Holy Week has begun with an expert prediction that the Christian church in this country will be dead and buried within 40 years. It will vanish from the mainstream of British life, with only 0.5 per cent of the population attending the Sunday services of any denomination, according to the country's leading church analyst.
Historic buildings will be left to crumble in neglect, as congregations vanish and the church infrastructures collapse without money from the parishes. All claims that Britain is a Christian nation will finally have to be given up, says the church attendance specialist, Peter Brierley.
"The basic doctrines of Christianity will be believed much less and there will be many who actively do not believe them," he says in a new book to be published this week.
The dwindling band of worshippers has grown used to gloomy predictions, but these are the worst yet. Church attendance will be "at an all-time low" in 40 years' time, says Steps to the Future, published by the Scripture Union. Around 40 per cent of the population will have some kind of belief, though a third of them will practise non-Christian religions.
Inner-city churches will face the worst decline, closing or running midweek services to keep anyone coming in at all.
"This is very sober stuff," says Dr Brierley, best known for compiling the annual Church Attendance Survey. "Numbers of Christians will decrease, and the ones who remain won't express their Christianity by going to church."
The statistics could spell disaster for England's 10,000 listed Anglican churches."The last thing we want to see is listed buildings being knocked down, but at some stage, because of dwindling congregations, the Church of England won't be able to maintain them." To date, cathedrals have shown more ability to survive, drawing bigger congregations in recent years thanks to prestigious one-off services and commemorations. Often, however, this is at the expense of parish churches nearby.
Dr Brierley accuses the Church of England of avoiding the issue. It is "afraid that English Heritage will get a law passed" making it compulsory to maintain listed buildings - but he argues that such a law will be absolutely necessary to avoid national treasures being lost.
There will be fewer clergy in Britain and websites will be mandatory for any churches that are serious about trying to stay afloat. There will be a boom in "cyberchurch" attendance as the faithful log on to the internet in search of spiritual answers not to be found in their local churches.
"If time is short and you can attend a service by pressing a few buttons, then people will do that."
Dr Brierley's findings come just five months after the publication of his latest English Church Attendance Survey, an independent study of all denominations. It showed that only 7.5 per cent of the population went to church on Sundays. and that, in the past 10 years - billed by the churches as the "Decade of Evangelism" - church attendance dropped by an "alarming" 22 per cent.
The new statistics have brought heated reactions from Britain's churches. The Revd Joel Edwards of the Evangelical Alliance, which represents one million Christians, said: "Reports of our death are greatly exaggerated, yet the current trend does provide us with a serious challenge.
"Churches are responsible for the spiritual health of the nation, yet the only medicine coming from some of the churches is a drip-feed of doubt, resulting in a haemorrhaging of 2,000 people per week."
Previous research by Dr Brierley has shown that the Church of England is very much the worst hit of the Christian denominations, accounting for 40 per cent of the entire fall in attendance over the period from 1989 to 1998. Its Sunday congregations fell from 1,266,300 to 980,600 .
The Methodists were the next worst hit, falling from 512,300 to 379,700. In contrast, the Baptists have shown a 2 per cent increase over the period while the evangelical "new" churches gained 38 per cent.
Even the Roman Catholic Church declined from 1,715,900 to 1,230,100, but last week spokesman Father Kieron Conry was predicting a change in fortunes. "I do not share this pessimism. Decline started in the 1960s but before then it was in growth, so I'm expecting a change for the better."
Jonathan Jennings, spokes-man for the Church of England, agreed it was "clear that the Church struggles with its responsibility in relation to buildings and heritage," but accused Dr Brierley of drawing "foolish conclusions" from his data.
The Church of England has recently changed the way it gathers statistics. It argues that worship habits have become more flexible, so that the old method of measuring Sunday attendance leads to an underestimate of the number of people who feel themselves to be part of the Church.