Bob Ayres can't resist a good cathedral. He's done all the
biggies - Canterbury, St. Paul's, Salisbury, Wells - and ticked off
dozens of others.
But Mr. Ayres is no churchgoer. "I'm a bit of a heathen really,"
the Londoner chuckles. "I don't go to church. I just like visiting
them for the architecture."
It's the same for his brother Keith. "My wife goes to church but
I don't," he admits after nosing around the splendid interiors of
St. Bride's church in London. "In all the churches I've visited,
I've found an atmosphere of peace and serenity," he adds.
The Ayres typify a slightly incongruous trend in Britain: In a
country where regular worship is in decline, and faith has moved to
the margins, church tourism is becoming hugely popular.
Official figures show that almost nine million people visited 35
places of Christian worship last year. Visits to all churches are
estimated at more than 20 million. That compares to barely 4 million
regular Christian worshippers.
Last year, for the first time, more than 1 million people visited
the 300-odd British churches that are no longer used for worship but
are preserved as historic monuments, according to the Churches
Conservation Trust, a charity that looks after such churches. This
is almost double the number from four years ago.
The Trust's Helen Lang attributes the increase to a surge of
interest in heritage and the "peace and tranquility our beautiful
churches offer people as an antidote to the ... strains of modern
One recent survey found that 80 percent of people professing no
religious conviction visited a church last year. Many churches say
they have more visitors than regular worshippers.
St. Bride's, for example, pulls in about 100 worshippers each
Sunday, but weekday recitals, a compelling centuries-old narrative,
and a popular location ensure that dozens of tourists pass through
its portals every day.
The tourist traffic stands in marked contrast to church worship
in Britain. Barely 7 percent of the population here regularly attend
church - compared to 25 percent of Americans who do. Nearly 50
percent of the British population regularly attended church 100
The decline has closed hundreds of churches. Some 30 churches are
shut down in Britain each year.
"The overall decline is broad, and some of the projections for
denominations suggest some won't be sustainable in 15 to 20 years,"
says Jonathan Bartley, director of Ekklesia, a think tank based in
He says Protestant denominations like the Methodists, the
Salvation Army, and the United Reform Church will wither unless the
decline is averted. …