Godspeed, Dr Carey, says a turbulent priest

The Church of England » A front-line rector tells how the new archbishop must take the C of E in a new direction
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The Independent Online

When the retirement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, was announced last week, the discreet but tense process began to find a successor. A 13-strong commission representing the diocese of Canterbury, the General Synod, and diocesan bishops whittles down to two those they think might be suitable; the names are forwarded to the Prime Minister whose choice is ratified by the Queen. The new archbishop takes up his post in October, and the Anglican Church will embark on a new era. Or will it?

Peter Owen Jones, for one, has his doubts. Rector for the past five years of four parishes in rural Cambridgeshire, Mr Owen Jones's is one of the voices seldom heard in the great C of E debates – that of the vicars who work at the coalface but whose views play no part in the largely hidden procedure that will determine who is to lead them, even thought they know the needs of their Anglican parishioners inside out. "The top of the church is very hierarchical, almost medieval,'' he says. "There's a king at the top, the subjects underneath. People go on about how the bishops see the church, but it's more a case of how parishes see the bishops, and it's creating increasing levels of tension.''

Mr Owen Jones talks about "a bishop class'', and he does not mean it approvingly. "The problem with the bishop class is that it has been leeched of vitality and imagination. You have the majority of bishops grooved from the same toothless comb, and from the bishop class a new archbishop will be chosen.''

The problem, Mr Owen Jones thinks, is that the church has merely become in thrall to the Establishment, not daring to tackle big political issues like injustice and poverty. "I'm not for disestablishment, but when it comes to the upper levels of the Church of England resonating with the world, it just doesn't happen.

"What have been the most successful things the church has done in the last 10 years? They've tended to happen independently of its structures – the Alpha course for example. I'm not saying the Alpha course was perfect, but it has made a real impact and challenged the age of materialism. The C of E has profound problems relating to the world as it is.

"If you look at the church do you see us addressing political issues? The answer is no. We've sold ourselves into respectability, and that has defined a lot of the character of the church. But the truth is that Christ was not respectable in any shape or form. We've been sucked in, and it's weakened us tremendously."

Mr Owen Jones can say these things because he is not a career vicar. Aged 44 and married with four children, he spent 12 years in advertising before he received his calling, and the real world informs his language and style. An engaging figure with a Plymouth Brethren air, he smokes roll-ups, talks about the "shit'' that has been poured on the church, and has his David Gray CDs lying around the garden shed that he has turned into an office.

He joined the anti-Newbury by-pass campaigners and blessed the land, and was part of the church group that produced a poster of Jesus in the style of Che Guevara. Mr Owen Jones likes to head off to remote pubs, get rid of the dog collar, and write his books over a pint or two. His Small Boat Big Sea: One Year's Journey as a Parish Priest is a vivid, and very honest account of life as a vicar.

"Where it's all breaking down is that the leadership is not seen as resonant with public imagination. We're seen as ensnared by our own battles over dogma, that are of no interest to people outside. We need to face up to the world as it is, not as it ought to be, and stop making people feel bad about themselves.''

To some extent, Mr Owen Jones thinks, the church's clothes have been stolen by non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam and Medecins sans Frontières.

"I think the whole of secular culture has taken the Christian message and almost taken over the church. The NGO movement has demonstrated that there is a great passion for justice and for a more equitable and moral society. These are Christian issues, but they are doing it better than we are."

Owen Jones thinks the individual who ends up as the new Archbishop matters less than the job description.

"He must be prepared to go out to people, not expect them to come to him, and be able to communicate why the love of God is real for him, and I don't necessarily think that has very much to do with church. He just needs to show why he's caught up in this.''