In some ways George Carey’s time as Archbishop of Canterbury was a return to a lost age of innocence in light entertainment. The stereotype of the comic vicar had almost vanished from the television screen when he took office in 1990. Yet from the moment of his first reception for the press in Lambeth Palace, when the new Archbishop greeted me with the words "As I was saying to Jeremy Paxman" it was clear that here was a man who could bring new life to the idea of the vicar as a comic character. Like all the most successful comics, he got his effects by appearing absolutely serious. He had huge energy, optimism, an unflagging capacity for work, great faith in his own abilities, and no sense whatever of the absurd.
These qualities enabled him to conceive and push through a series of reforms of the Church of England’s central bureaucracy which turned it into something very like an organisation. This was a remarkable achievement. It was really not his fault that there were fewer and fewer people left to be organised. He took office at the start of a period proclaimed as a "decade of evangelism" and seems really to have believed that it would see the Church growing after nearly four decades of increasing decline and liberalism. By the end of the decade, the Church had lost about twenty per cent of its Sunday attendance. On the other hand, it had gained a corporate logo used by every single diocese on its letterhead, and a Communications department to issue press releases every time the membership figures come out, and to suppress them altogether if the drop they show is too disastrous.
Probably no other Archbishop could have done better. Whatever the causes of the decline of Christianity in England, they go deeper than anything which can be addressed by replacing the old-fashioned Policy Sub-Committee of the Standing Committee of the General Synod a new committee called the Archbishops’ Council. But almost any other Archbishop in Carey’s position would have regarded himself as less of a World Spiritual Leader. And it’s hard to believe that any other archbishop would have gone to the UN General Assembly, as Carey did in 1995, and told them that: "The World-wide Anglican Communion has very great potential as a player on the international scene."
The Anglican Communion, a loose global federation of churches, funded by bitterly feuding Americans, more or less self-destructed three years later after a particularly zealous African bishop attempted to exorcise the secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian movement on live television. Carey himself has four children, three of whom have divorced and remarried, and he is firmly convinced of the immorality of homosexual behaviour.
But, like the traditional comic vicar, he was sincere, and greatly liked by a lot of the people who had to deal with him. In small groups, he could be decisive and persuasive. Women — even hardened journalists — liked him. It may be an odd quality to praise in an Archbishop, but even his worst enemies thought him a sincere Christian, who really did try to do as he felt Jesus would have wanted to do. Both sides of his personality were nicely illustrated recently when a journalist he knew got herself pregnant after an affair which broke up her marriage. She was delighted to be pregnant but too embarrassed to explain her circumstances to the Archbishop, so when the child was born, he had flowers sent to the husband’s home. Yet once the story was explained to him, he sent another, bigger bunch to her real house. Even a sitcom writer would shrink from such a plotline, but Carey knew exactly what to do.
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