The ‘vibrant’ services favoured by Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, will not bring back the crowds
So what do I make of Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, saying that the Church is only one generation from extinction, its clergy gripped by a “feeling of defeat” and its congregations worn down with “heaviness”? Is he just suffering from peevish-old-man syndrome?
Alas, Lord Carey is right. Come away from Canterbury with me into the parishes I have visited – in the West Country, in East Anglia, in the Midlands and the North. I have attended at least 10 churches in the past year – all very different in their history, but in each case I have had the same experience. At the age of 63, I have been the youngest person present by 20 years. The congregation has seldom numbered double figures. The C of E is a moribund institution kept going by and for old people. They are ministered to (perhaps I was just unlucky) by an ill-educated clergy with nil public-speaking ability.
Lord Carey, as an evangelical, thinks that the cure for all this is to reach out to young people with such initiatives as the Alpha Course (a basic grounding in the faith, which began at Holy Trinity Brompton). He wants the sort of services that such Christians consider “vibrant”.
Evangelicals like him have had some success, mainly in suburban parishes, where congregations can be numbered in their hundreds. But these places, which appear to buck the trend, are in catchment areas of tens of thousands of people, none of whom would go near such an evangelical Church, with its outreach, Toddlers’ Praise and speaking in tongues.
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.
When there was a tradition of church-going, there was more room for unbelief. When a young priest told Archbishop Michael Ramsey that he had lost his faith in God, Ramsey replied, after a long pause: “It doesn’t matter – it doesn’t matter.” You can’t imagine Lord Carey saying that.
Unbelief, and the change in sexual mores, affects not only the decline in Anglican congregations, but the entire history of the Western Church. The “Francis effect” is said to be drawing back mass attendance in Italy. But the Pope’s focus groups, asking what the faithful believe, will yield similar results as they would in the Church of England – people don’t think it is sinful to live together, they don’t think it is sinful to be gay, and they no longer really believe in the Incarnation.
This is dire news for institutional Christianity. Yes, pockets of prayer still exist – of course they do, in the surviving religious orders in both Churches, in individuals and in parishes. Some people like me will always feel their hearts restless until they rest in God. And we feast on the riches that the Church provides. Go to church and you are not alone. Stretching back into Platonic and Jewish pre‑Christian times, the wise of old are there to speak to you, through liturgy, Scripture, architecture and music.
But such habits of Common Prayer (as we still call it, some of us) are a knack, like the enjoyment of classical music (which is also, we are told, something that is catastrophically on the wane in Britain). Lose the knack and it is very difficult to reclaim it.
Most decent, intelligent, middle-aged or young people I know have no sense at all of what churches are for. The trouble is, so many of those who run the institutions share this deficiency. Those of us whose minds are filled (whatever we believe) with the words and patterns of the old liturgy feel like the old man in Nineteen Eighty‑Four, O’Brien, who is one of the last left alive who can remember the words of Oranges and Lemons.
Maybe, in “reviving” a Church along Lord Carey’s lines, we would actually finish it off altogether. Maybe for Churches, as for people, there really are fates worse than death.
O’Brien asked Winston (the hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four) to propose a toast – perhaps to drink to the future. Winston instead proposes “To the past!” “ ‘The past is more important,’ agreed O’Brien gravely.” I’d drink to that.