It is a statement which has caused a great debate. Is Brighton and Hove really the most Godless city in Britain? Andy Chiles reports.

How "Godly", or "Godless", a place is can be difficult to pinpoint, particularly in the multi-faith society of today.

Looking purely at the Christian representation of God, the predominant version in the UK, you can take a certain picture from physical clues about active church-going.

In Brighton and Hove congregations have dwindled at most Anglican churches and many have been forced into uncomfortable compromises as a result.

Some have had to close, like Holy Trinity, in Blatchington Road, Hove, while other parishes have had to merge, like St Paul's in West Street and St Michael and All Angel's in Victoria Road, Brighton, or move to having part-time vicars.

Catholic churches have largely been saved from a similar fate by having their congregations boosted by migrants from countries where the religion is strong, notably Poland.

However even they have not escaped. In Worthing a shortage of priests led to St Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Chesswood Road scrapping its masses on Sunday.

The most visible representation of dwindling Christian Godliness in Brighton came through the near-closure of landmark St Peter's Church, frequently described as the city's cathedral, because its congregation has fallen to around 20, in a building which could hold 800.

Its demise has, ultimately, led to the current debate over whether the city really is the most "Godless" in the country.

The church has been rescued by an agreement between its owners, the Diocese of Chichester, and London-based Holy Trinity Brompton, a successful evangelical church group eager to revitalise it.

In his first statement as the new vicar of St Peter's, Reverend Archie Coates spoke about the size of his challenge by referring to a previous description of Brighton as the "most Godless city in Britain", in response to figures from the national census in 2001.

They showed that 66,955 of the city's 247,817 residents actively described themselves as having no religion. It was the highest proportion, 27% of any area of the country – hence the "most Godless" tag.

By comparison, the national rate was 14.59% and for the South East it was 16.5%. The rates in Brighton and Hove's surrounding areas included Lewes district (18%), Worthing borough (17%) and Mid Sussex district (15.34%).

One explanation for Brighton and Hove's apparent desire to disown religion is offered by Brighton Pavilion MP David Lepper, who describes himself as a tolerant atheist.

Mr Lepper said: "I think that I am quite typical of people in Brighton. I'm somebody who was, as a child, brought up as a Christian and went to Christian schools, but who no longer has a religious faith. I'm still very interested in religion and have absolute respect for other people's faiths and beliefs but don't choose to follow one myself.

"Brighton is a very tolerant place for all cultures and lifestyles. People here are far from Godless, even if they don't believe in a God, Christian or otherwise. Many people act in the principles of Christianity but do not feel they can believe in a Christian God."

Father Felix Mascarenhas, the vicar of the Church of the Good Shepherd, in Dyke Road, Brighton, also believes the statistical Godlessness is not necessarily a bad thing.

He said: "Brighton is a place with a lot of distractions which take people away from active church-going, but that does not make them bad people.

"There are simple things which sometimes make people stop going to church, like sports. Sometimes a family will stop attending because their children are playing football at the weekend instead."

He said numbers at his church were holding steady.

For his part Rev Coates yesterday made it clear he never intended to describe Brighton as a Godless place.

He said: "It was not my phrase and does not express my views.

"There is plenty of God-awareness in Brighton and a large number of churches of all denominations doing excellent work.

"Naturally, I would like churchgoing across Brighton and Hove to increase because I have met so many great church leaders of all denominations across the city whose churches clearly have so much to offer in terms of building community, worshipping God freely and helping people in areas of social need.

"That is the kind of church I long for St Peter's to continue to be also.

"In the second week I was here, last month, the body of a young woman, "Mel", was found on the steps of St Peter's. She had taken a drugs overdose. My heart is for the church to help people like Mel. I don't know whether that constitutes "transforming Brighton", but it would simply be taking our place alongside all the other agencies and churches already doing great stuff and getting involved in whatever we can to help.

"Who knows if we can manage to open up St Peter's fully once again as a properly lit, heated, renovated, accessible, welcoming building for the benefit of the community."

Is Brighton and Hove the most Godless city in Britain? See a video vox pop at the videos section of this website.