One country, two religions and three very telling pictures: The empty pews at churches just yards from an overcrowded mosque

  • Two photos show Sunday morning services in  churches in East London
  • The third shows worshippers gathered for  Friday midday prayers outside a nearby mosque
  • The difference in numbers could hardly be  more dramatic

Set aside the fact that our Queen is the  Defender of the Christian Faith. Ignore the 26 Church of England bishops who sit  in the House of Lords.

Pay no attention to the 2011 Census that told  us 33.2 million people in England and Wales describe themselves as  Christians.

For if you want a more telling insight into  religion in the United Kingdom today, just look at these photographs. The story  they tell is more revealing than any survey.

St Mary's, Cable Street

The photo on the left shows St Mary’s Church in Cable  Street while the photo on the right shows worshippers gathered for Friday midday  prayers outside a nearby mosque in Spitalfields, both in East  London

What they show are three acts of worship  performed in the East End of London within a few hundred yards of each other at  the end of last month.

Two of the photos show Sunday morning  services in the churches of St George-in-the-East on Cannon Street Road, and St  Mary’s on Cable Street.

The third shows worshippers gathered for  Friday midday prayers outside the nearby mosque on the Brune Street Estate in  Spitalfields.

The difference in numbers could hardly be  more dramatic. At St George’s, some 12 people have congregated to celebrate Holy  Communion.

Empty pews: 18th-century parishioners crowded into St  George-in-the-East hear John Wesley. Only 12 people attended the service

When the church was built in the early 18th  century, it was designed to seat 1,230.

Numbers are similar at St Mary’s, opened in  October 1849. Then, it could boast a congregation of 1,000. Today, as shown in  the picture, the worshippers total just 20.

While the two churches are nearly empty, the  Brune Street Estate mosque has a different problem — overcrowding.

The mosque itself is little more than a small  room rented in a  community centre, and it can hold only 100.

However, on Fridays, those numbers swell to  three to four times the room’s capacity, so the worshippers spill out onto the  street, where they take up around the same amount of space as the size of the  near-empty St Mary’s down the road.

Dwindling flock: St Mary’s Cable Street in East London  was built to hold 1,000 people. Today, the congregation numbers around 20

What these pictures suggest is that, on  current trends, Christianity in this country is becoming a religion of the past,  and Islam is one of the future.

In the past ten years, there has been a  decrease in people in England and Wales identifying as Christian, from 71.7 per  cent to 59.3 per cent of the population.

In the same period the number of Muslims in  England and Wales has risen from 3 per cent of the population to 4.8 per cent —  2.7 million people.

And Islam has age on its side. Whereas a half  of British Muslims are under 25, almost a quarter of Christians are approaching  their eighth decade.

It is estimated that in just 20 years, there  will be more active Muslims in this country than churchgoers — an idea which  even half a century ago would have been utterly unthinkable.

Many will conclude with a heavy heart that  Christianity faces a permanent decline in Britain, its increasingly empty  churches a monument to those centuries when the teachings of Christ governed the  thoughts and deeds of the masses.

A study in devotion: The tiny mosque on the Brune Street  Estate, Spitalfields, holds only 100 people, so the local Bangladeshi community  throng the street for Friday midday prayers

On Sunday October 1, 1738, St George’s was  packed twice during the day to hear the great evangelist John Wesley, who then  preached at the church for the following week explaining, as he put it, ‘the way  of salvation to many who misunderstood what had been preached concerning  it’.

Today, there are no John Wesleys to fill up  the pews. The church does its best, offering, for example, a monthly ‘Hot Potato  Sunday’, during which the few congregants can discuss the  readings of the  day over a baked potato.

Canon Michael Ainsworth of St George’s puts  on a brave face when he says: ‘What we are  saying now is it is not just a  matter of numbers. It is about keeping faith with the city and hanging in there  — being part of the community.’

At St Mary’s, meanwhile, Rev Peter McGeary  cannot explain why the numbers are so low: ‘It’s impossible to say, there are so  many variables.’

When he is asked if he tries to boost his  congregations, he simply replies: ‘We are not a company, we are a  church.’

In contrast, there seems a remarkable energy  attached to the mosque on Brune Street, which has been described as the ‘Mecca  of the City’.

Here, come rain or shine, members of  the  Bangladeshi community perform the Friday prayer of Jumma under the  open sky. It is a communal act which will surely only grow in  popularity.

Sadly, that’s not something that can be said  of the two nearby churches, and unless they can reinvigorate their congregations  they may finally end up being deconsecrated.

When that happens, such large buildings will  be attractive spaces for those who can fill them.

One day, in a few decades, St George’s may  well again be packed with worshippers — but they will not be  Christians.

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