Could he be the auntie-pope?

Andrew Brown reviews the Archbishop of Canterbury's five turbulent years in office

Andrew Brown
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:30

Tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of the confirmation of the election of Dr George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury. This is an almost meaningless formality which comes between the moment when the new Archbishop is actually chosen by the Prime Minister and his ceremonial enthronement weeks later. Still, Dr Carey thought it significant enough to use as a peg for a sermon this weekend; a proper regard for the dignities of this office is one of his most notable characteristics.

The first five years of his primacy have been extraordinarily challenging. The ordination of women has led to the loss of about 300 priests to Rome, and the emergence of Forward in Faith, a well-organised and vigorously led inner opposition which hopes to lead perhaps three times as many over eventually, after the Church of England has broken up - a development its leaders think inevitable. The Church Commissioners had lost most of the pounds 800m they blew on property speculation before he became primate, but the scandal emerged in his primacy and the consequences remain for him to deal with.

Dr Carey has introduced a newly aggressive and confident note into the discussion of church numbers, but the fact remains that an optimist in this context is one who is certain the long decline has finally bottomed out. The "decade of evangelism", launched with great excitement the year he took office, has fizzled out amid the grotesque embarrassments of the Nine O'Clock Service cult in Sheffield. The remainder of his term in office - and he could go on for another 10 years - holds the prospect of formal disestablishment, which will, humiliatingly, come as part of a wider constitutional reform and all the fun of the royal divorce and remarriage.

Most of these matters are outside the control of any archbishop. But Dr Carey has brought his own style to all of them. From the moment five years ago, even before the formal confirmation of his election, when he said that some opponents of women priests "were guilty of a very grave heresy", until his pronouncement that the Dunblane massacre showed the importance of absolute standards of right and wrong, he has been easy to characterise as loud, confident and wrong.

This made a welcome change from the previous stereotype of the Church of England as a body quiet, diffident and wrong. But it has not helped him to be taken seriously except by committed followers. He told the United Nations he was a world spiritual leader, but this is not quite the same as being accepted as one. He has rushed around the world to Armenia, Bosnia, China and Sudan, quite undeterred by any local absence of Anglicans: the effect is not sinister, like an anti-pope, but slightly grotesque, like an auntie pope.

Providentially, Dr Carey has the energy to make millions of mistakes and recover. He writes his own speeches, works very long hours and still keeps time for a programme of earnest reading. He is an effective driver of committees, and adept and determined at getting things done.

Perhaps the secret both of his success and of his limitations is found in a phrase used in the preface to the report of the Turnbull Commission, which is his blueprint for reforming the central structures of the Church of England. There he is called the "vicar to the nation", a title that seems to have been invented for the occasion. It fits. His model of authority is that of the admired vicar of a growing congregation, as he once was in Durham. He still treats the wider church as if it were his congregation. His sermons and lectures are meant to provide a programme of teaching. He expects quite normal people to accord him authority, because he is Archbishop.

This may provoke patronising shudders among Catholics and secular intellectuals. It may also be just what is needed, as he leads the Church into still more difficult times. For if disestablishment comes, he has been there already. Dr Carey is the first Archbishop of Canterbury for centuries who not only was born outside the Establishment (on a council estate in Barking) but has never really been inside it. He has a deep understanding of the qualities that churches need to succeed in a hostile marketplace. If these turn out to be inimical to, or even incompatible with, the qualities that once made the Church of England loved, well, that is not his problem, or his fault.

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