DR GEORGE CAREY may not get a good press, but no one can deny that he gets an extensive one. Not long after a sequence of ‘in depth articles’ marking his first five years as Primate, the quality Sundays gave him major coverage in preparation for his speech on morality in the House of Lords. Of the size and solemnity of obituaries, these pieces went over familiar ground. The press, it seems, cannot decide whether it loves or loathes the Archbishop; but it is fairly unanimous about he fact that he is ‘not up to the job’. And when, as with Andrew Brown in The Independent recently, it is short of anything new or interesting to say, it prints one of those damaging pictures of him in full archiepiscopal fig, which are, after all, worth acres of knocking copy.
If it has become proverbial that ‘George is not up to the job’ it is perhaps worth asking whether that fact has anything at all to do with what he, and the Press, suppose the job to be. The Turnbull Report (7.9-10) provides a useful thumbnail sketch of what the job is and (presumably) how he views it:
‘The Archbishop of Canterbury is Primate of All England and Metropolitan of the Province of Canterbury. He is the highest ranking national figure after senior members of the Royal Family. He crowns the monarch, has a special relationship with the Royal Family, and is a member of he House of Lords. He is regarded as “a vicar to the nation”, articulating spiritual and moral guidance to the nation as a whole…He is also spiritual leader of the 70 million strong Anglican Communion worldwide…He is one of he world’s prominent religious leaders with a special influence on relationships between Anglican and other Christian denominations and faiths around the world.’
This curious mixture of the grandiose, the homely and the improbable surely presents any Archbishop with an impossible task.
The Archbishop’s ceremonial role and his place in the table of precedence isolates him from, rather than relates him to, our national life and the lively functions of government. Like the Earl Marshall or the Garter King of Arms he is merely the remnant of a Constitution which, in all but its decorative aspects, was abandoned in the eighteenth century. The majority of Englishmen (even the majority of English Christians) does not belong to the Church he represents. That Church is no longer (by any meaningful criteria of membership) the largest religious body in the nation. Like the ‘special relationship’ of Britain with the United States, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ‘special relationship’ with the royal family politely articulates a liaison which is at once tenuous and dependent.
The cosy image of the Archbishop as a ‘vicar to the nation’ presents even more problems. It makes assumptions about the role of ‘vicar’ as friend, mentor and guide which owe more to nostalgia than to present reality. The current status of the ‘vicar’ is all too apparent from the portrayal of clergy of the Church of England on television and in the advertising media. A ‘vicar’ is someone who drives a car which is easily overtaken by a twelve year old on a bicycle. A ‘vicar’ is easily duped, looks puzzled but benevolent when faced with life’s trials and crises, and is a constant fund of tired platitudes. If female and played by Dawn French she is sexually naive, hopelessly addicted to chocolate and surrounded by a Parochial Church Council made up entirely of bigots and congenital idiots.
With reference to the Archbishop’s role in the Anglican Communion world-wide, the phrase ‘spiritual leader’ is surely something of a euphemism. To describe the Pope or the Dalai Lama as a ‘spiritual leader’ is to define the nature of the leadership which they exercise. Each is the undisputed head of a powerful religious community. Such is not the case with regard to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican family of churches. The Archbishop is the ‘constitutional monarch’ of a loose association without a constitution. ‘Spiritual’ in that context means something dangerously close to ‘titular’ or ‘nominal’. ‘Lambeth Palace handles pleas for intervention on behalf of vulnerable groups and individuals in every continent’, says the Turnbull Report proudly. But such appeals, one suspects, owe as much to a genuine misunderstanding on the part of the applicants of the Archbishop’s role in the British Constitution and his relationship to Her Majesty’s government, as they do to his supposed status as ‘one of the world’s prominent religious leaders’.
In truth, Dr Carey is perceived as ‘not up to the job’ largely because both he and the press are in legitimate confusion as to what the job is. Nothing could make this dilemma more evident than his recently projected ‘national debate on morality’. The Lambeth Palace Press Office secured this ‘initiative’ excellent coverage before the event. The verbatim text of the Archbishop’s speech in the Lords was dutifully carried by The Church Times. But it was a lack-lustre speech which predictably added no new insights and relied for a good deal of its analysis on a recent book by the Chief Rabbi. It raised basic questions which will not go away: for whom was the Archbishop speaking, and to whom was he speaking?
It is the failure of Dr Carey to answer those questions to his own or anyone else’s satisfaction which bedevils his every statement. Does he function merely as a witness (to use his own words) to ‘what virtually everybody actually believes’, or is he the mouth piece of a distinctively Christian and, indeed, Anglican morality? And if the latter, what does that morality add up to? What practical moral guidance does he hope will flow from the daily religious assemblies in secular schools which he warmly commends?
It is hard to say, for on the crucial issues which divide our nation – on marriage, divorce, co-habitation and the family; on abortion and euthanasia; on homosexuality – the Church of England reflects the moral diversity of the society in which it is set. The Archbishop cannot speak for Anglicans because, as is tragically evident, there is no Magisterium or even consensus to speak for. ‘One of the world’s prominent religious leaders’ he may be; but on his own home territory, alas, he can speak neither to the nation on the Church’s authority nor to the Church on his own.