Simple preacher tries on a pontiff's robes

The globetrotting Archbishop of Canterbury is setting himself an unreachable goal, says Paul Vallely
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The Independent Online
The Archbishop of Canterbury is starting to look like an Anglican pope. This month it has been the United States and before that it was Singapore, Bosnia, Spain and Portugal, Egypt and Sudan. Since he took office George Carey has made more than 40 overseas trips, already overtaking the number undertaken by his predecessor Robert Runcie, who was the first at Canterbury to travel widely.

Traditionally, church historians are fond of saying that an archbishop of Canterbury has at least four jobs. He is a diocesan bishop, Primate of All-England, chaplain to the nation and the leader of the communion of churches throughout the world whose 70 million members trace their roots back to the church in England. It is in this last area that papal comparisons arise.

But the Pope in Rome is a different creature in many ways. He has juridical authority with, in the words of the First Vatican Council, "immediate universal jurisdiction". He is a head of state, with embassies around the world. He is the head of a government run by a huge bureaucracy with a billion Catholics, nominally at least, in its sway. Up his sleeve a pope always has the card of blind obedience, though most are too smart to play it. But when the Pope snaps his fingers a lot of people jump.

By contrast, an archbishop of Canterbury's official authority is limited to the diocese of Canterbury. He is able to manipulate some of the General Synod's decisions. And he does nothave legal powers in other Anglican provinces. Nor can he steamroller the Lambeth Conference which every 10 years brings together all the world's Anglican bishops.

"How many divisions has the Pope," Stalin famously sneered. Had he been asking the question of Canterbury he might have thought in terms of mere platoons.

"I am not an Anglican pope," Robert Runcie was fond of saying privately to those whom he felt had failed to understand the subtle nature his relationship to Anglicans around the world. For Anglicans authority is moral rather than juridical. Their archbishop is expected to maintain unity merely through "bonds of affection" and the sense that all Anglicans can trace their roots back to the first archbishop of Canterbury, Augustine, in 597. There is much talk about Canterbury as primus inter pares with analogies concerning the Queen and the Commonwealth.

He is thus, depending on what kind of Anglican you are, the next best thing to an Anglican pope or a far better thing - for there is no risk of a pontifical dictatorship imposing a homogeneous orthodoxy insensitive to the qualities of the local culture.

But the Anglican style of leadership, requiring nuance and artful persuasion is risky. For it cannot rely on the dignity of the office if there is a duff man at the top. The success or failure of the enterprise depends entirely on the skills of that single individual.

Hence the eyebrows that were being arched in the direction of Los Angeles, where Dr Carey has been visiting, this week. Especially after Lord Runcie's oblique attack on the style of his successor last week, which he described as "preachy" in style and "management church" in substance. Carey's Church of England plc has diminished still further the mystique and awe that the Roman papacy, for all its failings, is still able to command.

But the distinctions between Dr Runcie and Dr Carey go deeper. The two men are rather differently regarded by churchmen and women abroad. Dr Runcie's reputation was coloured by his battles with Margaret Thatcher's government in the Eighties. Abroad, his political nous was given credit for the church being one of the few institutions that survived Thatcherism and continued to speak for England as the voice of fairness, justice and broad-minded decency.

"Runcie's' patrician approach commanded respect, especially as people knew of the substance behind it - that he had stood out against Margaret Thatcher," said one distinguished Indian cleric. By contrast, "Carey sounds like a commoner and has no comparable achievement behind him. He should play to his strength and spend his time at the grassroots with the common people. Instead, he follows the Runcie model of meeting with statesmen and politicians; his grand philosophical statements about the limits of fundamentalism and his political manoeuvrings don't somehow fit his persona very well."

This churchman spoke with affection, but not everyone does. "The whispering over the coffee cups is that Carey hasn't got the intellectual depth," said one critic. "Because he has no power he is left only with ponderous exhortation; he has a whingeing rather than a commanding style," said another. "It comes across as a curious mixture of arrogance with ignorance."

Critics offer many examples. They complain of Dr Carey failing to upbraid a senior Rwandan churchman for his role in endorsing massacres, of insensitive remarks in Russia hinting that falling church attendance was due to the fact that services lasted four hours, of his neglect in China of the underground churches that were emerging from the shadows after keeping the faith alive for decades.

His supporters counter that Dr Carey is better in some places than others. "George is more successful in the evangelical provinces like Africa where he is more at home spiritually," said one. "He's less at home with Western cultural issues; theologically he's insufficiently subtle, so he comes out portentous and pompous. He's a populist evangelical. He should stick to that instead of trying to be a statesman."

Those who have travelled with Dr Carey consider all this rather unfair. "People base their opinions on what th e press reports - and that is only the politics, which is a very small part of what these trips involve," said one. "Runcie was more diplomatic, " said another aide, who has travelled with both men. "Carey goes in pretty strongly - the interview with Begin when he was Israeli prime minister was tough-going - but he's shrewd. He knows what he wants to say and the points get home."

All George Carey can do in response is carry on as best he can. Perhaps he can also draw comfort from the fact that Robert Runcie was denounced as a ditherer and a fudger while in Lambeth Palace, yet is now spoken of as an accomplished church politician who in the end outlasted his rival in Downing Street. As many real popes could tell him, history can sometimes be kinder than one's contemporaries.