Faith & reason: Stop sniggering: it's not George Carey's fault

The catalogue of woes which attaches to the Church of England is often laid at the door of the Archbishop of Canterbury - but unfairly so

THE TIME has come to praise George Carey and to argue that perhaps he is the best Archbishop the Church could have. Stop sniggering at the back. I know he's hopeless in front of a microphone; that during his time in office, the respect accorded to the Church of England has steadily shrunk; that it is to lose at least a third of its representation in the House of Lords, that around a tenth of the remaining clergy do not accept the reality of women priests and with that reject his authority too. The question is not whether the last 10 years have been good for the Church of England: they have been pretty dreadful. But how much of this is poor old Carey's fault?

I think that we tend to blame him too much, even if anyone who describes himself as a World Spiritual Leader deserves whatever press coverage they get. The serious question remains whether anyone could have done better, or whether another Archbishop would have done worse. Most of the problems of the Church of England stem from much larger changes in society, which could not possibly have been prevented. The financial difficulties of the Church Commissioners stem in the last analysis from the fact that priests live longer and retire before they die. It's difficult to see what any Archbishop could legally do to ensure that more of his priests died in harness.

It's true that when he took office and proclaimed a Decade of Evangelism, he thought there was a lot that churches could do about church attendance. Now that it has fallen, over the decade, by about 25 per cent, he would probably agree with his critics when the whole thing started that church attendance has very little to do with what the Churches say in public. The whole thing is determined by a much larger intellectual climate, and by how useful the local churches actually are to the societies around them. Once churches kept the schools going. Now church schools keep the churches going.

The women priests mess is harder to judge. I suppose that an Archbishop who campaigned really vigorously against them might have delayed their ordination for another three or four years, and used that time to plan for what would happen to the opposition when the vote went through. But that would probably have damaged the church far more by making it look ridiculous in the eyes of the outside world where hardly anyone could understand the fuss about ordaining women. It is a pity that no one in authority expected the vote to go through Synod, so that policy to deal with the malcontents had to be made on the hoof, with largely unhappy results. But it was the then Archbishop of York, John Habgood, who negotiated the present state of institutionalised schism. It is not Carey's fault. He has managed it as well as anyone could; and I think a clumsier Archbishop might have made things very much worse.

As for the general decline in credibility and respect for the office of Archbishop of Canterbury, you might say it was largely the fault of the press. I wouldn't believe you, but you might say it anyway. I don't suppose it was worse than the hostility Runcie had to endure, but it fell on a man without the charm to deflect it and over the years it must have had some effect. And it was Carey's misfortune, not his fault, to hold office at the same time as Basil Hume.

Still, as a leader he is entitled to claim the credit for major reorganisation and centralisation of the bureaucracies of the Church of England. The Church of England pretending to be a dynamic, Birtist organisation may be ridiculous, but it is still a great improvement on the baroque camp lassitude of the synodical politics he inherited. Everyone did agree that something had to be done but it was Carey who actually did it.

And politically, his system works. It distributes just as much power as each faction needs to keep it benevolently inclined towards the centre. The opponents of women priests have their own little church within a church; the mainstream evangelicals have control of all the power left in the synod; the charismatic evangelicals who follow Holy Trinity Brompton have all the power and prestige they could possibly want, along with doctrinal statements they can agree with. If you believe that the church of the future will be paid for by evangelicals, then you will have to give them value for money; and one of the unsung triumphs of Carey's policy in recent years has been the humiliating collapse of the attempts by a group of conservative evangelicals within Reform to set up their own little church within a church on the model of Forward in Faith. These were rejected by their own sect, who felt they got enough out of the present deal. It's a bad time to be a liberal but who cares about them?

It's easy to forget that one of the main aims of the tide of evangelical revulsion against the Runcie years that brought Carey into office was to abolish bishops who would have opinions interesting to the outside world. Journalists may regret this, but the church has every right to be boring if it wants to. And if I'm right, and the collapsing membership and influence of the Church of England are things that no Archbishop could influence, then there is even something to be said for the pathological optimism emanating from Lambeth Palace. If you must conduct a long fighting retreat, then a leader who continues to believe, as each glorious victory is won closer and closer to home, that the tide has already turned, may be just the man for the job.

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