Why the Church of England is failing in the marketplace

The Archbishop keeps on repeating that the Church is one generation from extinction
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THE ARCHBISHOP of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, is fond of saying that the Church of England is "one generation away from extinction". He made the comment again last week at a conference on evangelism. Inevitably, Dr Carey's remarks were repeated in the national press, where they appeared puzzling if not defeatist.

In what sense does the Archbishop mean his statement to be taken? Even the full text of the speech fails to make this plain. Perhaps it is a statement of the obvious. Many institutions are a generation away from extinction in the sense that if a high standard of service, or excellence in some sense, is not maintained, users, however defined, will drift away and the organisation will die. When The Independent was launched, I strongly felt that it was like setting a clock going which could never be allowed to stop; for ever and a day we would have to wind it up and keep it in good working order. Otherwise it would soon lose time and then fall silent.

Or is Dr Carey making a forecast, predicting that on present trends, the decline in membership will shortly put the viability of the Church of England in doubt? He is certainly gloomy. "We live," he says, "in a society with something of an allergy to religion" and then adds a curious rider - and "even to serious thought". I cannot help but highlight this last phrase. It is such a ridiculous comment. There is no evidence for it. It is just petulance.

Having got that off his chest, the Archbishop went on to say why he believes we are becoming deaf to the claims of religion. We live in a society "oppressed, in the main, not by lack, but by surfeit, not by strife, but by ease ... and we have paid a price for such comfort and ease. We are in a situation where the things of ultimate importance are invisible, obscured by the things of transitory glamour. The love that abides for ever cannot easily endure in such a culture."

The assumption here is that if our material wants are satisfied, then our need for spiritual sustenance is thereby abated. Yet all the signs are that our present affluence is being accompanied by an intensification of spiritual longings of one kind or another. Indeed one of the preparatory papers for the conference notes that we live in times where the language of spirituality is significant and popular. What has changed is that the Christian Church is no longer the sole provider. The market is open and competition is fierce.

Dr Carey is thus inviting us to accept that the nation can be allergic to religion while maintaining an interest in spiritual matters - a desert in the midst of green fields, so to speak. He argues that this is happening because Christianity provides a disquieting message for a rich society. The gospel which must be preached to the public is an implicit criticism of many people's way of life. "They are not going to like it." The best passage in the Archbishop's speech is where he rails against treating Christianity as an "add on" faith, alongside two lovely children, two holidays a year, two cars, two televisions, two videos and two microwaves.

In support of his thesis, Dr Carey could also cite the latest figures for religious activities in the United Kingdom. Between 1989 and 1997, the proportion of all adults never attending services or meetings connected with their religion increased from 48 per cent to 54 per cent. The latest figure can be reversed, of course, as with the familiar conundrum of whether a glass containing water up to the mid-point is rightly described as half empty or half full.

As a matter of fact, I think that the statistic that 46 per cent of adults will sometimes attend services or meetings connected with their religion is high. Moreover, some 10 per cent of men and 15 per cent of women attend a religious service at least once a week. In short, substantial numbers of people remain immune to the allergy to religion that Dr Carey has identified.

Look again at the figures, though, and you see something else. Attendance at the Church of England has been declining much faster than it has with other Christian denominations. In the period 1970 to 1995, the number of active Anglicans declined by 40 per cent whereas the Roman Catholic Church experienced a loss of 29 per cent during the same period. Presbyterians were down 34 per cent and Methodists by 37 per cent. In the open market, the Church of England, the broad church, with its famous flexibility regarding doctrine, is faring less well than the Roman Catholic Church, with its discipline and its unpopular teaching on sex and marriage. In other words, a rival church which provides an even more challenging message than the Anglican Communion has been more successful.

Indeed, I doubt whether there is an allergy to religion in British society. I find that people who are active Christians are more willing to proclaim their faith in public than used to be the case. We have learnt that the present Cabinet, starting with the Prime Minister, contains more committed Christians than many of its predecessors. I also noticed, recently, when I had to read through over 400 CVs, that where applicable, church membership was mentioned as a relevant fact.

I think that the Archbishop is rattled. The decline in membership, the bruising row about the ordination of women, which still rumbles on, the discovery that the Church Commissioners had mismanaged the Church's capital - all these factors have depressed his spirit.

Reading this, Dr Carey would probably explode with anger and say that I had neglected most of his speech, failed to say that there has been an increase in the numbers of people coming forward for ordination for four years running and that more money was being placed in the collection plate. Nor had I mentioned the "rising confidence and optimism" which he notices.

Fair comment - except that occasionally one can detect in public speech a secondary theme, or sub-text, half visible below the surface. I once heard a wedding speech where, if you listened very carefully, you found that the conventional expressions of good cheer scarcely disguised an underlying bitterness.

So it was with the Archbishop's address. Dr Carey went to the conference on evangelism to provide a lead. Instead, or as well, he made visible his own demoralisation. He keeps on repeating that the church is one generation away from extinction, partly as a warning and partly because that is exactly what he thinks.