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Anglicans Online last updated 21 August 2016

IS HE THE WORST ARCHBISHOP WE'VE EVER HAD?
From The Daily Mail (London), 9 September 1999

by Andrew Brown

LIKE all the best clowns, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, makes you want to weep - just as soon as you have finished laughing at his pratfalls. Yesterday morning, interviewed on the Radio 4 Today programme by John Humphrys, he gave a performance of such startling incompetence that people were asking whether he was the worst Archbishop of Canterbury since the Puritan Archbishop Abbot shot dead a gamekeeper in 1621.

He had come on to plug a booklet he has written for the millennium called Jesus 2000 or, for unbelievers, 'J2K', There was to have been a launch party at Lambeth Palace the previous night, but this was cancelled because a wasp had stung him on the foot and he had to go to hospital. The Archbishop solemnly assured his radio audience that he was speaking to them without shoes or socks - but barefoot preachers are meant to be wild prophetic figures, not bumbling equivocators.

Impression

The poor Archbishop was simply unable to give a straight answer to a simple question. Should pregnant teenagers have access to the morning after pill? "You went to draw me into something," he said, as if he had just spotted something about John Humphrys that no one else had ever noticed before.

"I am not going to get into that, John", he announced. Clearly he has been on media courses where they teach you to use the interviewer's name to give an impression of intimacy. But all the media courses in the world would be unable to teach this Archbishop to think with his mouth open. "I am not going to come in with a judgment and say 'this is the answer'", he explained, apparently auditioning for the part of J. C. Flannel, the comic vicar in Private Eye.

What made the performance even worse - and funnier - was that he did in fact have a judgment ready, which was slowly and painfully winkled out of him. He thought that pregnant teenagers should indeed have access to the morning-after pill, but - in case that was too exciting - he also thought that the real answer to the problem was for them not to get pregnant in the first place, and that if they did, they should be able to talk to their parents about it all. So he's 100pc in favour of apple pie and 50pc in favour of motherhood.

Archbishop Carey was not always this tongue-tied: he might never have bad much to say, but he would once say it with great vigour and clarity, which got him into terrible trouble. The Church of England, he said, when he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. was 'like a toothless old woman muttering in a corner ignored by everyone', Opponents of women priests were in some cases 'guilty of a grave heresy'. These remarks caused such huge rows that he has schooled himself over the years to be as dull and pompous as possible when confronted with journalists; most of the time his success is awe-inspiring.

Dr Carey's tragedy, and the roots of his stature as a comic figure, can be found in his own early description of his role as 'vicar to the nation'. For a vicar is a comically ineffectual figure in the English imagination; someone like Derek Nimmo. His role is to supply well-meaning waffle and be ignored. In real life, vicars need not be like that at all. Dr Carey was an outstandingly good one once. He did not waffle. He was not ignored. A friend of mine, who was then a member of his congregation, described him as 'a very quiet leader, very much in control'.

Ludicrous

But of course in those days he was preaching to the converted. He was followed by a congregation to whom 'the vicar' was not a figure of fun but a Leader doing God's work. None of them ever laughed at him; this was the worst possible grounding for a future Archbishop because, since he was promoted in 1990, the laughter has hardly stopped.

It must have been very painful. As an Archbishop, you are invited to address all sorts of important people, from John Humphrys to Prince Charles, a tremendous thrill for a boy from a working-class background in Dagenham, and a consequently shattering disappointment when be discovered that none of them were interested in what he had to say.

So he has attempted to remodel the church as a modern, well-managed corporation, which everyone would have to respect, a process which reached a ludicrous milestone in 1995 when he told the United Nations that he headed an organisation 'which has very great potential as a player on the international scene'. He had to say this to the United Nations General Assembly since it is the only body that wouldn't laugh - It is even more powerless than the world wide Anglican Communion, which he heads.

Failure

Church attendance in England has fallen by a quarter after nine years of his 'decade of evangelism' and in the wider world half the bishops of the Anglican Communion now believe the other half are vile heretics. Yet there are signs that underneath the marketing speak he knows very well how weak his position has become. An Archbishop, he told John Humphrys, is 'living proof that you cannot say to people "This is what you must do."' This is, when you think of it, an extraordinary admission of failure. Here is a man whose entire adult life has been spent preaching, but his message to the Today programme is that he has nothing to say because no one would take any notice if he said it. It would be tragic if Dr Carey really believed it, but in fact his residual self-belief converts the statement once more to comedy.

For no sooner has he announced that no one takes any notice of what he says, than he adds that these remarks are 'a friendly warning' to Tony Blair. Why should Blair take any notice? Well, because the 'vicar to the nation' tells him so. So is he the worst Archbishop ever? Not really. Some of his predecessors were just as inarticulate: few were as energetic and he does inspire real devotion in his staff. But he is without question the worst Archbishop imaginable for a media age. Unlike Archbishop Abbot, he would never shoot a gamekeeper, but it's easy to imagine him taking aim at a wasp and shooting his own foot instead, especially if he was being interviewed live at the time.

ANDREW BROWN is a Religious Affairs commentator.

Note: this article was originally published in the Daily Mail (London) on 9 September, 1999, using a typesetting style in which every sentence was a separate paragraph. The division above into paragraphs was done by Anglicans Online editorial staff in an attempt to reconstruct what was probably the author's original structure, or, if nothing else, to make it more readable on the web.

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