Former archbishop has affinity for ‘working-class people’, common man

Published 4:10 pm Tuesday, September 16, 2008

He has traveled a long journey in a truly eventful life: from humble beginnings on a council estate in the East End of London to the head of the Church of England worldwide.

The 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury, the Right Reverend and Honourable George Leonard Carey, Lord of Clifton, sat down with The Greenville Advocate on Monday to share highlights of his journey of faith. Lord and Lady Carey were in town to help Saint Thomas Episcopal Church celebrate 150 years of service in the community.

Lord Carey, who served as Archbishop from 1991 – 2002, seemed an unlikely choice to many when he was chosen for the position. The son of working class parents, the product of state schools and London universities, he was not typical upper-class candidate for the Church’s top position.

Lord Carey sees his “common man status” as a benefit, not a liability.

“I do believe if you come from my kind of background, you are better able to relate to all kinds of cultures. I have a natural affinity with working-class people,” Lord Carey said.

“Being in the armed forces, having a regular job, living on a council estate – all these things helped me.”

Lord Carey, who says he has never been a class-conscious person, also thinks Britain’s own identity as a class-conscious society is dying out.

“Great Britain is becoming a more meritocratic society. It’s not so much about what title you have, how much money you inherited anymore; it’s what you have achieved in your own life,” he said.

“In that way, we are becoming more American, and that is a good thing.”

The former Archbishop, who admits going through a time of “spiritual darkness” in the early 1970s, believes doubt along the way of an individual’s journey of faith is not necessarily a bad thing.

“People who say they never have doubts, I rather worry about them. In the Anglican Church, we have never said baptism is a once-and-for-all thing; conversion is just the beginning of the Christian experience. It keeps going on,” Lord Carey said.

“You must confront doubts by constantly reading and praying – or you will dry up. When people say, ‘Well, I am not sure I can believe in God in such a world,’ I say, ‘Do some thinking; come back to a church, to a vigorous one like Saint Thomas. Do some reading. You will find your faith rekindled.’”

Dealing with the notorious tabloid press in England was something that truly tested the former Archbishop and his family.

“Our tabloid press tends to welcome you warmly, put you on a pedestal – then try to tug you off of it as quickly as possible,” Lord Carey said with a wry smile.

When the Archbishop advocated the ordination of women into the Anglican priesthood, newspapers who were anti-women’s ordination and pro-Catholic became his “bete noir.”

“They tried to damage us, but they didn’t succeed (the ordination of women was accomplished during his term). At times, I was treated as the blue-eyed boy; at other times, an ogre,” Lord Carey said.

“Funnily enough, now that I am retired, I am looked at as a statesman. The truth is, anyone who is going to become a prominent leader has to develop a thick skin, and quickly,” Lord Carey said.

“If you don’t, you are destroyed. Look at what happened to (former Prime Minister) John Majors – he could not take the criticism. I can tell you Prince Charles makes a point of not reading the newspapers.”

As the head of England’s official church, Lord Carey met frequently with both Prince Charles and his mother, Queen Elizabeth. He also presided over the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother.

When the Queen Mother, who lived to be 102, told him he was her eighth Archbishop, Lord Carey was quite taken aback. “She went back to the late 19th century, think of it – and her memory was amazing,” he recalled.

He describes Queen Elizabeth as “delightful” and said he often would “pick her brain” before traveling to visit with foreign leaders.

“She knew them all well and some of the stories she told were quite scarlet; we always compared notes when I returned,” Lord Carey said.

Criticized by the press for discussing his relationship with the royals in his memoirs, Lord Carey emphasized any confidentialities they shared with him never went any further.

“I kept the faith; I only talked about the relationship itself,” he said.

In his role as leader of the Anglican Church worldwide, Lord Carey said he was most touched in his travels by the people of the Sudan.

“They live in such poverty and yet have such a dynamic faith that spreads so naturally. I am glad to say the political climate between the north and south has improved,” Lord Carey, who will be traveling to the Sudan for a fifth time later this year, said.

He sees future growth in the Christian church occurring mainly in the Southern Hemisphere.

“That is where the strength is now…we must build bridges with African Christians and support them. There are so many issues to address: poverty, environmental issues, the HIV/AIDS crisis,” he said.

Lord Carey believes the conflict between Islam and Christianity on the world stage “has not played itself out.”

“Ultimately, I am an optimist. It is God’s world; we need not fear, but embrace it and work hard,” he said.