Keeping the faith - and no messing

PROFILE: The Archbishop of Canterbury; Dr George Carey is not the type to stand by while his church sanctions living in sin, says Andrew Brown
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It is a curious commentary on the state of the Church of England that the Archbishop of Canterbury should make front-page news by announcing that marriage is preferable to cohabitation. Yet Dr George Carey has just reaped his most sustained harvest of favourable publicity since he was chosen by Mrs Thatcher, by speaking up this week in defence of the conventional family at the General Synod.

It was not the first time Dr Carey has defended marriage: at the time of the David Mellor scandal he urged adulterous cabinet ministers to resign, on the grounds that anyone who systematically deceives his wife is not to be trusted in other areas of life. But this time his words had added dramatic effect, because he was rebuking his own church for producing a report advocating the abandonment of the use of the phrase "living in sin".

The problem the report was trying to tackle was that some evangelical priests have been refusing to marry couples who live together if they do not perform a public act of repentance, and even refusing to baptise their babies. But in criticising that puritanism, the report appeared to be saying that the Church of England should fully accept cohabitation.

It was all a matter of nuance, but Dr Carey saw the opportunity for firm leadership and grabbed it with both hands: the public beating he administered to the report was quite unprecedented, and left the Bishop responsible hoarse with pain and anger in his response.

Dr Carey himself has been married since the age of 24; he once told an interviewer that it was "unimaginable" that he should ever be unfaithful to his wife Eileen. This sort of loud self-confidence comes naturally to him. It is one of the qualities that makes him attractive to the evangelicals who lobbied hard for him as successor to Robert Runcie in 1990. Carey's appointment came as a big surprise: he had only been a diocesan bishop for two and a half years, and was a generation younger than most of the men tipped for the succession.

His self-confidence immediately dropped him into a succession of diplomatic disasters: he said some opponents of women priests were guilty of "a very grave heresy"; his first visit to the Sudan led to the expulsion of the British ambassador there; on a trip to China he condemned bible-smuggling, which is a traditional Christian response to totalitarianism.

But nothing dents his brash approach for long. Last week he announced that he was to visit Sarajevo, to express his solidarity with the people there. Never mind the fact that there aren't any Anglicans in Sarajevo, Dr Carey sees himself as a world spiritual leader, as he told the United Nations in September; and though half the Church of England winces with embarrassment at such pushiness, the other half loves every minute.

As Archbishop, he carries on exactly like the go-getting vicar he was when he first impressed a powerful evangelical clique in Durham in the Seventies. Indeed, a recent church report described his office as "vicar to the nation" as well as "world spiritual leader". It is both a grandiose and a shrunken visionthat may turn out to fit a floundering and shrunken church. But it is all of a piece with the church through which he rose.

He was born in London's East End in 1935, the second of five children; his family, he says, were what the Bible would call God-fearers. "They took their membership of the Church of England quite seriously, even if they didn't actually go," he told the author Mary Loudon, with characteristically optimistic spin.

When he was four, his family moved to Dagenham in Essex, but he still refers to himself as an East Ender, and his appreciation of old-fashioned working class communities and their values shines through all his comments on society. He failed his eleven plus and left school at 15 with no qualifications.

At the age of 18 he became a committed Christian in an old-fashioned evangelical church, where the worship was straight from the prayer book, the congregation was full of earnest high-mindedness, and the vicar was known by a silly nickname (Pit-Pat). He now dislikes the label of evangelical, but his entire career in the Church of England has been within evangelical parishes or theological colleges; and his supporters are almost without exception evangelicals themselves.

The term "evangelical" has little doctrinal meaning left. It is more a matter of style. When an archbishop says, as this one did yesterday, that life as an Anglican ought to be "tremendously exciting, tremendously important, and tremendously full of surprises", you might expect a wave of embarrassment to run around the old-fashioned Church of England like a Mexican cringe. But gentlemanly self-deprecation is old-fashioned now. The strength of evangelicals is now their confidence with power and modernity: their churches have the newest computer systems. They don't expect to be in decline, even when they are: they believe that the right combination of technique and prayer will put the church back on the road to growth.

What they don't believe in is soft-headed accommodation to modern secular trends, however close to home those may be. Two of Dr Carey's own four children have been through divorces and one is remarried. None has cohabited though. And the whole family has stayed churchy: one son is a curate; one works on the Church of England Newspaper, and one is a steward at the Archbishop's palace in Canterbury.

Dr Carey's confidence in the face of modern society's muddled values speaks to his battered church. Its membership is still declining; but an optimist can point to the 200 churches planted in the past six years. Nearly 300 priests have left over the ordination of women; but an optimist points out that this number is far fewer than threatened to leave.

For decades the Church of England has been attacked for equivocation, over-subtlety, and unnecessary intellectual refinement. Carey is bereft of these faults, and their concomitant virtues. He knows what he wants for the church and for the nation: "We have to get back to the kind of basic standards which come from a strong Christian tradition and strong churches which are making their contribution to the life of our nation." Here is the certain trumpet. Will anyone be listening?