London: The Church of England is just “one generation away from extinction”, the former Archbishop of Canterbury said yesterday.
Lord Carey laid the blame at the feet of Church leaders who he said should be “ashamed” of their failure to bring youngsters into their services.
His stark message was echoed by the Archbishop of York, who told the General Synod that compared to the need to attract new worshippers, “everything else is like re-arranging furniture when the house is on fire”.
The Most Reverend John Sentamu told the Synod - where leaders will debate how to persuade traditionalists to accept women bishops - that they spent too long “arguing over words and phrases, while the people of England are left floundering amid meaninglessness, anxiety and despair”.
Lord Carey, who stepped down from Lambeth Palace in 2002, remains among the most high-profile campaigners for Christianity in the country. He said: “We ought to be ashamed of ourselves. We are one generation away from extinction - if we do not invest in young people there is going to be no one in the future.”
The series of high-level warnings about a looming crisis comes at a time when Christian belief and the Church of England appear under attack on a number of fronts. Recent census figures have shown a decline of more than 10 per cent in a decade in numbers of people who call themselves Christian, and the courts have rejected a series of pleas from Christians for respect from the law for their beliefs.
Last month one of the most senior judges struck a blow. President of the Family Division Sir James Munby declared the courts are not Christian and “the days are past when the business of judges was the enforcement of morals or religious beliefs”.
Ministers - who ignored the CofE’s objections to same-sex marriage - have gone so far as the threaten the autonomy of the Church of England by hinting that the Government will intervene to force its hand if it cannot bring itself to approve the appointment of women bishops.
Lord Carey’s warning was delivered in a speech at Holy Trinity Church in Shrewsbury as part of the Shropshire Churches Conference 2013.
“I am convinced that churches can grow, must grow and should grow,” he told his audience. However, he said that going to church “is not something that is natural to people in their lives nowadays”.
But he added: “There is so much violence, too many divided families, too little job security, too many young people with nothing to aim for. It is still the case that people are essentially looking for spiritual fulfilment.”
The warning from Dr Sentamu came in a document - also approved by the current Archbishop of Canterbury The Most Reverend Justin Welby - that spelled out the real danger of the Church’s collapse to the Synod, the CofE’s parliament.
Their paper spoke of a “growing wariness and antipathy towards faith”, adding: “Put simply, fewer clergy are now ministering to a larger population and having to oversee a roughly similar number of buildings with fewer worshippers to pay for them.
“Further significant decline would make it impossible to maintain the Church of England as a national institution, which is present in every community.”
Church of England Sunday congregations are running at half the numbers of the 1960s, and over the past two decades Roman Catholic churchgoing has seen a similar decline.
Christian numbers are rising fast in some parts of the world, notably in Africa. Worldwide, the Anglican churches have between 70 and 80 million followers - many of whom look to the Church of England for a lead.
However Christian churches are under pressure from Islam, particularly in West Africa, and persecution and violence against Christians has become common in parts of the Middle East and Pakistan.
“The issue of how we support each other, and how we understand and confront violent attacks is certainly one of the greatest of our age,” Archbishop Welby said.