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George Carey and the Challenge to the Church

1991 March 24
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by Paul Vallely

ON PAIN of contumacy after the old form, objectors are required to appear at the Court of Arches in the ancient church of St Mary-le-Bow in the City of London on Wednesday to offer opposition to the election of the Rt Rev George Carey as the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

Under legislation dating back to an ordinance of Henry VIII – and before him to the 12th canon of the council of Laodicaea and the 4th canon of the council of Nicaea in AD 325 which provided for bishops to be confirmed in their position not by the Pope but by the metropolitan bishop of their province – this is the moment at which the archbishop-elect officially assumes the mantle of his predecessors as George Cantuar.

Earlier this month the Chapter of the Cathedral Church of Christ at Canterbury met in private in the chapel of Our Lady-under-Croft to hear the Dean read the conge d’elire from the Queen nominating Dr Carey as the 103rd archbishop of the province. After intoning the Veni Creator Spiritus they voted that Dr Carey should succeed to the throne of St Augustine.

On Wednesday the archbishop-elect will appear before a bench of his fellow bishops, presided over by the Archbishop of York as metropolitan of the northern province, to obtain their confirmation of that election. The proceedings take place in the same church which saw the confirmation of the election of Archbishop Matthew Parker in 1559 – the first Cantuar to be enthroned without any reference to Rome  – under the aegis of the Tudor statute 25 Hen. VIII [c 20, s 4] which provides that a royal mandate be issued “requiring and commanding” the archbishop and two other bishops, “with all speed and celerity to confirm”.

Three times during the ceremony an inquiry is made as to whether there is any opposition. Valid grounds for objection are defects in the election procedure or a revelation that the man before them is an imposter. No objection can be accepted on grounds of heresy, unsound doctrine or, indeed, infelicitous phrases in interviews with the Reader’s Digest.

There may be no official objectors on Wednesday – confirmation has never been refused in any case since the Reformation. But George Carey has already raised a number of public objections from senior churchmen over his use of an injudicious phrase in the first major interview he has given since his appointment.

In the Reader’s Digest – an interesting choice for a debut appearance, especially since his only previous interview had been a minor one given to The Sun – he described the idea that only a man can represent Christ on the altar as “a most serious heresy”. At a sweep, his critics said, he had suggested that opponents of the ordination of women, including England’s third most senior cleric, the Bishop of London, Rt Rev Graham Leonard, (not to mention the Pope) were heretics.

“Typical George,” sighed one of his friends afterwards. “Sometimes in an attempt to get his point over quickly and graphically he uses words without thinking them through. I’m sure he now regrets that one.”

Hyperbole may have made for colourful and compelling sermons while he was a local vicar but it is a dangerous gift for an Archbishop of Canterbury. But then Dr Carey has never thought that Christianity was a risk-free activity. “Don’t be worried about failing,” he told the congregation in Wells Cathedral earlier this year when launching the Decade of Evangelism there. “Be a glorious enthusiastic failure rather than a tired and timid traveller on a cost-free road.”

Those who know George Carey well warn that there are exciting and probably disconcerting times ahead for the Church.


WHEN Downing Street announced the name of the successor to Robert Runcie last July the Church of England was taken by surprise. George Carey was young, aged only 54, and had been a bishop for less than three years. Most Anglicans had never heard of him. The newspapers scrabbled desperately for bits of information about the man.

He was, they told us, a Cockney, the son of a hospital porter, who had left secondary school at the age of 15 for a job as an office boy at the London Electricity Board. He was the first non-Oxbridge Cantuar since the Middle Ages. He did not attend church and it was only during his National Service as an RAF wireless operator in Iraq that he felt the call to the priesthood. His church career had included jobs as a curate in Islington, a lecturer at St John’s theological college in Nottingham, a parish priest in Durham where he had rejuvenated an ailing city centre church, as the principal of Trinity Theological College in Bristol and then as Bishop of Bath and Wells.

He was from the evangelical wing of the Church of England whose adherents place particular emphasis on the Bible and often describe themselves as born-again. His theology was orthodox, with no public agonizing over what was meant by the Resurrection. His moral values – on abortion, homosexuality, divorce and the family – were conservative which endeared him to the then Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, who was said to have had an indirect influence on his appointment.

He was a man of simple tastes who took his holidays in a caravan and supported Arsenal. He thought the poll tax was unfair. He believed that God was Green and advocated the adoption of a simple lifestyle to preserve the earth’s resources and show solidarity with the Third World poor – he drove a small car to save fuel and abstained from meat on several days a week. He asserted that clergy should lose their lifelong tenure and work on short-term contracts with regular tests to determine their competence. He was a nuclear pacifist but objected to CND replacing the cross on Hot Cross Buns with their own symbol.  He has been a bouncer at the church youth club.

The question was where would all this place him on the major issues which the Church must face in the 1990s and over which it has been so publicly riven in the last decade?

He was said to be in favour of women priests but spoke of the necessity for holding the church together – a phrase which is often a code for “but not yet”. He felt that divorced and remarried men should be allowed to become priests but was against the ordination of practising homosexuals. He spoke warmly of the pastoral qualities of the leading liberal theologian, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev David Jenkins, but clearly had no truck with his views on the Resurrection, saying plainly: “I believe that Jesus was crucified, buried and that his cold, dead body was raised alive by God.”

The result, his admirers and Dr Runcie’s detractors said, would be firm leadership and a moral and spiritual revival which they hoped would draw greater numbers to the Church and arrest the decline of the past decades – in the past 30 years the percentage of the population who are Easter communicants in the Church of England has dropped by almost half and there are 25 per cent fewer clergy than 25 years ago.


THE JOB of Archbishop of Canterbury has become an impossible job to do properly. It consists of a number of separate responsibilities each of which seems to make ever-increasing demands.

The Archbishop is firstly the diocesan bishop for more than 250 parishes in Canterbury, where he is expected to celebrate and preach at the great ecclesiastical feasts and to confirm and ordain, as well as chair diocesan synods and staff meetings. He is the Metropolitan of the southern province, and presides over its Convocation, and Primate of All England, in which capacity he has duties as President of the General Synod with its various boards and committees.

He is the head of the Anglican Communion, whose 28 churches have 65 million members worldwide, and whose provinces have each now come to expect the occasional visit. Increasingly he has ecumenical commitments as the Church of England explores with growing commitment its relationship with other Protestant denominations and with Roman Catholics. He is also chaplain to the nation, regarded by believers and non-believers alike as the voice of Christianity in England – in which role the media now make considerably more demands than in previous times.

It is, according to one commentator in the time of Archbishop William Temple (1942-45) “the work of a Prime Minister with the staff of a Head Master”. Rev John Witheridge, who was chaplain to Dr Runcie for three years, has called for a review of what the Church expects from the archbishop. Without it, he said, Dr Carey will “find himself enslaved to the same intolerable burdens, and the same criticisms and vilifications from the disappointed, which Dr Runcie has had to bear”.

Each archbishop, of course, finds a different emphasis. Geoffrey Fisher, in the Forties and Fifties threw himself into a massive reorganisation of the administration and finance of the Church at a time when society itself was undergoing a post-war reconstruction. Michael Ramsey did his best to hold the line against the new sense of freedom which so exhilarated secular society in the Sixties but which in the church produced a crisis between tradition and the new liberalism symbolised by Bishop John Robinson’s controversial Honest to God.

In the Seventies, when the nation was pursuing pleasure, Donald Coggan recognized that society was now secularised and made earnest attempt to counter the new materialism with a call to recapture spiritual values. In the Eighties, with its spirit of confrontation as the Thatcherites squared up to the old consensus politicians and the church was riven on issues of ecclesiology, Robert Runcie tried hard to offer a mission of reconciliation.

How will George Carey view the challenge of the Nineties?

One thing is clear there are differing expectations of him at different levels. Dr Carey has had the advantage of experience at most of those levels. Those who have been his colleagues and companions there offer interesting insights.


The Rev Frank White, now a parish priest in Birtley, Co Durham, was curate to George Carey at the church of St Nicholas in Durham. His wife the Rev Alison White, now ordained a deacon and employed as the diocesan mission officer, acted in a professional theatre company which was based in the church – which in those days became known as St Nic’s. The Whites look ahead to the coming decade with eyes trained by Dr Carey. “He was our first boss and therefore enormously influential,” said Alison White.

“At the national level there’s been a reassertion of the importance of churchmanship in the past decade,” said Frank White, referring to the sense of confrontation which developed between the three main traditions in the Church of England – the Evangelicals, who emphasize Scripture before all else, the Catholics, who place the Bible on a par with church traditions which they trace back to the apostles, and the Liberals, who maintain that reason must reinterpret Scripture and tradition for each new generation.

“But at the parish level the distinctions are nowhere near so important. There are a number of cross-currents which unite people from different traditions – the charismatic renewal movement, a concern for issues of social justice, enthusiasm for ecumenism, and the question of the ordination of women. This cross-fertilisation brings a new openness and that is something which is very characteristic of George Carey.”

Dr Carey’s roots were very much in the evangelical tradition. When he was converted at the age of 17 his fiery parish priest had him stand on a soap-box outside his council house home to give testimony to his conversion. But after some years as an academic theologian he drifted away from the unquestioning intensity of this and spoke of “people such as myself, whose heart beats in time with the evangelical love of Jesus and a deep devotion to the biblical tradition, but whose head cannot go along with received evangelical teaching.” He told John Martin, the editor of the Church of England newspaper: “Evangelicals tend to treat the Bible like a wax nose that they can push and pull to suit them.”

But in 1972, at the age of 37, he had a “born-again” experience provoked by the charismatic movement which lays great stress on the power of the Holy Spirit and often involves free-wheeling worship with ecstatic visions, dancing, weeping and waving of hands. As part of his new birth Dr Carey was prayed over by an Anglo-Catholic enthusiast “speaking in tongues”.

Alison and Frank White describe themselves as products of the charismatic renewal movement too. “It’s a mongrel experience. But it is positive. It is one of the reason why George’s sympathies are now so broad and complex. He has the genuine ability to listen to people, change his mind and say he was wrong. Christianity for him has everything to do with life and much less to do with formal religion,” said Frank White.

Dr Carey’s renewed zeal was channeled into the spiritual renewal of St Nic’s where the community grew from a few dozen to around 400 regular worshippers. It then set itself the task of gutting its decrepit church in the city market place and refurbishing it to become a shoppers’ community centre during the week as well as a place of worship on Sunday. The cost was £325,000 was raised by “sacrificial giving”  from the congregation, many of whom did without holidays, new clothes or leisure treats for two years. All the pews were removed and carpet was laid with moveable chairs and an altar which could be shifted aside.

The changes, with concomitant changes in the style of worship, inspired many newcomers but alienated some traditional parishioners. Dr Carey charted the process in his book The Church in the Market Place. “My own enthusiasm for change may have been too breathtaking for some,” he conceded but said, “If we had proceeded at the speed of the slowest member of the caravan in order to maintain the congregation’s unity, we might still be discussing… True faith always contains an element of risk.”

But what appeared as energy and commitment to many looked like bullying to others, an accusation which was later to be made in Bath and Wells when as bishop be wrote to certain traditionalist priests and said that if the ordination of women was approved they would have to concur or reconsider their position within the Church. “When God moves a congregation the devil hits back. And often he uses the well-meaning intentions of decent people to block the way of the Spirit,” he wrote of the changes at St Nic’s.

Those who were in sympathy with his views were energised by his approach, though one parishioner said that when the building work was completed just after Dr Carey left “we all flopped”.

 “He is an immensely exhilarating and exciting man to work with. He is intelligent, prayerful, thoughtful. He has an uncanny knack of knowing what you can do before you know yourself,” said Alison White. She predicts that the Church under Dr Carey, particularly in its strategy for promoting the Decade of Evangelism which begins this year, will focus more on the life of the people in the parish. “The emphasis will be on the local rather than on centralised razzmattaz events. The idea is to get people to develop their own programme.”

But parochial ministry has not been the dominant element in George Carey’s vocation. He has spent most of his years teaching in theological colleges. During that time he has written eight books on topics such as christology, ecumenism, secularism and the nature of faith. They are primers for ordinands or introductions for the general reader rather than works of original scholarship. But his easy, colourful populist style is clearly the product of an astute intelligence and a determination that the Church “must not use language which is inaccessible to the working class”.

“His strength is that he can convey very profound theological truth in simple language,” said Ruth Etchells, the former principal of St John’s theological college, Durham, and a member of the Crown Appointments Commission which selected him for Canterbury.

His academic work has also been a broadening experience. He spent a month in the Vatican researching his book on ecumenism and although it is still deeply Protestant in demeanour it shows a largely sympathetic approach to the theology of post Vatican II Rome. His characteristically evangelical work on The Cross, The Gate of Glory, accepts the validity of certain of the insights of Liberation Theology. And his most recent book on the existence of God, The Great God Robbery, shows an understanding of the questions asked by liberal theologians like the Bishop of Durham, even if his answers are different.

George Carey clearly enjoys teaching. As Bishop at Wells he ran nine teaching missions, each lasting four days, in which he participated himself. He already has some planned for the Canterbury diocese. But it was not a major part of his work as a diocesan bishop.

“He was not entirely at ease at first in the grand situations in the cathedral but he has adapted,” said his assistant at Wells, the Rev Brian Pearson. “He learns very quickly. He had never been a member of a bishop’s staff but he is not embarrassed to ask if he doesn’t know something.” Within 18 months of arriving he and Mrs Carey had visited all 350 vicarages in the diocese.

“He’s a very positive man. He’s always looking for someone to say Why not? rather than to ask Why? His chief failing is trying to give too much attention to detail on things like correspondence. I think he will find it difficult letting go. But his style is to start things up and then pass them on to someone else to run. He’s an innovator.”

On the national stage George Carey is more of an unknown quantity. His interventions are the General Synod in the past have not been distinctive.

His views on women priests are now fairly clear – though the advice from all quarters is not to let the issue grab centre stage.”It’s really not that much of an issue in the parishes,” said Alison White. “The Church has got it entirely out of proportion. It shouldn’t be top of the agenda,” said the Most Rev John Habgood, the Archbishop of York.

“The whole thing has got hyped up. I don’t find it a sharply confrontational issue. Theologically it’s an open question. People are making such heavy weather of it,” said the Rt Rev David Hope, the Bishop of Wakefield, who is to take over as Bishop of London later this year. “It’s an absolute menace for us to be faffing around with the issue of women priests when there are such other issues around: of war and peace, of ecology, of caring for our neighbours in the Third World, of the existence of God,” said the Rt Rev David Jenkins, Bishop of Durham.

All agree that the Decade of Evangelism is the greatest challenge the Church now faces.

Many Anglicans, like John Gummer, a member of the General Synod and Cabinet minister, believe that “George Carey may be the man for the age. Christianity is of its nature an arrogant religion because it says that Jesus Christ is the unique presentation of God to Man. Clearly there must be a tension between that and other religions. We have to say to them : you are wrong about certain things. The Christian Church has it as a fundamental part of its commission to go out converting people. No amount of 20th century rewriting can alter that”

Most senior prelates disagree. David Jenkins is most forthright, as usual. “The notion of a Decade of Evangelism is a form of non-sense because the very purpose of the Church is to express the Good News. I think it’s a practical mistake to have a decade. There’s always the danger of it being captured by people who say that evangelism is recruiting people into a rather limiting and exclusive view of God.

“When we talk about the uniqueness of Christ do we mean that he is a unique and decisive clue to the outreaching love of God who is concerned to save everybody? Or do some people still really believe that unless people believe in our particular sectarian form of Christianity they will be left to hell?”

But the leading Anglo-Catholic David Hope is also wary. “The Decade of Evangelism is not a Billy Graham style crusade for the next ten years. It is about calling people to a renewal which will enable them to live in the real world with a vibrant and vigorous faith. We ought not to need to go out and knock on doors. We ought to be able to make any group of Christians so attractive – through the care, compassion, joy and forgiveness they demonstrate – that people want to join.”

Dr John Habgood concedes that evangelism is not a particularly attractive term.”It hasn’t been helped by the antics of some evangelists, particularly on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s important that the Decade shouldn’t be taken over by particular evangelical groups.

“But it is important that the Church should become outward-looking rather than inward looking, concerned with growth rather than survival.” But he is sensitive to the alarms caused among leaders of other faiths who claim that Christian evangelists have already begun proselytising in Jewish and Muslim residential areas.

“As a priority I’d put those who don’t have any faith. There are plenty of them to get on with, without trying to convert Muslims or Jews. I am sceptical about the value of deliberately trying to dislodge people from their own faith. I don’t think it works and often you may damage them as people… I think you’re doing a very serious thing if you take an individual out of the religious and cultural context to which they belong and are attuned. They can only do that (convert) at the cost of being written off as dead by their family and community.”

Just what balance George Carey will strike in all this is not yet clear. But the Bishop of Durham and the Bishop-designate of London have faith that his judgement will be sound.

“He’s a very relaxed person who is open and has great respect for other traditions. There is a deeply reflective element to him. He has the resilience and the strength of purpose to help people celebrate their faith,” said David Hope, who is with Dr Carey a member of a cell of tyro bishops who meet regularly to counsel one another.

“The new Archbishop will need a quiet internal toughness, so as not to be blown off course, and a readiness to be open to all sorts of things,” said David Jenkins. “I have worked with George Carey and have the greatest respect and, if I may say so, affection for him. I think he’s a very warm, open, deep man, so I would trust him a great deal. My worry is that he’s not had time enough yet to be turned into a tough bishop.

“He will make mistakes, of course. We all do. It’s the job of his advisors and the House of Bishops to help him go slowly. But I’m very hopeful.”


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