There will be good congregations at some midnight mass and carol services this Christmas. But they only serve to emphasise how empty most pews are in most churches most of the time.

Whereas a century ago Britain was a highly religious country with a huge number of churches being built, nowadays few are regular worshippers and an increasing number of people have no belief whatsover. Some find solace in the evangelical churches which are generally thriving or in other religions.

All this adds up to a crisis in the Church of England and a crisis for the thousands of church buildings up and down the country which are either little used or not used at all. With the trend against formal religion seemingly set to continue, the problem can only get worse.

Already in the countryside, many village churches are served only by a rector of several parishes who gallops round them each Sunday or alternatively visits each one every few weeks. In towns such as Brighton and Hastings, there are great barns of churches designed for 1,000 people or more which have tiny congregations.

Go around the country and you will find some churches which have already been declared redundant. They sit there as historic shells, seeing no use at all. Little can be done with them since the community spirit they once created has evaporated.

Visit the towns and you will find churches which, in years gone by, have been converted into offices, art galleries, housing or even gymnasiums. This process is set to accelerate over the years and it's good that the Chichester diocese is giving some serious thought to the problem.

One of the most successful conversions in recent years has been at St Patrick's in Cambridge Road, Hove. Much of this building has been converted into a centre for the homeless while retaining the most beautiful part of the old church for worship.

An intriguing conversion has also taken place at St Wilfrid's, in Elm Grove, considered a fine example of Art Deco architecture. Housing has been provided there while retaining the outward form of the church and a celebrated mural inside.

Now there are plans to deal with St Peter's, the most prominent church in all Brighton, where congregations average 120. There is no way in which so few people could raise the millions of pounds needed for restoration and, contrary to rumour, the Church of England is not awash with money for it either.

Consultants have been brought in to make better use of St Peter's while retaining the main worship area and raising restoration cash. It will be a tricky task but it must be achieved or the parish church of Brighton will simply crumble away and have to be closed.

There are other problems ahead. Something will have to be done with St Andrew's in Waterloo Street, Hove, which, like St Peter's, was designed by Sir Charles Barry. I cannot see how the Church will be able to keep all its other huge town centre buildings going, such as St Michael and All Angels in Victoria Road, St Martin's in Lewes Road and St Paul's in West Street.

Brighton suffers more than most because of the huge church building zeal of the Wagner family in Victorian times, but other towns such as Eastbourne are not immune from the dwindling congregation syndrome despite the large number there of old ladies, who tend to pack the pews more than anyone else.

What happens in the next year or two at St Peter's is vitally important, not only for this magnificent building, but also for many other fine old churches in danger of becoming redundant. The Church needs to show a mixture of acumen and compassion that will be hard to achieve.