Kiwi Catholics to leapfrog Anglicans

New Zealand Catholics will overtake Anglicans as the country's largest faith community within five years, according to predictions by a local expert in religious history, but some say it is more a case of others' numbers falling than Catholics rising.

An article to be published in NZ Catholic this weekend quotes Peter Lineham, head of the School of Social and Cultural Studies at Massey University, Auckland, and author of New Zealand Religious History: A Bibliography, as making the prediction based on recent trends in religious affiliation.

Over the past 20 years, the number of Anglicans in the country has dropped by an average of 66,000 between each census, while the number of Presbyterians has dropped almost 30,000, on average, every five years, according to the report.

Meanwhile, Catholics have bucked the trend and enjoyed minimal gains, on average, of about 1500 between each census.

"On this basis, Catholics overtook Presbyterians as second denomination in 1996, and will overtake Anglicans in 2011 when Catholics, if the trends are followed, will [number] 489,009, Anglicans 452,630 and Presbyterians 357,807," Dr Lineham told the NZ Catholic.

Dr Linehan also says that this could lead to changes in the Church's political and social influence, a shift that is already evident, he says.

"I think that more and more Catholic bishops are receiving the recognition by ministers of the Crown that Anglican bishops once received," he explained.

Bishop Denis Browne of Hamilton, President of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference, said "leading the field" in the number of adherents would likely bring some benefits.

"There is probably a residue of the Anglican Church being seen as the state Church because of England, but hopefully the change might strengthen our arm," Bishop Browne said.

"We are being taken seriously at the moment, but hopefully this would make us even more relevant."

As Dr Lineham explained, though, Protestants will still form the largest block of Christians in the country.

And larger still is the number of people who state on their census forms that their religion is "none".

"Recent censuses have said that the number of people with no religion has gone up at an alarming rate," Bishop Browne said.

Although Dr Lineham predicts the number of people saying they have no religion may drop in this year's census, as happened in Australia, he said "I do think that Christians in New Zealand must prepare to be a minority group".

Cardinal Tom Williams is under no illusions about the state of the Catholic Church.

"The change won't be because the Catholic numbers are increasing," the Archbishop Emeritus of Wellington said.

"The Catholic numbers are holding reasonably well, but other denominations are decreasing; we're not moving up past them."

Dr Lineham agreed that the change should not provide "a case of Catholic glee - there is every reason to think that the processes of decline are happening among Catholics, specially pakeha Catholics".

The Cardinal pointed to two factors relating to the Catholic Church's ability to maintain numbers while other Christian churches lose members.

"The unity that is characteristic of the Catholic Church and the Catholic school system and the contribution that makes are two reasons," he said.

Photo: Associate Prof. Peter Lineham, Massey University

NZ Catholic

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Catholic Church in New Zealand
Peter Lineham, Massey University | Massey University, Albany Campus

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6 Oct 2006