It was Lord Carey, erstwhile Archbishop of Canterbury, who told us last year that "As I have repeated many times in the past we are one generation away from extinction.". If he's repeated this many times in the past, I'd like to know when he started doing this? It would appear that he said it in 1999. In which case, if he was right then, then the C of E isn't one generation away from extinction any more. It's now half a generation. Or did the Church of England get a half-generation suspension of extinction? He doesn't tell us.
The Church of England seems to have been dying my entire life. Of the making of new initiatives - faith in the city, decades of evangelism, embracing Alpha, diocesan missions - there is no end. And nothing much happens. Just the long, slow decline in attendance - albeit jazzed up with better spin on the unrelenting statistics of decline.
I guess here's my view. If the Church of England - the one that inherited a position, the organisational equivalent of a patronised chaplain, who gets a seat at High Table by virtue of a 16th century bequest by a knight with a guilty conscience, the one that expected special treatment, the one which thought it could tell other people how to behave, the one that traded the thrill of living faith for rules and committees and fossilisation - if that one dies, I don't really mind. Denominations rise and fall, and that's just the way it is.
If the Church dies, I care. The Church isn't meant to be an estates department, a lobby group, a pressure group on marital law. The Church is the cutting-edge of the Kingdom - the extension into time and space of the group that Jesus first called. The Church is the thing that offers God's free love, and a ludicrous idea that before you assert your own rights you consider other people as more important than you are. It's the breaking-into-time of an eternal rule.
And I reckon that the best chance for the Church, in England, not to die - is for it not to go around announcing it's going to be extinct in a set period of time - whether a whole generation or half of one. Those of our readers with a classical education may remember the Last of the Summer Wine episode, "The Miraculous Healing of Old Goff Helliwell." Goff (and I apologise if I'm patronising you by explaining all this, but some of our American cousins may be unaware) - Goff decided he was going to die, and therefore set out to do so, on a certain day in the following week. The 3 Old Blokes of Holmfirth managed to avert this disaster, by encouraging Marina to climb up a ladder into Goff's bedroom window. It gave him a whole new spring in his step.
Now, I'm not suggesting we get peroxide blondes of a certain age to climb through the bedroom window of a former Archbishop of Canterbury. It would not, necessarily, be restorative. But my point is - the Church, by its nature, is supposed to grow. The Kingdom, of which it is a badly-organised visible sign, is like yeast in a loaf; like a tiny seed that grows into a big tree. Like the TV career of Keith Lemon - one minute just a joke comedy character, the next all over the schedules. And if the Church is supposed to grow, then its aim - not even its aim, its assumption - must be to grow - not to sit around worrying about death.
I was talking to a friend about his church in East London. How many members does it have, I asked. 30. Not many - but then it's only been going a few months. How many members does its parent church, up the road, have? 600. Six hundred. In one congregation. They're not worrying about being extinct within a generation. They've got a Gospel to proclaim.
A long time ago, a man called Lazarus actually was dead. The rites had been carried out, the wrappings wrapped, the spices arranged, and the man stuck safely behind a big rock. Nobody expected him to come out.
Shortly afterwards, the man who went to see him that remarkable day was himself dead. The rites had been carried out, the wrappings wrapped, the spices were - well, on the way, at any rate, and the man stuck safely behind a big rock. Nobody expected him to come out, either.
The Church is alive when it shares Jesus's love. When it scatters the news that, against all the bad and the death, there's life. When it actually does believe that its natural situation is not as yeast in a baked loaf, but as yeast in a lump of dough. When it believes in the one who called it into being, and sent it into the world.
Nobody ever became a Christian through a scheme, an initiative, or a retired Archbishop telling them that the Church was doomed. They were often converted - by the power of the Spirit, of course - through the positive attraction of lives made bright by Jesus, of a Church that tells of God's love, of a story that tells of new life.
So come on, Lazarus, get out that tomb. A seed doesn't worry about death. It's busy thinking about new life.