WASHINGTON, Jan. 16 (UPI) -- The way the Rev. Christopher Colvin sees it, the Catholic Church is already the real Church of England -- without knowing it. "It's still stuck in a ghetto mentality," he told United Press International Wednesday.
Colvin is one of 400 former Anglican priests who became a Catholic six years ago in protest against the ordination of women by his former denomination. More than 60 parishioners went with him.
Numerically speaking, he is of course right. Measured by the number of worshipers, the Catholic Church is the largest denomination by far in England and Wales, whose monarch bears the title, Defender of the (Anglican) Faith.
Every Sunday, 1,230,000 people worship in a Catholic sanctuary, although this represents a considerable drop from 1.7 million in 1989, according to James Parker, a spokesman for the denomination.
But the Church of England has gone down from 1,266,300 to 980,000 Sunday worshipers in the same period, and the Methodists from 512,300 to 380,000.
Given that there are only about 4.2 million Catholics in England and Wales their level of attendance is still remarkable (The figures of Scotland, where the denominational situation us entirely different, are not included here).
In a sense, Catholics in England are still second-class citizens. They are barred from the monarchy. Their bishops have no seats in the House of Lords.
In some quarters, the words, "he's a Catholic, you know," still have a certain haut gout, even though some old noble families such as that of the Duke of Norfolk have steadfastly remained loyal to the Pope.
But when Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster and Primate of England and Wales, became the first Catholic clergyman in 500 years to preach to the royal family in an Anglican church many observers felt that this event finally reflected the denominational realities in the country.
It mirrored the vibrancy of English Catholicism, a quality the Rev. Colvin contrasts with what he called the hollowness of the crumbling Anglican state church. "The C of E is only concerned with itself," he said.
What the Cardinal's sermon at St. Mary's church on the royal estate at Sandringham did not reflect, Colvin insisted, was a further advance toward Christian unity. And on this score other observers of the religious scene in Britain agree with him.
Nobody doubts Murphy-O'Connor's commitment to ecumenism. On Reformation Sunday -- Oct. 28 -- he had preached at St. Anne's Lutheran Church in London extolling Luther and key points of his theology.
"But ecumenism does not go deep here," admits Mark Greene, an Anglican heading the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. "This is something 20 nice people do on Sunday afternoons but it's not a broad movement."
Even where Catholics and conservative Protestants agree on penultimate or moral issues, such as abortion or homosexuality, they do not coordinate their actions, said Greene.
"This is not America," he added, referring to the energetic movement Evangelicals and Catholics Together that successfully defends traditional values in the U.S.
Colvin bemoaned that the "collapsing" Church of England is turning away from its previous efforts to reestablish the catholic unity with Rome and the Orthodoxy.
"They have decided instead on a realignment of Protestants," a move exemplified by the decision of the Anglican and the Methodist church leadership to establish a covenant that would amount to a quasi marriage of the two denominations.
Others church bodies are expected to join this union.
Mark Greene, on the other hands, warned not to underestimate the Church of England's strength. He said that through its parochial structures it still exercised an enormous influence on the general population.
But Colvin countered, "How many people do they have on church on Sunday? In my parish in the East End of London, 1,500 come to Mass every weekend, while the neighboring six or seven Anglican congregations have perhaps 50 or 60 worshipers."
There is little doubt, however, that in line with what goes on in much of the rest of Western Europe, Christianity is in trouble in Britain, which once prided itself with being a Christian nation.
According to an opinion poll commissioned two years ago by The Tablet, a Catholic newspaper, a mere 26 percent of the British believe in a personal God, while twice as many thought that there was some kind of spirit or life force and 8 percent declared themselves atheists.
The survey also showed a strong postmodern trend toward moral relativism. "As traditional religious beliefs become more central, people are looking inside themselves -- not out to God -- for direction," The Tablet reported.
The decline in Anglicanism parallels this rapid slide of the United Kingdom into a post-Christian era. "Of the Christian denominations the Church of England has seen the biggest decline," The Tablet stated.
"In 1957, 55 percent of the population said they belonged to it, but only 25 percent say so now. Catholics have remained fairly constant since 1957 at 9 percent of the population."
That's not all. Colvin expects another wave of conversions to Catholicism when the C of E starts consecrating women as bishops.
What's more, people of power are now Catholics, James Parker pointed out. "Not only has the Duchess of Kent, a member of the royal family, converted. But Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith and his Liberal Democratic counterpart Charles Kennedy are also Catholics."
And as for Tony Blair, the current Prime Minister, he worships with his wife, Cheri, in a Catholic church.
"He is already halfway in Rome," quipped Parker. Many observers of the spiritually troubled nation believe that this statement seemed paradigmatic for the remainder of much of Britain's Christians.
Said Parker, himself a convert, "At least on moral issues Roman Catholicism is the voice of Christianity in England."