Easter: one of two trips a year to church

If you take the latest research at face value, churches are in major decline as they prepare for Easter. But NICK HEATH looks behind the headline figures and finds a more encouraging picture in East Anglia.

There are pews in many church buildings up and down the land which will only be filled on two occasions a year - Easter Sunday and Christmas Day.

The long-held assumption that regular churchgoing is a thing of the past has been backed up by a Holy Week report showing two thirds of the UK population have not been to a service - apart from weddings, funerals or baptisms - in the last year.

Yet church leaders in Norfolk say the study was looking for faith in the wrong place and that modern Christians were just as likely to be sharing their belief in the pub or the classroom, holding film nights and helping homeless people in the community.

The Rev Jan McFarlane, spokesman for the Diocese of Norwich, said the Church of England was on the cusp of a revival fuelled by its overhaul of how it made traditional Christian beliefs chime with a modern audience.

She described church attendance figures across the diocese, which covers most of Norfolk and Waveney, as "steady" and she was encouraged by the new survey's findings that about three million people said they would attend church if they were given the "right invitation".

She said: "In the last couple of years, the church has faced up to the fact that it is not enough for us just to expect people to turn up.

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"We have realised the need to make our services much more relevant to people with no church background who realise there is more to life than consumerism."

She said today's C of E was much less intimidating, adding that it had changed its services to "common worship", with less archaic language, that delivered a message more in tune with the modern world, and started setting up informal Bible discussion groups in places such as pubs or after- school clubs.

The church is also trying to recapture people put off by traditional stuffiness, with its initiative "back to church Sunday" whereby congregation members encourage lapsed Christians to return to the church.

This more populist approach can be seen in Lowestoft, where members of the congregation gave out 500 free hot cross buns with leaflets advertising its "taste 'n' see" Easter events, including a murder mystery dinner, beat the parents, rock concert, film night and men's breakfast.

Miss McFarlane said that in rural Norfolk vicars were also looking at broadening the use of the churches.

"People are looking at these church buildings and saying these are important community buildings for everybody, particularly where the shop, post office and other amenities have closed down," she said.

"They are looking at using the churches more as community buildings. We need to work together

to keep them alive and use them

for community functions and meetings."

One church that has seen its figures boosted by making its message more relevant to a modern audience has been King's Community Church in Norwich, that has seen a steady annual increase in numbers to about 370 adults and 100 children.

Elder at the church Toby Skipper said: "Our numbers have been steadily going up as we have attracted a wide range of people from the homeless to business people.

"The message hasn't changed but you have to change the way you communicate it, you have to go out among the people and speak to them in a way they understand, as Jesus did.

"It might seem strange but, in a way, we try to keep it as irreligious as possible, not using the traditional language and singing Christian songs, but with a modern band."

He said the church was far more than a group practising Sunday worship, describing it as a community that regularly met at people's homes to discuss ideas, hold sports evenings, café events and care afternoons providing hot meals and a shower for the homeless on Sundays.

He believes that people are still aware of the religious significance of Easter but said the biggest problem was that many people would ignore that aspect of it because they did not understand its relevance to their lives.

The church will begin its alpha sessions in September, when its leaders answer questions from the general public - in the Unthank Arms pub in Norwich - about Christianity.

Yet while Easter services fill normally empty churches, a second survey revealed that the UK population was beginning to forget the annual gorging on chocolate eggs had any connection to Jesus.

The survey of 16 to 24-year-olds found that one in 10 did not know the religious significance of Easter Sunday and one in six was ignorant about Good Friday.

Miss McFarlane said she thought the figures were encouraging as it meant the vast majority of people were still aware of the festival's ecclesiastical origins, and believed the religious message had survived better than that of Christmas.