Press Column

The coverage of the succession to George Carey is qualitatively as well as quantitavely different from anything I can remember in previous years. As Jonathan Petre said in the Sunday Telegraph "the Church of England was called the Conservative party at prayer. Now it seems more like the Conservative party at war." The quantity is extraordinary too: on Saturday, the Guardian calculated that there had been 600 column inches on the subject in the quality press, and that was before the Times splashed with "Bishop Nazir-Ali smeared". "The Church of England has carried out a secret investigation into the background of the bishop widely tipped to become the next Archbishop of Canterbury, it emerged yesterday." "Yesterday" is a very curious term in this context. The Sunday Times had after all reported on December 2nd 2001 that "A senior Church of England figure has raised concerns that Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester and a leading contender to succeed George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury, may have misrepresented his date of birth. The bishop’s allies say that the attack is unjustified."

None the less, the fact that this was splashed on the front page was extraordinary, as was the anonymous denunciation of Dr Nazir-Ali as "a Paki papist". One way or another I have heard a lot of clergy denouncing each other over the last fifteen years. But I have never heard language quite like that. Obviously, there are racists in the Church of England. But it they are rarer, I think , than in the world outside, and I don’t think I have ever heard any Anglican use the epithet "Paki". "Papist" of course is reasonably common in some circles as a term of irony. But the kind of people who are genuinely worried about papal authority don’t use the term. So the quote remains a genuine mystery. Either way, that story was unimaginable in any previous campaign.

It also established Nazir-Ali firmly as the most prominent candidate, and let him say things like "One comes across racism in all sorts of places, and, in my experience, no particular place is exemplary. I just hope the Church rises above this kind of approach to what is the choice of a Christian leader." And it buried all the questions raised by an earlier Times front-page piece about how eager he had seemed for the job when interviewed on the Today show. His spin doctor, Chris Stone, who did not return three of my calls on three separate days last week, had a letter in the following day’s paper saying that they had not agreed to talk about the succession, which only made matters worse. If he didn’t think the Bishop would be asked, he has no business in his job. So if anyone else can explain quite why or how the Bishop felt able to describe as "pure fantasy" the claim that he thought couples were self-indulgent to get married without wanting children, I would love to hear from them.

The beneficial effect that Nazir-Ali’s colour has on his candidacy came out most clearly in the Financial Times, whose columnist Michael Prowse wrote on Saturday that "I am a member of the Anglican church and I live in Nazir-Ali’s diocese in Kent. But this has nothing to do with my feeling that he ought to get the job. What impresses me is the rich symbolism of having a non-white face in Canterbury … The other candidates for the post — such as Williams, Chartres, and Herbert — are all impressive in different ways. One of them might even be preferable on purely theological grounds. But the differences are not great enough to outweigh the social advantages of a minority appointment. The opportunity is a perfect one for Blair because he can elevate a non-white face without any risk of being accused of the kind of dodgy affirmative action that so often provokes criticism in the US.

"Nazir-Ali is not in any sense the theological equivalent of Clarence Thomas the poorly qualified black judge whom George Bush senior fought to hard to get on the Supreme Court. As an articulate intellectual with wide experience, he could contribute usefully to debates about growing income inequality, globalisation, and third world development."

One surprising thing about the coverage was the degree to which it was informed by something more than the usual love of mischief. The Times had a very friendly valediciton to the George Carey in its leader column: "It will be said by some that Dr Carey was an almost accidental incumbent, who, while a decent soul was not a charismatic figure. This understates his performance, and underestimates the extraordinary difficulties that he inherited. Church historians, writing years hence, will be far more sympathetic to him … the strategy adopted by the archbishop has been largely vindicated by events." There was even that passage traditional in leaders about departing Archbishops: "The seemingly relentless fall in the numbers attending church in England has begun to be arrested." But it concluded with an unmistakable note of affection: "One of the Archbishop’s august predecessors expressed the modest hope that he had left the Church of England in a better condition than he had found it. Dr Carey should enjoy his retirement knowing that he has certainly met that challenge."

The only kinder assessment of the Archbishop’s time came from Michael Brown in the Yorkshire Post — "Carey could be be bold, even audacious. He has worked exceedingly hard at encouraging greater confidence within the Church of England , taking every opportunity to make it more mission-minded in its engagement with contemporary culture … he rose from a council estate in Essex to become the post powerful religious leader in Britain. He knew that not everyone could be Archbishop of Canterbury but he was convinced that everyone is capable of being freed from the banality of secularism by embracing what to him is the excitement of Christianity."

Madeleine Bunting, who of all the religious affairs correspondents thought most of Dr Carey and produced the most imaginative and sympathetic profile of him, years ago, had some vivid phrases in the Guardian "We may no longer burn archbishops at the stake … but we do the modern-day equivalent, a slow, public roasting in the media, subjecting them to alternate vilification and indifference. No matter what he does, no Archbishop of Canterbury will ever get it right, and the result is the unedifying spectacle of a hurt, humiliated man besieged in his episcopal palaces, finding solace among spiritual intimates and in forays into the Anglican Communion where ecstatic African crowds are balm to a wounded ego."

Her answer was disestablishment. "What is likely is that within a generation, the priesthood will be largely female, mostly unpaid and part-time, and playing a role somewhere between therapist and community activist … and the Church, freed from its part in propping up a tottering constitution, can define its own future — where God is not at the service of the state, but of the people." It’s hard to believe, though, that anyone actually a member of the Church of England would regard this future as a glorified mothers’ union as a huge improvement on the present arrangements.

Her successor, Steve Bates, had the clearest guide to the election (which it isn’t) campaign (which has no campaigners) in any of the daily papers. They had actually asked the four leading candidates key questions, and these produced for once some revealing answers. I liked Michael Nazir-Ali on Ecumenism: "any union must be on the basis of clear principle, of scripture, sacraments, creeds, and the ministry." Could this be the same bishop who told Jonathan Petre three days later, after it was discovered that he had himself spent five years as a Roman Catholic, that "[Catholic and Anglican] are labels, and they don’t really mean anything"?

I owe Chris Morgan an apology. He had the resignation story last Sunday and I missed this. Here’s the apology. I’m sorry. I really am. And he had a very closely argued piece of analysis the following Sunday about the make-up of the Crown Appointments Commission. "The succession is said to have been a key reason why Carey chose the moment to stand down. He is pleased with the make-up of the Crown-Appointments Commission. His confidante, Viscountess Brentford, is a member, but her current term runs out at the end of the summer. Carey recently propelled Brentford into the third most senior position in the Church Commissioners, who manage the church’s assets and episcopal palaces. He even evicted his gardener to give her a grace-ad-favour cottage at Lambeth Palace. She shares his evangelical opinions; they arrive together tat commission meetings. With Brentford in situ and two other evangelicals — Professor Anthony Thiselton and Archdeacon Judith Rose — on the commission, Carey is quietly confident that it will choose a like-minded successor."

How differently they organise things abroad. Both the Telegraph and the Guardian carried long obituaries of the Rev’s W.A. Crisswell, a Southern Baptist in Dallas, Texas. Crisswell made his fame and fortune by telling lies at the top of his voice, or, as the Telegraph put it. "From his pulpit in Dallas, the white-haired, white-suited Crisswell fulminated against Darwinists, humanists, liberals, Democrats, and anyone who seemed to him to question the historical truth of the Bible. He laughed, he wept. He became enraged one moment and gentle the next, alternating his voice fro a whisper to a bellow as as the spirit moved him: ‘ON a clear day’, he would say. ‘you can hear me five miles away.’

"He fought vigorously to keep [the Catholic] John F. Kennedy out of the White House, predicting that his election would lead to ‘the death of a free church and a free state’."

He died full of age and honours, leaving a congregation that had grown from 6,000 to 28,000 — occasionally including President George Bush I — and which had an annual income of $12m from donations. This was a hugely successful career, and it seems to me to be a profound testament to Dr Carey’s virtues that he never showed any signs of emulating it.

In the Daily Mail, Victoria Moore, the New Statesman’s drinks correspondent, recounted her experiences of an Alpha course. She went the whole hog, including the Holy Spirit weekend, and she wrote more about the social changes than the arguments. There is one moment when something almost happens, listening to Nicky Gumbel’s introductory tape, "I’m thinking that it’s a laboured story, pretty patronising too. And them something happens. When he says ‘and the disciples looked at Jesus and they said ‘You’re the Christ, the son of the Living Lord’,’ I go cold and the hairs stand up on the backs of my arms. For a few moments. I think that God might be in the roomm. My cuynicism makes a hasty recovery but it was an intriguing moment.

"Alpha disturbed me and challenged me to think about religion in a way I haven’t done before. But it failed to make me a believer. In fact I am more of a cynic than ever before."

The Independent gave very nice coverage to the most pleasing story of the week: Monica Jones’ will, which left a million pounds, derived from Philip Larkin’s royalties, to two cathedrals and Hexham Abbey. Patching the fabric of cathedrals is not quite the same as patching "the vast motheaten musical brocade" that he understood religion to be; but it’s still lovely to think of the money generated by one form of beauty being used to guard another.

Finally, from the Portland Mercury via the Guardian comes a report of the skate church, "a maze of ladders and walkways, which snake up the wall and across the room to the main attraction — a large bowl occupying half the room and a half-pipe. "Skateboarding is more like art than sport" the pastor explains, "It’s so individual. And religion and art are both so individual. It used to be that art was religion. — think back to the reformation, or the Sistine Chapel. I’m trying to turn the church back towards the creative side, which we’ve gotten away from."

So he preaches that "Dude, the punishment that Jesus suffered was totally gnarly." Archbishops, too; and the campaign has only just begun.

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