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This page last updated 29 June 1999
Anglicans Online last updated 1 August 1999

Dr Carey Triumphant
Ruth Gledhill assesses the Archbishop of Canterbury at this, his finest hour

Even were this not a Catholic newspaper, I would begin with a confession. I am one among many who have seriously underestimated the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey.

It is easy to see how so many of us made this mistake, and there was certainly an element of subconscious snobbery involved. Dr Carey, almost entirely self-educated, was born in the East End and brought up in Essex. He had preached on soap boxes, and had a real-life spiritual experience of God.

His favourite sport was not cricket or rugby, but soccer, and to add insult to injury, he was an active Arsenal fan. The concept of liberal Anglicanism, then dominant in the church at least in the hierarchy, was scarcely in his vocabulary when he arrived at Lambeth Palace, brimming with enthusiasm and ideas and not in the least overwhelmed by the pomp and ceremony of his new role, in 1991.

He might have been a vicar and a bishop, who at Wells lived in a palace with a moat around it. But as far as the "establishment” was concerned, he was most definitely an outsider.

Many lesser men, faced with the barrage of criticism that followed in the wake of almost every step he took, would have adapted themselves to be what an Archbishop of Canterbury was expected to be. De Carey was made of more courageous stuff. "I just didn't give two hoots," he told me this week, describing with laughter how one article which condemned him as a blundering Archbishop appeared with a photograph of Michael Ramsey.

It is only dawning now on the Church of England that, rather than change himself to fit in, Dr Carey has changed the church to fit him. This became clear at the Lambeth Conference. Dr Carey has frequently been criticised for the amount of time he spend abroad. Last year he spent 40 days away, visiting Jerusalem, America, Australia, Gibraltar and Pakistan. He has been to Sudan twice, to Korea, Romania, Malaysia, Hungary, Turkey, Papua New Guinea and elsewhere. But at Lambeth, the respect shown to Dr Carey by bishops from these and other countries, in particular Africa and Asia, was impressive. And it is a fact not lost on many Anglicans now that some of these churches, such as Nigeria, where there are 17 million practising Anglicans, are on the verge of outnumbering the mother church, which ostensibly has 26 million baptised members, but can count just one million of these as regular churchgoers. Lambeth illustrated the extent to which the axis of Anglicanism is changing, and Dr Carey is pivotal in this process.

For decades, if not centuries, prior to Dr Carey's appointment, the Church of England was run by the old boy network Archbishops were Oxbridge-educated men who knew everyone who mattered. Bishops were appointed, careers made and broken, in hushed conversations over drink at the Athenaeum. Dr Carey, instead of attempting to fit himself into this mould, as a lesser man might well have tried to do, has broken the mould and forged a new one for himself and his successors, At Lambeth, it was at times heartening and wonderful to see the more extreme liberals, whose politically-correct agendas have been immune from all challenge and criticism, on the run for the first time. There was also, on the other hand, something slightly scary about the way well-organised teams of conservative evangelicals seized the ball with such relish, and with it to score goal after winning goal, completely outpacing the hopeless, crumbling defence of the opposition. There can be no doubt about whose side Dr Carey was on. Most notable among his achievements on home ground alone has been the reform of church structures, with the creation of the new Archbishops' Council. This body, with some of the most capable Christians from general synod, church, and the secular business world as its members, will enable him and the Archbishop of York, Dr David Hope, to give direct and dynamic leadership from the top for the first time. This structure, which becomes effective from 1 January next year and has obviated the need for several general synod committees and a substantial number of Church commissioners, also does away with the need for the old boy network at a stroke.

Dr Carey has in addition overseen a reform of Church finances which has made the Church Commissioners more efficient, streamlined and businesslike and ensured that future losses of the kind seen in the 1980s are extremely unlikely ever to occur again. He has steered legislation to ordain women through the synod, and helped engineer subsequent damage limitation legislation. Numbers of ordinations and giving are up, and while worshippers are down, it can be argued that this is due to other factors and the long-term effects of Dr Carey's reforms have yet to be felt in the pews. Dr Carey has shown his ability to be patient--the Lincoln cathedral debacle was finally resolved after years of disputes in the cloisters, largely due to his intervention and ability simply to wait. His relationship with the government is good, even on areas where he differs, such as the age of consent for homosexual men.

The problem the Church of England has with Dr Carey is that it has as its leader one who really, truly believes in God and his Son, Jesus Christ. It is possible to throw at him all the modernist, biblical and historical criticism that exists. Dr Carey can fling it all back, with more besides. He can cite Biblical criticism from Africa to Germany, the arguments of both for and against, while his faith grows stronger by the day.

Dr Carey does not care whether he is popular or not. What he cares about is God, and Jesus Christ. None of us can again make the mistake of underestimating his ability, a strength and determination close to stubbornness when he believes he is doing God's will. The liberals might protest, argue and rationalise. But a real, deep and fundamental belief in God, Christ, and the Word is a strange thing in an Anglican bishop. None can argue with that.

Ruth Gledhill is Religious Affairs correspondent of The Times (UK).

[This article appears in the 14 August edition of the Catholic Herald (UK) and is reproduced here at the kind suggestion of Ruth Gledhill.]


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