Religious populations are aging in the U.K., and the former Archbishop of Canterbury said Saturday that the church could go extinct if it doesn’t attract more young people. Reuters/Leonhard Foeger/Files

If Christianity wants to see the next century, it may need a miracle.

That’s according to George Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, who warned attendees at a religious conference in Shrewsbury, England, on Saturday that Christianity in Britain is “a generation away from extinction” unless it can figure out how to attract more young people. In a speech titled “Reimagining the Church,” Carey spoke of an “urgent and worrying gap” between young Britons and a ministry that seems to have no interest in courting them. That attitude, according to Carey, is tantamount to having “no interest in the future.”

“We have to give cogent reasons to young people why the Christian faith is relevant to them. For most of us, our hearts were touched when we were young, and that precious touch we should not hold from our young people. Of course, young people are notoriously difficult, demanding and high-maintenance. And so were we -- but people cared for us and gave us a place in the church.”

The archbishop's speech comes amid a period of rapid and sometimes messy social change being ushered in by the higher ranks of Europe’s religious leaders. Even the Roman Catholic Church, led by the increasingly progressive Pope Francis, seems to be taking pains to shed its stodgy image. In addition to washing the feet of prisoners and telling atheists that they, too, can get into heaven, the pope has urged Catholics not to obsess over hot-button issues like gay marriage and abortion.

Carey is not on the same wavelength, however. In the run-up to Britain’s legalization of same-sex marriage in July, he spoke out vigorously against it. Last year, Carey likened gay-marriage supporters to Nazis, and in a speech to the House of Lords in May, he said gay marriage will not strengthen society but weaken it.

And yet despite such railings, an ICM Research poll taken in 2012 -- shortly after Prime Minister David Cameron expressed support for legalizing gay marriage -- showed that three in five voters supported the idea. Those are actually higher rates than the percentage of Britons who identify as Christian these days. In England and Wales, that number has dropped sharply in the last decade, falling from 72 percent in 2001 to 59 percent in 2011, according to a census report from the Office for National Statistics. What’s more, about 25 percent of the entire population now say they had no religious affiliation at all.

Christianity is still the U.K.’s largest religious faith, but considering the current rate of decline, Carey’s “extinct within a generation” remark seems a lot less like dogma and a little more like damage control.

Lord Carey’s speech was given at Trinity Church’s Shopshire Light Conference. Read the full text here.

A chart showing religious affiliations in England and Wales. Office for National Statistics

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