Keighley parishioners are facing up to the threat of mass church closures.

The news follows a meeting of the Methodist Church Keighley and Worth Valley Circuit, which agreed to set up a feasibility study into looking at having only one Methodist church for the district.

Proposals for the controversial "strategy for the future" scheme, were made by the Rev Stephen Watts and the Rev Gordon Webb.

Backed by an overwhelming majority, Superintendent Minister Mr Webb said: "We have got together a small task group that will prepare a report, although there is no time-scale on this.

"There is a problem with building maintenance costs, keeping the churches running - the financial and energy costs are considerable.

"So the question has been raised whether it best to concentrate those energies on one church. One option would be to build a new church."

There are currently around 11 Methodist churches in the Keighley circuit and such downsizing had already happened in other parts of the country.

He continued: "This is obviously a very far-sighted and visionary idea but one that will require a great deal of prayer, research and careful thought.

"It will be some time before the results of any study are known. Once they are, there will be the fullest possible discussion throughout the circuit before any proposals are implemented."

Mr Webb, who leads services at Keighley Shared Church, said there was no question of any decisions being taken without everyone being consulted in line with established procedures.

He added: "If church premises were to be sold, Methodist Church regulations do allow monies to be re-invested in a new building. I think one has to wait until the report is forthcoming.

"You can see the advantages and disadvantages - it may be better to reduce the number of buildings but even that has its drawbacks. I've got an open mind."

The task group of eight people, headed by the Rev Stephen Watts, has the power to co-opt specialists, although no budget as yet has been given.

A spokesman for the Methodist Church added: "There certainly won't be pressure from the national church for Keighley circuit to close its churches.

"Each circuit will decide the future of its churches, with any revenue from any sales going directly to that circuit."

He said that each member of a particular church had a vote on whether to close, and only a majority decision, usually involving compromise, would be carried forward.

The spokesman added that there were many factors that contributed to closures.

The main reasons included ageing parishioners, the relatively small base of Methodists compared with other denominations and the large number of rural, smaller chapels built in the past.

Reassuring churchgoers, he added that that regulations were in place, which restricted a trustee's use of church buildings - ruling out both casino companies and breweries from developing church sites.

Additionally, local planning regulations and restrictions to developers, and the well being of the local community would always be considered when selling off a church.

The Rev Peter Mott, of Keighley Shared Church, is aware of the plans set out by the Methodist Circuit but was unconcerned as he insisted such plans were very much in their early stages.

He did however concede that if the Methodist's did pull out, the £10,000 a-year maintenance costs for the Shared Church would be a problem.

Like many other churches nationally, the Methodist Church is struggling with a mountain of debt and is currently hundreds of thousands of pounds in the red. Its pension fund is also starting to come under increased pressure. Talks are currently ongoing with the Church of England to foster greater links between the two churches, helping with costs.

In 2001 there was 6,378 Methodist churches in Britain, down from 6,950 in 1992.