Leading Article: Let us now praise George Carey, this turbulent priest

GEORGE CAREY has the misfortune to be nobody's favourite Archbishop of Canterbury. Intellectual and social snobs in the Church of England do not like him because he is not especially subtle or sophisticated. Liberals do not like him because he is too conservative. Conservatives do not like him because he is too liberal. And now he has offended his entire "core flock" by saying - to paraphrase - that organised religion is mostly hypocritical.

Dr Carey's Millennium Message is a breathtaking statement of the obvious. We cannot "know" that Jesus was raised by God from the dead. Jesus did not have a lot of time for organised religion, and tended to stay out of "religious buildings". And the Church "has contributed to the oppression of women; to policies of imperialism, slavery, and the repression of free speech" and played "a part in the victimisation of Jews in the Middle Ages and in Nazi Germany". No secularist could have put it better.

So far, the reaction has been synthetic and predictable. If Ian Paisley thunders against him, it can only strengthen the view that what he is saying is entirely reasonable. Ann Widdecombe, a Roman Catholic convert, describes it as the ultimate betrayal, which is, in a sense, precisely why Dr Carey's words are so important.

At last, the leader of the established Church in this country is prepared to tell regular churchgoers that they are a tiny minority, many of whom are out of touch both with modern society and with the radical spirit which animated the Church's founders roughly 2,000 years ago. In practice, Dr Carey has been wobbly on women's and gay rights, but he should be congratulated for highlighting the Church's role in the oppression of women in his Message, and for meeting lesbian and gay leaders last month.

More importantly, he struck a blow against the Church as an upholder of the status quo in general, and the government in particular. Politicians seem increasingly willing to use religion in their own ministry - Tony Blair ("Jesus was a moderniser") being one obvious example. We prefer the approach of politicians like Ronald Reagan, who responded to Walter Mondale's attack on his poor attendance record at church: "Nancy and I like to sleep in on Sundays." It can do no harm to have Dr Carey remind these politician-preachers that Jesus was a subversive who "roused anger among the people in authority in his day".

What better way for the Church to mark the millennium than by acknowledging its failings over the past 2,000 years? Who knows, once Dr Carey's commendable realism about the nature of faith in the post-Galilean world has sunk in, the Church could engage in a creative dialogue about morality, spirituality and the meaning of life with the agnostic, secular and atheist majority in this and any other country. More, Dr Carey, give us more.