said Lesley Bolton, who was out shopping in the Oracle Centre yesterday. "Just because people want to go shopping on a Sunday doesn't make them bad people." David Winter agreed. "People used to go to church because there wasn't much else for them to do. Now there's a huge choice. And just because people once went, did that make them more spiritual? If you read Jane Austen it's full of people going to church every Sunday. It's just what people did in those days."

Reading's clergy, meanwhile, are faced with a challenge. Father Michael O'Kelly, parish priest at the English Martyrs Church in the Tilehurst district of the town, thinks the Cardinal's true message was a more optimistic one than was interpreted by the press, but he recognises his description of the world.

"I think the way shopping has taken over Sundays is mad," Fr O'Kelly said. "Traffic has increased enormously. People need a break. Now the stores are talking about closing on Mondays, which is just shifting the day of rest forward." Fr O'Kelly, who is 46, talked wistfully of a recent visit to France where he appreciated the still strong local custom of shops closing for lunch and on Sundays.

In the face of so many rival attractions, Fr O'Kelly has struggled to hold on to his congregation, which in his four years as parish priest has dropped, he said, "about 10 per cent". But he still has 400 worshippers every Sunday, and delights in full turn-outs for christenings. "I enjoy standing here saying to people 'and you thought churches were empty!'."

He continued: "I think all that the cardinal was doing was stating the problem. As he said, it's still a good time to be a priest. We've got the basis for a strategy. If anything the church's fault has been in not following its own true path. Delegates last week were quoting what Mother Teresa said: We are not here to be successful. We are here to be faithful."

Almost in the shadow of the Oracle shopping centre is St Giles-in-Reading, a C of E church dating back to the 12th century. Its vicar, Father Michael Melrose, 53, is "sanguine" about the trend towards what the Archbishop of Canterbury has described as tacit atheism.

"Secularisation has gone on for centuries," he said. "I think the big difference compared with when I started out in the Church 30 years ago is that there is no longer even any residual Christianity among most people. I used to visit people when relatives had died and they would at least pretend that they came to church. Now people are quite happy to tell you that they are non-believers."

Fr Melrose actually welcomes the Oracle shopping centre, which was opened last year by the Princess Royal. "It's brought life back into the town centre," he says. Still, his average of 80 worshippers every Sunday has remained static throughout his seven years in the parish, with the arrival of younger people in plush new city-centre apartments failing to translate itself into bigger congregations.

The Church of God World Wide Mission on the edge of the town centre has a different story to tell. A predominantly Afro-Caribbean church, its congregation has gone from 40 to 400 in five years. "I think the cardinal was probably just speaking for his own church," the Rev Thomas, 42, said. "The trouble with so many churches is that they are not relevant to people's lives." Rev Thomas has set up a Caribbean restaurant across the road from the church, which is a focal point for worshippers and non-worshippers alike. "You've got to be vibrant," he said.

But he too laments the encroachment of shopping into the Sunday way of life. "There is a vacuum inside everybody that has to be filled. And if it is not filled by spirituality and God, then it will be filled in other ways – by shopping and acquiring things."

Behind the counter at Caribbean restaurant was one of Fr O'Kelly's parishioners. "Murphy-O'Connor's got it right," she said. "It's all greed, greed, greed." Few others shared her misgivings. "I don't think I can help you, I'm afraid," said one woman shopper. "I'm an atheist."