LONDON (Reuters) - Catholics have overtaken Anglicans in church attendance in Britain, according to research published on Sunday.
England officially split from Rome during the reign of Henry VIII more than 400 years ago, making Anglicanism and the Church of England dominant.
But a survey by the group Christian Research published in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper showed that around 862,000 worshippers attended Catholic services each week in 2006 exceeding the 852,000 who went to the Church of England.
The release of the figures followed news that former prime minister Tony Blair, who was raised an Anglican, had converted to Catholicism, joining his wife and four children who are devout Catholics.
Attendance at Anglican services has almost halved over the past 40 years as Britain has grown steadily more secular. Only 6 percent of the population attends church regularly. In the United States, that figure is nearer 40 percent.
While attendance figures for both Catholic and Anglican services are declining, Catholic numbers are slipping by less as new migrants arrive from east Europe and parts of Africa, boosting Catholic congregations.
Catholic leaders were buoyed by the figures, and Blair’s high-profile conversion, seeing a resurgence of Catholic popularity in a country which once spurned the religion.
“When a former prime minister becomes a Catholic, that must be a sign that Catholicism really has come in from the cold in this country,” Catherine Pepinster, the editor of Catholic weekly The Tablet, wrote in the Sunday Telegraph.
“I would hope that my fellow Catholics will welcome Tony Blair into the Church as they welcome other converts.”
Blair, now a Middle East peace envoy, is not the first high-profile Briton to convert to Catholicism.
The author Evelyn Waugh, the son of an Anglican churchman, converted in the 1930s, and novelist Graham Greene was a noted convert, although his books often explored doubts over faith.
Blair’s conversion was long expected but it has not come without a degree of criticism.
While in office, he frequently championed stem-cell research, was in support of civil partnerships for gay couples and has voted in favor of abortion, all issues on which the Catholic faithful hold strong positions.
Politicians, including some who have converted themselves, didn’t question the sincerity of the conversion, made in a private ceremony on Friday, but wondered what it said about the stances he had taken on issues while in office.
Mostly though, the reaction was muted.
“In the 19th century when someone ‘poped’ it caused great scandal,” wrote the Right Reverend Richard Harries, a former bishop of Oxford, in the Observer newspaper.
“But in recent decades a fundamental shift has taken place ... If someone shifts their allegiance, well, as Jesus said, ‘there are many dwelling places in my father’s house’.”
Editing by Myra MacDonald