Crisis confronts main churches

Institutional Christianity

 

Institutional Christianity in Ireland is in crisis. All our main churches are experiencing similar patterns of ageing congregations and clergy, falling attendance at liturgies, and a diminishing presence of the working class. They, of whichever denomination, are becoming the preserve of the middle class and the elderly.

At its General Assembly in Belfast last year it was revealed that membership of the Presbyterian Church, the largest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland, had dropped 40 per cent since the 1970s. At its General Synod in Armagh, the Church of Ireland – the largest Protestant denomination on the island of Ireland – disclosed that average attendance at its services on three consecutive Sundays in November 2013 was 58,000. It represents 15 per cent of church membership, with just 13 per cent of those worshippers aged between 12 and 30.

Where the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, by far the largest Christian denomination on the island, a 2012 Ipsos MRBI poll showed that just 17 per cent of its 18-34 year olds attended Mass weekly. It found that 34 per cent of Irish Catholics attended weekly Mass. That was then. Figures published last January showed that weekly Mass attendance levels in Dublin are now 20-22 per cent, and as low as 2-3 per cent in working-class parishes. It was projected that those figures will drop by more than one- third in the next 15 years.

The number of Catholic priests in Ireland dropped 43 per cent in the 20 years to 2015. Numbering 2,019, their average age is approaching 65. Just 80 are studying for the Catholic priesthood in Ireland, compared to 526 in 1990. The Dominicans are leaving Drogheda after 791 years and the Augustinians are departing New Ross in Co Wexford after 695 years. What dungeon, fire and sword failed to do, has happened through a lack of vocations.

Yet against this background of seemingly endless decline, the majority of Irish people claim allegiance to one church or other in poll after poll and in recent censuses. Census 2016 is unlikely to be hugely different. What appears to be changing is the nature of people’s adherence to the churches in Ireland. They may only attend on special occasions or to mark significant rites of passage but still describe themselves as members. They appear to be reverting to early 19th-century patterns of adherence when both clergy and churches were fewer.

The committed church person, upset at all of this, may take the broader view and see in it the normal ebb and flow of religious practice as has been happening through the centuries. For them it is a time when there is greater call on two of the three primary virtues – faith and hope – as opposed to charity. Others may look to the future with greater trepidation.

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