The Church of England is doomed, Lord Carey has said, warning that Anglicanism is just ‘one generation away from extinction’.
To be fair people have been saying this for a long time; in the mid-19th century the Church decided to make a survey of churchgoing, and were stunned to find out that only a quarter of people in England attended Anglican services and a similar number to non-Conformist services. Half the population wasn’t going at all.
Now you’d be lucky to get that many at Christmas. The Church faces the same problem as all churches, namely that religious belief continues to decline across Europe, and that those religions that do flourish tend to be quite wacky, whether the ‘ah bless, sweet’ variety or the ‘scary, frothing at the mouth’ strain.
Religion is becoming ever weirder to most people as Britain’s Christian legacy fades into the past. Most people of my parents’ generation weren’t believers, but they had grown up in households that were Christian or had a recent Christian past. Now it’s a much more distant memory. And the more strange that religion seems, the less likely it is that fellow travellers are going to want to take part, and religions are at their most benign and benevolent when they’re full of doubters.
If half the population decided to attend Church of England services every Sunday for a year, in a big experiment, the benefits to society would be immense, in terms of community spirit and the pacifist and forgiving message being preached. The more people attended, the more their friends would want to attend. Lots of atheists and agnostics recognise the positive aspects of churchgoing, and, like Professor Dawkins feel an emotional attachment to their ancestral religion, which they regard as the least offensive. But they don’t believe, so there’s not much that can really be done there.
My diagnosis of the Church of England is that it is too lefty (admittedly that is my diagnosis for everything). Whenever I attend and irrespective of the parish I go to, it’s a bit like being read the Guardian comment page. Of course, much leftist thought stems from Christianity, but what you hear in Anglican (and Catholic) churches sounds less like authentic Christianity and more like a minority faith trying to ape the style of the dominant creed in society. But what’s the point? The whole statist worldview is fantastically implausible enough without adding supernatural elements to it. Surely, this overtly political talk must put off more people than it attracts?
What actually attracts people to Anglicanism is the beauty of its language, hymns and buildings, and tribal loyalty, in the spirit of George Orwell, but even those have faded a great deal. Maybe one day people will look at Anglican cathedrals in the way they do the remnants of the Church of the East in Nineveh, a once-fine civilisation and a major spiritual force.
By curious chance it is now China (where the Church of the East evangelised in the 7th century) that will become not just the major power of the 21st century, but the major Christian power, with the Faith growing in that country at an incredible rate. Maybe we’ll end up selling our cathedrals to the Chinese. I joke, of course, although I’m sure George Osborne has thought about it.