The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey’s, warning the “Church of England could be one generation away from extinction” has over shadowed the news of General Synod this week, with Britain’s newspapers and blogs mishearing, misconstruing, endorsing, deploring – but not ignoring — his warnings of a post-Christian England.
Speaking to the Shropshire Churches Conference 2013 on 17 November 2013, the 78-year old retired archbishop summed up the state of the church in England by noting it was viewed with “indifference, the rolled eyes of embarrassment, the yawn of boredom. So many people do not see the average church as a place where great things happen.”
“To sit in a cold church looking at the back of other peoples’ heads is surely not the best place to meet exciting people and to hear prophetic words,” he said.
The archbishop offered a four point plan for evangelism that began with reimagining the church. Rather than focus on institutional preservation, Anglicans should emphasize the “transformative effects of Christianity … of prayer being answered … of sins being forgiven … of reconciliation taking place … of lives being touched.”
“What I am urging is a return to basics where our expectation is for transformed lives,” Lord Carey said. “This is not a cry for more gimmicks, but simply a cry to go deeper.”
To do this, Christians must “nurture fellow Christians to grow authentic disciples,” as well as serve as “agents of social transformation. “
“The time has come to ratchet up our commitment to serving our communities around us. Often the dirty word is the word relevance. Christians cry: ‘It is not our job to be relevant. Our job is to follow Christ’. I agree. But no one was more relevant than our Lord in serving others,” he said.
The fourth prong of the plan for renewal was “to promote authentic stewardship.”
“I am sure you will note that these four themes of deepening church life, growing discipleship, becoming agents of social transformation and stewardship are all interconnected. Touch one and you feel the other three vibrating,” the archbishop said.
However, it was his comments about youth work that caught the imagination of the British press.
“As I look at the church today the most urgent and worrying gap is in young peoples work. So many churches have no ministry to young people and that means they have no interest in the future. As I have repeated many times in the past ‘we are one generation away from extinction’. We have to give cogent reasons to young people why the Christian faith is relevant to them,” the archbishop said.
Ignoring Lord Carey’s principle points The Times, Daily Mirror, Independent, Telegraph, Daily Express, and Daily Mail focused on his assertion that “[t]he Church of England could be one generation away from extinction.” Just about all of the press reports and commentary misconstrued what Lord Carey was trying to say. Renewal, growth, evangelism — even optimism — was at the heart of the archbishop’s Shropshire speech, not doom and gloom.
The Archbishop Cranmer blog argued “George Carey has been predicting the imminent demise of the Church of England at least since 1996, (i.e. almost a generation ago), when he first declared that the Church is always one generation away from extinction”.
The Telegraph ran a leader and two commentary pieces in addition to its news report. Cristina Odone endorsed the archbishop’s sentiments and applauded his work of recent years, but said his predictions were wrong. Also in the Telegraph, A.N. Wilson concurred with Lord Carey the church was doomed, but argued nothing could be done to save it.
There are two simple reasons for this, and there is nothing anyone can say that will make these reasons go away.
The first is sex. Traditional Christianity taught that there is no permitted sexual act outside marriage. All but no one now – even Christians – really believes this. What used to be called “living in sin” is absolutely normal. Nearly all young people, gay or straight, when they reach a certain moment in their relationship, try living together. The Churches can either back down and say that for 2,000 years they have been talking nonsense about sex; or they can dig in their heels. Either way, the Church is diminished.
The second reason is a much bigger thing. That is the decline of belief itself. Most people simply cannot subscribe to the traditional creeds. No number of Alpha courses can make people believe that God took human form of a Virgin, or rose from the dead. They simply can’t swallow it. They see no reason, therefore, to listen to a Church that propounds these stories and then presumes to tell them how to behave in the bedroom.
The Guardian’s Andrew Brown concurred Lord Carey had been warning of decline for years. “Like a hypochondriac told by the doctor that he really has got cancer, the former archbishop finds that the worries that have comforted him for years are suddenly, horribly frightening.”
He further argued the decline of the Church of England was George Carey’s fault. “If the CofE is doomed, as former archbishop of Canterbury George Carey insists, it’s down to the damage he did in office.”
The Anglican Down Under blog took Brown to task for being unfair. “The worst part of Brown’s boot job is its complete failure to think through what kind of church the C of E might be now if from the early 1990s it had completely followed what general English culture had told it to do. I suggest it would be now be dead. Not one generation away from demise.”