I was chatting with the barber while having my mop chopped, and happened to mention what I do for a living. Immediately, he grabbed one of the morning’s tabloids and showed me a headline that had appeared, “Church ‘is on brink of extinction'”. The article was provoked by a talk given by the former archbishop, Lord Carey, to a group of churches in Shrewsbury.
This sparked a good discussion: I mentioned the new ways of doing church in this area, such as cafe church in Wichenford, and the thriving churches in the centre of Worcester (for example, here). He then recalled a conversation he’d had recently: “I was standing with my wife, and said to her ‘here, what does this mean, Hallowed be thy name?'”.
He was genuinely puzzled, but I assumed that the question was rhetorical. Instead, he turned to the rest of the room – two other barbers and a handful of customers – and repeated the question, adding “do any of you know what it means?”. All of them denied knowledge, with one barber quipping, “I thought it meant, ‘How loud can I say your name?'”.
The question illustrates how the traditional church became detached from the wider community. The barber – aged about 60 – is from the generation which, we’re often told in certain church circles, need the re-assurance of the traditional language, but was himself clearly alienated by it. It is hardly surprising that the church is often perceived to be an institution stuck with antiquated forms of impenetrable language.
I mumbled something about the phrase meaning ‘your name is holy’, and realised that that wasn’t a helpful explanation for a non-church person. I wish I’d known how the New International Readers Version interprets the phrase: “may your name be honored” [NIrV] – which makes the least assumptions about what people would understand today.
I have since discovered that the tabloid concerned – and indeed the subsequent coverage elsewhere in the media – substantially distorts what the archbishop had actually said. The aim of his talk, entitled ‘Re-imagining the church‘, was to inspire and energise a group of churches into radically re-thinking the way church is done; it was far from being a melancholy tirade. He did warn the churches about the danger of neglecting youth ministry, and this is what prompted the comment which was picked up by the tabloid; but ironically, the sentence actually reads (with my italics) “As I have repeated many times in the past ‘we are one generation away from extinction’.” It must have been a slow news day for the newspaper to pick up and distort this comment!
It’s a pity the tabloid concerned didn’t read what the archbishop had actually said; but a greater pity that the church wasn’t properly attuned to these issues forty years ago. Still, the church may still benefit if the headline sparked discussions in other barbers’ shops across the country!