(The Telegraph) The Rt Rev Michael Campbell, Bishop of Lancaster, asked if it was right for parishioners to continue paying for the upkeep of schools where the majority of pupils and teachers belong to other faiths and none.
He said faith schools are meant to help the church in its mission of evangelisation, and that mergers should be considered in parishes that are now “quiet and empty”.
His comments will be welcomed by traditionalists who want church schools to retain their Christian ethos, but will be seen as controversial elsewhere.
The hierarchies of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England have been accused of trying to make their schools more secular by relaxing admissions rules for the less devout.
Official figures show that faith schools outperform state-run primaries and secondaries, with the result that middle-class parents in some areas start attending church or even falsely claiming their children had been baptised in the hope of winning them sought-after places.
Elsewhere there are so few churchgoers that schools are dominated by followers of other religions or none, even though dioceses still own the buildings and pay for 10 per cent of their running costs.
In parts of Lancaster diocese, more than 80 per cent of the pupils at some schools are non-Catholics. In Salford diocese, a primary school could become the first to be converted into an Islamic faith school because so many pupils are Muslim.
Catholic schools also struggle to find headteachers because of a stipulation that they follow the faith.
Bishop Campbell wrote in his New Year’s pastoral letter to parishes that they needed to “address some demanding questions that will grow larger the longer we put them off”.
“Is it right or sustainable to expect our Mass-going population of 21,000 to support our schools and colleges in which often the majority of pupils, and sometimes teachers, are not practising Catholics?
“Is it time for us to admit that we can no longer maintain schools that are Catholic in name only?
“Faced with fewer priests and smaller congregations, where should our parishes and schools of the future be located? Where should we consolidate and merge others?”
He said 25 years ago some parishes in “wonderful neighbourhoods” were “teeming with large, young families” but are now “quiet and empty”, while those in outlying areas “seem to be thriving”.
Admitting that his flock will know friends, colleagues and family members for whom the Gospel message has become “stale”, he said they should be the “primary object of our missionary or evangelising efforts”.
“The Church only exists to evangelise – that means buildings, churches, parishes, schools and colleges are only valuable insofar as they help the Church in that mission of salvation.”
A spokesman for the Diocese of Lancaster, which oversees 87 schools, added to his comments, telling the Catholic Herald: “Is it right that our old folk are supporting the kids they won’t ever see at church?
“The real issue is not the Muslims, but our own people who won’t darken our doors. And unlike in London, we don’t have significant numbers of immigrants in the north to bolster that.”
The Rt Rev Malcolm McMahon, the Bishop of Nottingham who chairs the Catholic Education Service of England and Wales, said in a statement: “Bishop Michael Campbell has raised an important question during a time in which we are all having to examine our priorities. The Church has established her own schools because she considers them as a privileged means of promoting human formation and education in the Catholic faith; as such, Catholic schools contribute to the common good of society and support the Church’s evangelising mission, and are a valuable investment in our young people.”
But some Catholic dioceses are at odds with the governors of local schools over the way they give preference to more devout families.
Westminster reported the highly successful Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School to the admissions watchdog, claiming parts of its policy for 11 year-olds were “unlawful” and “unfair”.
Southwark also complained about the entry rules at Coloma Convent Girls’ Schools, which give more “points” to families to take part in parish activities, on the grounds that they discriminate against single parents.
Meanwhile Opus Dei, the strict Catholic organisation made famous by the Da Vinci Code novel, hopes to open two new single-sex schools in south London.