07/05/2013 13:32 BST | Updated 07/07/2013 06:12 BST

How Many Members Makes a National Church?


It's not surprising that the Church of England tried to put a brave face on it, choosing to headline a tiny increase of 4.3% in christenings, but the Anglican church attendance figures for 2011 published this week pose a serious challenge for any church defending its position as the national, established, top religious organisation.

The figures showed that, although decline has slowed slightly, 98% of people in England didn't go to a Church of England on an average Sunday. Only 5% went at Christmas - a time when large numbers of non-religious "cultural" Christians can be expected to go along, dragged by relatives or just to feel a nostalgic Christingle. The Church of England married only a minority of couples, and conducted the funerals of only a minority of the dead. (66% didn't have an Anglican funeral which, given that the older demographic is a last bastion of Anglicanism is, on its own, a revealing fact.)

In terms of raw numbers, the Church of England only just stayed ahead of the Roman Catholic Church in England in terms of worshippers and - although numbers are more difficult to determine - the average number of people attending mosques on a weekly basis was not that much lower.

Attendance figures are of course only one part of the picture but in terms of belief and identity the non-religious nature of our population is similarly clear. The British Social Attitudes Survey has shown that most people don't have a religious identity, and 80% don't have an Anglican one and religious beliefs such as in Jesus or the God of the Christian Bible constitute a minority view.

These figures shouldn't be cited in any sort of demographic one-upmanship and it is no doubt the case that they represent important services given by the Church of England to its members. In an ideal world, that could be the end of it. Good for the Church of England we might say, still struggling on, albeit as a minority concern, giving good services to those who want them.

But the Church of England is not just an NGO or voluntary association like any other. It is part of our state. It is an established church with constitutional power and privilege and its members have privileges and rights in law and policy that their fellow citizens in the majority don't have.

In 2011 the Church of England may only have had 2% of the population worshipping each Sunday, but it controlled nearly 30% of our state schools - totally funded by public funds - containing just under a million children. In many of those schools it had the privilege of controlling admissions and the curriculum, in all of them it had the privilege of controlling employment. Although a minority religion which only 20% of people identify with, its representatives continued to have the 100% unique privilege of automatic seats in our Parliament and it received almost monopoly public funding for its mission in state funded social institutions like our prisons and hospitals.

This week's figures help illustrate the disparity between the Church of England's legal position and the social reality of England today. By throwing it into such sharp relief, they may help to bring the more just secular constitutional settlement that our diverse and increasingly non-religious society needs.