George Austin thinks there are signs that the C of E is in for a New Deal

IN HIS CHRISTMAS GMTV interview, Archbishop George Carey made the confident assertion that Prince Charles had not given up on the Church of England, that he was still firm in his commitment and loyal in his faith. It was a resolute and solid contradiction of a statement of his predecessor, which was widely advertised on the publication of the Carpenter biography of Robert Runcie. More than that, Runcie gossiped freely about what ought to have been regarded as confidential pastoral conversations with members of the Royal family, and even admitted being indiscreet at a party of Jeffrey Archer’s.

That is probably as indiscreet as anyone could get, and a young curate could expect a severe reprimand for a fraction of such behaviour, for confidence in one’s pastor demands a confidentiality as strict as the seal of the confessional. By contrast, Carey made it clear – perhaps a little obliquely but just as determinedly – that he was not prepared to reveal such private matters.

Had he said no more, it could have been taken as a quiet rebuke and an attempt to restore the confidence which had been lost, for if members of the Royal family cannot feel secure in intimate, private discussions with the Archbishop of Canterbury, then whom can they trust?

But it was not the only change of direction and it does suggest that Carey may have made a deliberate decision to move away from Runcie-ism. Where Runcie showed considerable sympathy for the arguments of the gay liberators (indeed in St Albans, prominent homosexual sympathisers were notable among his close advisers), Carey stood firm on the traditional, scriptural position. Recently Carey has had to endure his predecessor beginning to act like Archbishop Fisher in retirement, making strong public affirmations (surely deliberately) on the issue of gay rights, not only in the biography but in cahoots with retired Archbishop Tutu.

In the GMTV interview, it was notable too that Dr Carey made a firm commitment to the existence of moral absolutes and to the rejection of the moral relativism of the Seventies and Eighties which has done such grave damage, not only to the Church of England but to the very fabric of society. In a scathing editorial, its first of 1997, a quality Sunday broadsheet described the “Church’s ready resort to the bankrupt and threadbare ideology of that era (as) a sign of its almost complete loss of faith and sense of direction.” “The Church of England,” it suggested, “is now founded not so much upon a rock but upon an imaginary popularity poll among Guardian readers. It is a recipe for spiritual and institutional extinction.’

The leader-writer is unfair to the Church of England as a whole, for its grass-roots members are equally frustrated with what it has become – or rather with what it became in the Runcie era. Robert Runcie is no fool, and he is no novice in media affairs. There can be little doubt that the revelations to his biographer were quite deliberate, even if he came to see – too late maybe – that the result in cold print simply condemned him out of his own mouth. In the process, he quite inadvertently confirmed that the cause of (and blame for) the Church’s malady, so well described by the leader-writer, lay precisely at the door of Runcie-ism.

But the Church is moving from that darkness, and what was described in the leading article was yesterday’s Church as led by yesterday’s men. The very fact of Carey’s appointment was a sign in itself. On the day that King Uzziah, died – or rather, on the day that George Carey was announced as the next Archbishop of Canterbury, I was interviewed for BBC’s Newsnight. Off air, the comment was made to me that “all the other bishops seem delighted”. “But did you notice the clenched teeth,” I asked. Here was an outsider, hardly mentioned as a possibility, taking the top job, and there were not a few disappointed (and perhaps very puzzled) men on that day.

It was not until the next day, when I spoke to Fr. Derek Gibbs, that he put me right about the real significance. It was not simply that a few ambitious bishops had been thwarted: Carey had leapt over and therefore left behind those whom his predecessor had groomed for the job. Of course, thanks to the Carpenter biography, we know now what charity then made us hesitate to believe, that Runcie really had indulged in what he himself now proudly and unashamedly describes as “cronyism”, filling the bench – so far as he was able – only with those who were the right sort of chaps. The right school, the decent regiment, Oxbridge, but above all “finished” at what were once described as “country clubs for ecclesiastically-minded young gentlemen” – Westcott or Cuddesdon.

It was this which did to the Church of England what the architects of the Sixties and Seventies did to our cities, and produced, with one or two notable exceptions, perhaps the weakest bench of bishops this century. After Garry Bennett had made the private concerns public property (and paid for it with his life), one or two men were able to creep in who were “not quite our sort, if you know what I mean”, and Carey was one of them.

It could not have been an easy transition for the boy who left school at fifteen, and who made his way over every obstacle to fulfil a vocation to be a priest. Runcie describes how ordination training was for him the easy option: “what am I going to do? Can’t make up my mind. Well, it’s the easiest thing to do. I can always get out of it.” A jolly jape is far from the concept of a sacrificial calling, but there you are. And it would be just simply inconceivable to imagine Carey speaking of his early inculcation into Evangelicalism in the way that Runcie described his introduction by J S Bezzant to modernism as a sixth-form student, how his mentor would “tell ecclesiastical stories, and show how the modernist case was common currency where people think. He showed me that you could be unbelieving, incredulous and still a good Anglo-Catholic”. Well, not the kind of anglo-catholicism that most of us have embraced, nor comparable to the evangelicalism of a Dr Carey.

I am always the optimist and I love the Church of England with sufficient passion to convince myself that when the Lord promised that even the gates of hell would not prevail against the church, our own eccentric, lovable, obtuse, infuriating branch of it was not excluded. As the seeds of theological and moral decay now come to fruition in a sickly harvest, it would be easy to overlook the oases of real growth and the signs of true hope for the future. It is not a misuse of faith to believe that even a minor interview on an early-morning TV station (not to mention the publication of a devastatingly revealing biography) are steps in the restoration of the Church towards what God intends it to be and in the direction in which God intends it to be driven. Perhaps hindsight will show George Carey’s Christmas contribution on GMTV to be a vital move in the game.


“It’s a terrible reflection of the state of public life today that someone like Austin should become a household name.”

Archbishop Robert Runcie

George Austin is Archdeacon of York.