The bells of Liverpool Cathedral are the heaviest in the world. The Gothic arches designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott are the highest anywhere. But when the Bishop of Warrington rises to preach this morning his voice will echo across rows of empty seats, in a building as deserted as it is magnificent.
The Anglican cathedral, at the opposite end of Hope Street to its Roman Catholic counterpart, was finished in 1978 with room for 2,500 worshippers. Fewer than a tenth of that number will attend the weekly communion service which starts at 10.30 today. The 200 or so regulars have to work hard to make themselves cosy in the cavernous cathedral - and their predicament symbolises that of so many other congregations, as the Church of England limps towards the end of what may be its last century as our state religion.
While people of faith continue to meet in churches across the land, as an institution the C of E often seems in a hurry for its own funeral. On Friday its governing body, the General Synod, concluded business for the last time this millennium, in the knowledge that there were fewer Anglicans in England than ever before.
Monks, nuns and other members of the religious orders are growing old and dying away, their numbers already way below the peak of the 1950s, the Synod had been told. And after two years' secrecy, church leaders admitted that the figure for "usual Sunday attendance" was below a million for the first time ever. Other denominations across the world continue to grow, but the Church of England has achieved the remarkable feat of ending an official Decade of Evangelism with fewer worshippers than it had in the beginning. Its response to the rows, crises and mismanagement of the Nineties has been to seek resurrection through the gospel of management theory.
In the parishes many priests have moved towards a more informal style of worship. But in some places, such as Liverpool Cathedral, they defiantly maintain a more high-minded approach. The service there is formal, with liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer and a large boys' choir singing Mozart and Schubert. "We have a tradition to uphold," says Canon Noel Vincent of the cathedral staff. And the cathedral does come closer to its capacity once a month, for a diocesan gathering, and at other special services such as those recently held for the local health authority and to commemorate the Battle of the Atlantic. Such buildings do not just exist for their Sunday congregations, says Canon Vincent. They are tourist attractions, stone celebrations of faith that also act as reminders of higher values, by virtue of their scale and beauty. "This is a striking building, which works best for formal occasions. The columns shoot up towards the sky, and they lift your spirit with them."
While inner-city parishes struggle, the more famous central London churches flourish. Evangelical teaching centres such as All Souls, Langham Place, continue to attract healthy numbers, as do their more ornate Anglo-Catholic counterparts such All Saints, Margaret Street. The most successful church in Britain must be Holy Trinity Brompton, which attracts thousands of worshippers each Sunday and can raise millions of pounds by passing a hat around its wealthy Charismatic congregation.
The church was the English cradle of the Toronto Blessing, a wave of dramatic spiritual manifestations which caused controversy throughout the Nineties. It was also the birthplace of Alpha, a course of evening classes in evangelical spirituality which is being given in more than 14,000 churches across the world this year and is currently being filmed for television. People commute from all over London to feel part of something lively. Some even go to find a like-minded partner.
For the priests in the churches they pass on their way to the Tube station, however, life is far more difficult. "Loneliness and isolation are the main problems," says the Rev Mike Starkey, vicar of St John's, Finsbury Park, which has a congregation of around 60 on a good day. Many are bedsit dwellers who will move on after six months or so. "We are not big enough to warrant assistant clergy, so basically it's you, on your own, in your office."
The Nineties started hopefully, with a call from the bishops for believers to go out and share their faith. But the years set aside for evangelism were actually full of scandal.
Bitter rows over the ordination of women drove some priests into the arms of the Roman Catholic church. Those that did not leave refused to recognise the authority of their bishops, and demanded "alternative oversight", effectively creating separate churches within the church. Equal passions were aroused by the continuing refusal to ordain practising homosexuals, at least officially.
A serious financial crisis developed in 1995 when it emerged that the Church Commissioners had managed to lose pounds 800m in poor property deals. They were later found to have invested in arms manufacturers, a far greater sin in the eyes of many non-believers than any amount of sexual infidelity.
Of adultery there was plenty, with a procession of naughty vicars having to leave their parishes. The more exotic went in for rent-boys, wife-swapping or Romanian street urchins. The Rev Chris Brain, leader of the Nine O'Clock Service in Sheffield, which experimented with a mixture of Anglican liturgy and rave culture, was suspended from the priesthood in 1995 for having "improper sexual relations" with up to 60 members of his congregation.
The Archbishop of Canterbury appealed for a debate on the moral values of the nation but was ignored. He had the misfortune to be speaking in the unreformed House of Lords at a time when the nation felt increasing scepticism towards politicians and authority figures. His place as the nation's spiritual leader was then usurped by a new Prime Minister, who spoke like a preacher and convinced those grieving over the death of Princess Diana that he shared their pain.
Morale became so low that the Church stopped publishing its benchmark figure for usual Sunday attendances two years ago. The statistic was released again in time for Synod this month, with a warning that because of the way the information was collected, it under-represented the actual number of people attending Anglican churches by up to 41 per cent. The figure did not include children in Sunday school, for example. Neither did it reflect the changing behaviour of committed church-goers, who often choose to worship on other days of the week.
As you would expect from a man of faith, Mr Starkey remains hopeful. "I do believe it has bottomed out earlier here in London, which tends to be four or five years ahead of demographic trends. In the rest of the country the decline is still happening, but here the fringe people stopped coming a long time ago, which has left us with a leaner, meaner church, a bit more go-getting, and vigorous, which may be why London is the only diocese in the country that is actually experiencing numerical growth."
This prediction of a more activist church is born out by the otherwise surprising increase in the number of men and women who put themselves forward for the Anglican priesthood. The problem is there are fewer ordinary church members left behind to pick up the bill for their training.
The Rev Simon Parke is more philosophical about the church's struggles. "To say that something is dying is not to say that it is bad. Jesus died and He was good. Poverty is thriving and it is bad. Of course, enthroning middle-management in absurd bishops' clothes - that is embarrassing. Attempting to produce liturgies by committee, forgetting that every great novel, play and poem was written alone - that is ridiculous. And Christian communities that are more aware of what and who they are against that what and who they are for - these are depressing."
Mr Parke is the vicar of St George's, Tufnell Park, London, as well as a novelist and comedy script writer whose track record includes Spitting Image. He does not doubt that the C of E has a future, even if it has to compete with other faiths. "All religion has a future. The important question is whether it has a future that is worth anything, and that will depend on the nature of its energy. High-quality energy comes only from the human soul finding itself at the end of its tether, forced into a confrontation with the self and the search for God. A painful but joyful business. It is as a cradle, or manger, for this elusive but high grade energy that the Church of England has a future that is worth something."
When the boiler broke
WHEN THE boiler broke, the congregation of St James Over Darwen had a serious problem. No more than 50 worshippers attend the main service at the church four miles south of Blackburn, in a town where unemployment and low pay are rife. Half the 6,000 people in the parish live in council housing, and the rest in older terraces. Drugs and racketeering were among the social problems that met the Rev John Faraday on the streets when he arrived 10 years ago. "At one stage I asked a lot of awkward questions about the drug-pushers, which resulted in threats to myself and my family."
There has been a church on the site since the 1500s, but extensive rebuilding work took place during the Thirties, by which time the old rural parish of Darwen had become a town. Wealthy suburban churches could find the pounds 2,500 needed for a boiler without breaking sweat, but the congregation of St James had to raise it pound by pound, using everything from a flower festival to a parachute jump. "Lots of people gave sacrificially, because they wanted to be part of it," says Mr Faraday. "This place was filled in the days when everybody went to church whether they believed it or not. Now more are coming because they really believe in the Lord and want to worship Him."
Five combine as one
THE CHURCH of Christ the Cornerstone in the centre of Milton Keynes was opened with great fanfare in 1992. The Queen did the honours at the first ecumenical city centre church in Britain, along with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the leaders of all five Christian denominations who share the building. The first sermon was given by the late Cardinal Basil Hume, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. People travel from all over Milton Keynes to attend the modern domed church built among shops and office blocks. Joint services are held by the Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists and United Reformed Church every week, with the Roman Catholics celebrating Mass separately. All five come together for a service at least once a month, filling the church with up to 400 people. There is also a bookshop, a cafe, a hall and meeting rooms used by community groups. Other faiths, including Buddhists, also hire the building. "When you are building a new city it seems a stupid idea for denominations to come in and plant their own churches," says the Rev Richard Cattley, the Anglican member of the ministry team, who believes Christ the Cornerstone shows one way for C of E churches to survive and even thrive in the next century. "This way we share worship, and resources, and we learn from each other."
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