Leading Article: Dr Carey's faith in society

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IT HAS been a long time since the Church of England was called the Tory party at prayer. After last night's Barnett Lecture by Dr George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, it will be hard for the church's detractors to continue to claim that it has become little more than the misnamed 'liberal' establishment at prayer.

The Archbishop picked an apposite time to deliver himself of his most considered reflections to date on the good society, and on the economic and political realities within which the established church must operate. The economy is in serious trouble and, more generally, the social values and priorities of the past decade are being widely questioned. There is no popular confidence that the Government knows what to do next, far less where it wishes to lead the nation. The Conservative conference opens today troubled in mind and spirit.

Largely as a result of the crisis, the new Labour leadership had a relatively relaxed ride at Blackpool last week. Yet Labour is a party that during the Eighties rendered itself unelectable. Reluctantly, it has recognised that the market has an important role to play, but, overall, the party has yet to persuade enough voters that it has a more morally attractive or intellectually coherent set of policies and values than the Conservatives.

The Archbishop last addressed himself to the problem of wealth creation five months ago, during what was billed as a service of thanksgiving for the achievements of industry. At that time he displayed a sad lack of understanding of the role of profit at home and of economic growth in the developing world. He appeared to believe that industry was a zero-sum game in which success for some necessarily meant the impoverishment and exploitation of others. Yesterday, in contrast, he stressed that wealth had to be created before it could be distributed, and called on Christians not to have inhibitions about 'striving for excellence through strenuous competition, so long as the winners do not behave improperly or trample on the losers'. He commented that poor nations are not noted for their generosity to the poorest members of their societies. He warned that the church would become progressively marginalised if it indulged in repeated 'nave appeals to self-sacrifice'.

These remarks constituted a necessary prelude to the Archbishop's condemnation of 'the unbridled individualism of the Eighties' and his warning of the subversion of society that can result 'when morality itself becomes privatised'. His argument was that a collapse of confidence in absolute moral standards - 'morality . . . reduced to a matter of individual opinion' - undermined social cohesion. 'That ultimately leads to the death of society.'

Dr Carey was here speaking with uncharacteristic firmness and subtlety to zealots in both parties. To the new breed of Conservative he was saying, quoting the radical Archbishop Temple, 'man is naturally and incurably social'. To the left he was saying that utopianism and egalitarianism were no substitute for effort and enterprise, and that cultural relativism was no substitute for shared moral standards. In doing so, he appeared to be restating the position of the church after a long, sterile period of conflict with the Government of the day. It is a welcome shift.