Church predicts death of Sunday school

Ewan McGregor started acting there, Carol Smillie was a regular, but John Humphrys says he learnt nothing much.

Ewan McGregor started acting there, Carol Smillie was a regular, but John Humphrys says he learnt nothing much.

For more than 200 years Sunday school has been an essential part of growing up for the well-bred British child, like piano lessons and the Girl Guides. Generations of British children spent their Sunday mornings in the company of a stern female and a Bible.

But the traditional Sunday school is in a state of terminal decline and the Anglican Church is pleading with other Christian denominations to join a last-ditch mission to save it. The church is to mount a nationwide campaign to evangelise Britain's children after warnings that worship will be dead within a generation unless it stems the flow of children from congregations.

According to the Church Pastoral Aid Society (CPAS), the Anglican wing specialising in youth work and evangelism, the traditional Sunday school is on the brink of extinction.

All major church leaders, including Catholic bishops and the heads of the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed churches, are to be approached over the coming weeks to devise a policy to draw children back into church.

First started in 1780, Sunday schools were historically the only form of education available for many and the movement is now seen as an important step on the road to universal education. By the start of the 20th century, more than half the nation's children attended, many of them from families where church going was not the norm. Even now, well-known figures such as Melvyn Bragg, Richard Wilson and Anthea Turner can point to a Sunday school background.

However, the last three decades have seen a sharp decline and today they attract just one in every 25 children. If the current trend continues, church statisticians predict that only one in a 100 will go to Sunday school in 16 years' time.

Penny Frank, director of the CPAS Children's Evangelism Initiative said: "I am sure we have seen the death of the Sunday school as we know it." She warned that "this is the last generation for the Church" unless Britain's denominations unite behind a national strategy for children. "Children in some of our estates will never cross the bridge to church attendance," she said. "I feel heartbroken about it."

The campaign has been backed by the Bishop of Dover, the Right Rev Stephen Venner, a member of the General Synod's Board of Education, who said that despite the devoted work of many teachers, there was a crisis in Sunday schools. "Children are still interested in God, there is no doubt about that. But there are many other competing interests as well.

"The reason that Sunday schools are dying is not to do with God or the Church, but that children have lots of other things to do on a Sunday. How do you decide if you'll go to church or football practice?" He recommended that churches run after-school clubs, or week night events for children "when they are free".

A survey of attitudes towards Sunday school among 1,000 children is being planned for next year by the statistical specialists Christian Research. Its director, Dr Peter Brierley, said: "If present trends continue then in 16 years' time the size of congregations will have halved. The bulk of that will be the smaller numbers of those under 30."

He blamed the demise of the Sunday school on the fact that few people under 40 now take their children to church. Ms Frank said that children no longer attend Sunday school because divorced families find it hard to attend church on a Sunday, and because adults are less willing to become Sunday school teachers. "People who would take on leadership are having to work harder, longer hours in their employment and so are less ready to take up an active role in Sunday school at the weekends."

The new campaign hopes to persuade denominational leaders such as the Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, to put children first in church life.

It also hopes to see training in Sunday school work become mandatory for trainee vicars and to see the establishment of a national grid of Sunday schools, so that churches work together rather than duplicating their efforts.

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