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Profile: George Carey

1998 July 18
by Paul Vallely

THE LUMBERJACK shirt, it has to be admitted, did not exactly help. The Rt Rev George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England, this week “welcomed” HELLO! magazine into his home in “historic Lambeth Palace” and was pictured holding hands with his wife Eileen and “relaxing” in their private family apartment.

In the accompanying interview, he described himself as a “dreamy, meditative kind of chap” who would like to be remembered as someone, “to misquote Frank Sinatra”, who “did it God’s way”.

He didn’t believe in reincarnation, he said, but was open-minded about the existence of angels – especially since he reckoned he was married to one. The exclamation mark at the end of the magazine’s title is there for good reason, it seems.

It was all grist to the mill of the Carey-knockers in the spiritual smart set as they prepared for the 13th Lambeth Conference which begins in Canterbury today. It brings together 798 Anglican bishops from across the globe for their once-a-decade gathering to discuss the future of the world’s second largest community of faith.

“George has come a long way from nowhere,” said one, pointedly. “This is exactly the kind of thing that leaves him so open to ridicule,” said another. “Runcie would have got away with it because of his self-deprecating sense of self-mockery; but irony is not George’s strong point,” said a third.

There is, for all our talk of equal opportunity, still something tremendously class-conscious about British society. The “Bow-born and Dagenham-bred” archbishop – with his bluff, rather blustering way of speaking, his evangelical directness, and his early proneness to gaffes – is an easy target for snobbery.

“He’s too concerned with impressions and too obsequious to royalty,” said one spiritual sophisticate. “There’s something slightly pompous and posturing about his style,” said another. “Basil’s not cleverer than George,” said a third, who was clearly also on first name terms with Cardinal Hume, “but he manages to put himself over as a spiritual guide for the modern world; it’s not gravitas, it’s something to do with charisma”.

Already the traditional Lambeth Conference corridor activity – of jockeying to position your favourite for the Cantuar succession – has begun. (The urbane Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, is most favoured – but only if he does some nifty footwork and begins to ordain women priests, something which the other main candidate, the Archbishop of York, is steadfast against. If they fall, Rowan Williams, the clever but holy Bishop of Monmouth, who chairs one of the key Lambeth sessions, is a strong candidate).

But the fact is that Dr Carey can choose not to retire until he is 70 in eight years’ time, and the signs are that he may hang on. For George Carey has another side to the one so easily parodied. Behind the scenes, he is a more complex character. Often caricatured as an evangelical, he is much influenced by Catholic spirituality and ecclesiology; there are more eucharists per week at Lambeth now than under his predecessor, Robert Runcie.

George Carey is a plain man, but not illiberal. Though he takes a traditional line on homosexuality – the flashpoint for Lambeth in the weeks ahead – he is, when dealing with individuals, a man of pastoral breadth and more liberal than supposed.

He has, in recent times, displayed increasing sureness. He speaks out less often, but what he says is much stronger. At Diana’s funeral, he presided with quiet authority and his Thought for the Day on radio that morning was beautifully judged.

His speeches and sermons over the past two years – rarely reported – offer consistent, carefully prepared statements on secularism, morality, education, unemployment, marriage and international debt. If not scintillating, they are serious-minded and sound.

There are fewer gaffes, too. Indeed, his most recent blunder, as reported in the press, has been subject to a different analysis in the run-up to Lambeth. He annoyed Rome with remarks he made in Luxembourg’s Catholic cathedral in April when he reminded the Pope that the Eucharist does not belong to one denomination: “We do not own it, rather, it is a gracious gift from God.” And he asked the Vatican, in fairly mild language, to be more generous in interpreting the provisions of its own canon law.

The Pope went huffy and it was seen as a gaffe. But Carey knows his Catholic theology (he studied in Rome) and it is perhaps no coincidence that senior Third World figures in the Anglican Communion think it was deliberate. “He took a hard line because he was getting nowhere with the present Pope,” one told me. “He is preparing for the post-John Paul II agenda.”

Subsequent developments, in which the ailing Pope has tried to nail down doctrinal orthodoxy while he is still around, have only confirmed that view.

The Vatican’s dogma watchdog, Cardinal Ratzinger, recently said Pope Leo XIII’s 1896 declaration of Anglican ordinations as “absolutely null and utterly void” still holds as “definitive” truth. And the Pope’s letter, Ad Tuendam Fidem (For the Defence of the Faith), has threatened to excommunicate Catholics who stray from the Vatican line.

Carey has prepared carefully for Lambeth. At the last conference in 1988 there was a threat to the continuing unity of the communion on the issue of women priests. This time the faultline between liberals and conservatives is over whether practising homosexuals should be ordained.

The temperature is heated. A year ago, 80 Third World bishops produced the Kuala Lumpur statement stating that “setting aside of biblical teaching in such actions as the ordination of practising homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions calls into question the authority of the Holy Scriptures. This is totally unacceptable to us.”

Their stance was endorsed by 44 more conservative bishops meeting in Dallas – and later, Archbishop Moses Tay of Singapore threatened to move to “expel those provinces” who did not agree.

The liberal bishops of the United States counter-blasted with the ultra- progressive Bishop John Spong of Newark branding the conservatives as uninformed, superstitious and backward folk whose literal interpretation of the Bible “has become one of embarrassment to the cause of Christ.”

And he accused the Archbishop of Canterbury of having “no moral credibility” and “disappointing those who expect more of his leadership role.”

Carey responded by censuring Spong for his “hectoring and intemperate tone”. But he did more. He continued his programme of visiting Anglican Communion countries – now up to 64 – to engage in quiet bridge-building.

If his lack of a patrician manner has lost him points at home, it does the opposite abroad. “He’s very good at understanding the commonwealth culture and has an ability to relate to people in less sophisticated cultures,” said one Lambeth insider.

That view was echoed by one prominent Third World Christian who told me: “His manner is not aristocratic, colonial, or military. He’s been genuinely trying to listen to the people of the South and wants to build our capacity to do things ourselves rather than having everything done by the West. He’s a father figure, and he has created lots of space for everyone.”

It may be that Carey’s political ability has been under-estimated, for he has not just tried to spot the unexploded bombs in advance, he has also cleverly prepared the ground for a Lambeth Commission on Sexuality. That could buy time until the communion is ready for compromise – and allow the conference to get on with its other business on mission, youth, euthanasia, ecumenism, relations with Islam, and the immorality of international debt.

The perennial Anglican Question is always about where its authority actually lies. Domestically, Carey is in the process of trying, through reforms which come into force in the autumn, to create an Archbishops’ Council which will impose some strategic direction upon the unruly Synod which allegedly governs the church.

Whether they work remains to be seen. But on the international scene, there can be no such equivalent. Archbishops of Canterbury must manage the Anglican Communion through diplomacy and force of personality. The next three weeks will prove to be the most public of tests for the Carey style.


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