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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue