by Joanna Moorhead THE CATHOLIC Church has suffered the biggest drop in clerics of any major UK church in the last two years, according to new figures out this week.
■ The current figure of 6,200 priests is almost 100 down on that of 1986, says the UK Christian Handbook.
Despite the fact that the shortage means more work is being shifted onto fewer — and oldershoulders, the number of Catholic churches is on the increase. More than 20 new Churches were opened between 1983 and 1985 in England alone and more, according to the handbook, are in progress.
Many of the new churches are being built in the city suburbs where more parishioners now live. But overall there are about 70,000 fewer Catholics attending Mass than were two years ago, with the figure down from 47 per cent of the Catholic population in 1970 to just 34 per cent now.
The decline in Church membership has been only "slight, however, according to the handbook editor Peter Brierley. The 4,164,000 members in England and Wales are only 52,000 down on the figure of two years ago.
Overall, 15 per cent of the UK adult population go to church, says the handbook, with 2 million attending Catholic and 4.5 million Protestant churches. Fr John Danson, secretary of the Bishops' Conference Committee for Ministerial Formation, said there were not enough young priests to replace those who died. "I think the number will continue to go down for the next few years, and it's impossible to know what will happen in the long term," he said.
Fr Brian O'Sullivan, secretary to the National Conference of Priests, said the lack of priests was now starting to be felt in the parishes. Some churches had already closed or been amalgamated, and more would follow.
He said it was important to recognise the opportunities the priest shortage gave for more lay involvement, and thought this might itself lead to more vocations.
The UK Christian Handbook, MARC Europe, £14.95