Others will probably have read the remarks of George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, earlier this week, that the Church of England is only one generation away from extinction. Writer AN Wilson gave his own response to it in an article in the Telegraph on Wednesday. He relates attending several Anglican churches during the year and being the youngest in the congregation by 20 years – and he is 63; he adds, “The congregation has seldom numbered double figures.” Naturally enough, he agrees with Carey’s conclusions.
Wilson thinks there are two reasons for this decline: sex and decline of belief in the Christian creeds. He says that no-one, including Christians, follows traditional Christian teaching any more, that sex is only permitted within marriage, and that “no number of Alpha courses can make people believe that God took human form from a Virgin or rose from the dead.”
I surmise from what Wilson says that he is sad about the present state of things because he is a civilised and cultured man who knows about English history and the particular place of the C of E within this history, and is nostalgic for a past that is no more. Indeed, at the end of his article he proposes to drink “To the past!” Liturgy, Scripture, architecture and music – all the aspects of High Anglicanism cherished by its adherents – are what Wilson thinks religion is about.
But this, on its own, is just High Aesthetics: the sonorous prose of the Book of Common Prayer, the incense, the vestments, the old (formerly Catholic) parish churches with their Norman towers, and the music of the great English composers. It isn’t, in itself, about faith or about truth. Converts to the Church – young and old – all speak movingly and convincingly of finding faith and discovering truth for the first time; of coming home; of their lives being transformed forever – and this despite bad music and ugly buildings. This is the action of the Holy Spirit throughout history. Buildings can decay; religious communities, clinging on to outward and outmoded forms, can die (I think of the film, Babette’s Feast). But each generation invariably throws up new holy people who run with the torch of the Christian faith and inspire others to follow them, just as in the early centuries of persecution: John Paul II, Mother Teresa, Padre Pio, Blessed Miguel Pro, Dorothy Day, to name a few in the last century.
The Abbey Roads blogger has included a quote this week from that gripping book, Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson. Benson, predating Lord Carey by a hundred years or so, wrote: “It is perfectly true that Protestantism is dead. Men do recognise at last that a supernatural religion involves an absolute authority and that Private Judgement in matters of faith is nothing else than the beginning of disintegration. And it is also true that since the Catholic Church is the only institution that even claims supernatural authority, with all its merciless logic, she has again the allegiance of practically all Christians who have any supernatural belief left…”
The only toast that makes sense for a Christian is not to the past or to some romanticised memory of Evensong; it is to today, with all its practical and pressing possibilities of bearing witness to Christ in our lives. This is what the saints have always understood.