Every now and then a retired bishop pops up and makes some statement that makes you groan over your cornflakes. Maybe the words from former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey made you do so yesterday. Was it these words about the Church?
“The shrug of 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.”
What I felt, even as a teenager, was that the view of the world that those open-air services showed was totally, extremely, negative. Was that how God sees our society? Under judgement? Didn’t he love the world? You see, the way we see the world conditions our message, our attitudes and even our style of ministry.
Probably not. If you saw the Daily Mail’s front page or any of the numerous outlets reporting his comments you probably read something about the Church being a generation from extinction. Another doom-monger plying his trade through the sympathetic pages of the right wing press.
The jeers piled in, ‘it was your decade of evangelism that killed it off’, ‘it’s what you’ve said and done that’s put us in this place’.
I want to come to his defence. I’ve not always been Lord Carey’s most enthusiastic supporter but last night I read his speech. And it’s not the cry of someone lamenting inevitable decline, or stuck in some lost era he is nostalgically harping back to. It’s realistic and it’s honest.
He was realistic about the challenges and maybe, as Andrew Brown commented, they rang true in a way perhaps they had not before. And then the passage that attracted so much attention: is the Church really just a generation away from extinction?:
As I look at the Church today the most urgent and worrying gap is in young people’s 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. For most of us, our hearts were touched when we were young and that precious touch we should not hold from our young people. Of course, young people are notoriously difficult, demanding and high maintenance. And so were we- but people cared for us and gave us a place in the church.
Well, yes, he is right. If we believe in salvation as a personal commitment and experience and not as a religious identity we can inherit if we are born to the right people, schooled in the right classes or christened in the correct font, then for every generation there is a chance to shine or a chance for decline and even extinction.
We can never assume that because those who have gone before us have believed certain things, those who go ahead will too. There is a priority on every generation to pass on the faith to the next. It is an urgent task, but it is not hysteria, it is the task that we have always faced and always will. Lord Carey was not making any controversial statement but correctly laying out the challenge we, and every generation, face.
Whereas in previous generations religious identity was passed down one generation to the next as a form of identity detached from belief or commitment, for us the task is greater but also clearer. Gone is confusion of religious identity masking lack of belief. Gone are the ties to institutions that hold stronger than ties to God. It gives us the room to call people to follow Jesus and believe he will touch their lives as he has touched ours.
Lord Carey concludes his address with this peroration: “Touched lives take us down deeper in authentic discipleship, an alertness to the world around us and to a radical discipleship. It is interesting that God could have touched the intellects of Saul’s band, but he didn’t. He could have touched their wills, but he didn’t. He could have touched their emotions, but he didn’t.
“He touched their hearts because that meant he had the whole of them. And that essentially is what the Christian faith is about – and that is why we are here today.”