THE Bishop of Blackburn has warned that churches in East Lancashire need to undergo radical changes to avoid ‘withering away’ like the cotton industry.


The Rt Rev Julian Henderson has drafted a 12-year plan to tackle dwindling congregations and attract young people into the Christian faith.

Having spent a year in charge of the Blackburn diocese, which covers Blackburn with Darwen, Hyndburn, Ribble Valley, Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale, he said: “I am convinced that we need to embark on radical change. We need to reinvent ourselves for the 21st century.

“Anything less will leave us to wither away rather like the once mighty Lancashire cotton industry. A few tweaks and adjustments will not suffice.”

His comments come as other church figures predict the end of the Church of England in Lancashire by 2050 if drastic action isn’t taken.

Next month St Mark’s Church in Higher Witton Road, Blackburn, is set to close after 175 years, while earlier this month the 200-year-old United Reformed Church in Haslingden closed its doors for the last time after its congregation fell away.

Bishop Henderson has summarised his initial vision in a document titled ‘Where are we heading?’, which calls for heavy investment in youth groups, flexible patterns of worship and plans to grow new congregations. It also suggests the diocese should ‘unashamedly seek to bring others to faith in Christ’ and foster closer integration between different churches.

The number of people attending services on a Sunday has halved to about 800,000 since the late 1960s, according to the latest national statistics published by the Church of England. But equally concerning is that the average age of churchgoers is 62, with churches struggling to attract young people.

The latest figures for the Blackburn diocese showed the average weekly attendances declined from 31,100 in 2008, to 26,600 in 2012.

Father Roger Parker, of St Catherine’s Church in Todmorden Road, Burnley, said: “The Bishop is absolutely right about the state of the church and it needs a radical look at how we mission and evangelise. His comments might seem quite shocking but we need to do something. We do have to ask for a deeper level of discipleship. I have no doubt that it’s possible, but there will obviously need to be different approaches in different areas, as there’s not a one-size-fits all solution.”

Rev Ian Enticot, of St James Church in Accrington, said: “I think this is exactly what we need to be looking at. It’s an outline vision at the moment and we’re going to need help to think it through.”

John Hawley, Archdeacon of Blackburn, said: “People in Lancashire are fairly traditional but we need to break out of that and be a bit more adventurous and risky. We need to learn how to connect with our 200 church schools. If the decline continues at the present rate there will be no Church of England in Lancashire by 2050.”

Once Bishop Henderson has gathered people’s views, he will take some firm suggestions to the Diocesan Synod in January, for further debate and to agree a final plan.

Salim Mulla, executive member of the Lancashire Council of Mosques, said: “In the 1960s when I first came to this country as a boy I remember there being very large congregations going to churches. I would love to see that return and I support what the Bishop has said.”

Father Leo Heakin, of St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Langho, said: “The issues that affect the Church of England are broadly the same that affect us. The key is to try and plan for the future as best as you can.”

There was a mixed reaction to the plans from Christians in Blackburn yesterday.

Mark Taylor, 48, who attends St Cuthbert’s Church in Blackburn Road, Darwen, said: “I think the Bishop’s got a good point. There’s very little reaching out and the church often comes across as a closed shop.

“There’s got to be more ways in for younger people.”

Bishop Henderson’s initial proposals also include new service patterns, redrawn deanery maps and the ‘release of funds for mission’.