Priests hold services but no one's there

Anglican clerics must still go through the liturgy - with or without a congregation

Two old ladies shuffled in on sticks and waited in silence for the service to start. Doris and Eileen were the only members of the congregation for the daily mass at St Silas, Penton Street, in Islington yesterday. Sometimes only the priest turns up.

Father John Salter emerged from a side room in splendid purple robes, and began without preamble. The service did not take long - there were no hymns to sing, Doris and Eileen knew the liturgy by heart. Afterwards, under the gaze of a golden Orthodox icon of the Madonna and Child, they drank coffee with Fr John, ate hot cross buns and had a smoke.

"I come in here quite often on my own for an unadvertised service," said the 66-year-old priest. "Anglican clergy are bound to the daily round of prayer, whether anyone comes to join us or not. We always ring the bell, so that they know they're being prayed for."

Across the country, many other priests continue to fulfil their obligations, faithfully holding services every day. "Even if you are on your own, it's part of your daily bread, part of your spirituality," says Father Stephen Webb of St Agnes in Liverpool. He also holds mass every day, sometimes for an empty church. But it was not supposed to be this way by now. The Decade of Evangelism, which began in 1990, was meant to persuade us all to return to the arms of the Church of England. Instead of looking outward, however, it spent the time consumed by internal crises.

Bitter rows over the ordination of women drove some priests to Rome, while others refused to accept the authority of their bishop. Equal passions were roused by the continuing refusal to ordain homosexuals.

In 1995 the Church Commissioners confessed that they had lost £800m in disastrous property deals, and asked parishes to pay the price by giving more. They were later found to have invested in arms companies.

The response to all this was to reinvent the Church's management structures. Meanwhile, sexual scandals continued. Morale became so low that Church House stopped issuing attendance figures, only belatedly admitting that they had fallen below a million for the first time.

The Church of England has suffered a more spectacular fall in attendances than any other denomination since Fr Salter moved into the vicarage 30 years ago this November. He will retire when that anniversary is reached, having witnessed the closure of at least a dozen other church buildings in t

"At the same time the Church of England goes on creating new bishops, at vast expense, with their Rovers, their secretaries and their offices. Nobody worries about the parishes, which are starved of money. The bishops are excessively optimistic because they are ferried from one thronging church to another and they think that's what the Church is like."

The Islington parish has a population of around 6,000. The community is multi-cultural, and has included everyone from prime ministers and newspaper editors to travellers and asylum seekers. For the past 17 years Fr Salter has shared his vicarage with Romanian refugees. On Sunday mornings 50 or 60 people might attend church. There are no evening services. "We used to, but Songs of Praise and Antiques Roadshow seem more attractive to them now."

Nearby Chapel Market does not close until 2pm, so very few stallholders attend morning worship,

When Fr Salter retires, St Silas may be merged with another church. Priests are in short supply, as are worshippers. In the meantime he will continue the habits of a lifetime, going through the liturgy he loves, whether the chapel is empty or full. "One does do quite a lot of social work, but you know, worship and prayer are what this is all about. They are what we were ordained to do."