WHEN THE NATION catches flu, the Church of England suffers more than most. Given the age profile of Anglican congregations, there are always more deaths than births to announce at the Sunday morning service. But at times such as these it sometimes seems that the Church itself may not survive another winter.
New figures show that only 800,000 adults now regularly attend an Anglican Sunday service, and no more than 4 per cent of children are enrolled in Sunday schools. It therefore appears paradoxical for the Church to be contemplating a huge expansion of its secondary school network.
Lord Dearing, chairman of the Archbishops' Council review group, envisages the Church taking over failing local authority schools. But it is difficult to see where the funding will come from - unless many more echoingly-empty churches are converted into flats, shops or car-repair shops. As the Rev W Awdry, creator of Thomas the Tank Engine, once said, the Church has much in common with the railways. "Both had their heyday in the 19th century, both own a great deal of Gothic-style architecture which is expensive to maintain ... and both are convinced that they are the best mens of getting man to his ultimate destination."
But even if the prayers for funding are answered, it is clear that the Church will face strong opposition to any expansion plan - no matter how good an education its schools may offer. When the 1902 Education Act allowed church schools to receive state funding, there were anguished cries of "Rome on the rates" from non-conformists. And the Church's opponents will man the barricades again if inner-city children are turned away from
former local authority schools because of their parents' beliefs - or lack of them.
In a sense, the two sides are irreconcilable. The Church believes that its schools are at the heart of its "mission to the nation" while its detractors argue that separating children on religious or racial grounds can only be destructive.
However, as the Church runs 4,748 schools - many of which are highly popular with parents - compromise must be possible. The secularists may have to tone down their rhetoric, but the Anglican leadership will also have to heed the words of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple: "The Church exists for the sake of those outside it."