Know the Truth

DAILY MAIL 11 June 2006

KNOW THE TRUTH by GEORGE CAREY (Harper Collins £25.00)

In 1935, the year of George Carey’s birth, Cosmo Lang, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, described the post as one that ‘is impossible for any one man to do, but only one man can do it.’

The question arises whether George Carey, whom Mrs Thatcher appointed Archbishop in July 1990, was the right man to do it. Controversy dogged him from the start, with many observers openly doubting that he had either the dignity or the ability for the role.

His critics appeared to be justified when, even before he moved into Lambeth Palace, he described the Church as ‘like a very old grandmother who sat by the chimney breast muttering to herself, ignored by the rest of the family’, dismaying many Anglicans and prompting others to ask why he was prejudiced against old ladies.

His eleven years in office were marked by unprecedented public criticism. He managed to alienate many of his natural supporters on the Evangelical wing of the Church, as well as both the Liberal and Conservative opposition. He was, arguably, the most excoriated archbishop since the execution of Charles 1’s favourite, William Laud.

Carey now puts his own side of the story in what is, surprisingly, the first ever autobiography to have been written by any of the 104 Archbishops of Canterbury. It records his personal and theological development and pays somewhat fawning tribute to many of the great and the good with whom he came into contact. Whether it will succeed in converting anyone to his cause is doubtful.

George Carey was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to hail from a working- class background, and the book charts his journey from the poverty of the East End to the splendour of Lambeth Palace. It rapidly becomes clear that the many qualities that assisted his rise do not include imaginative empathy. Although he acknowledges his debt to his parents and family, Carey never brings any of them to life.

The Careys were not religious, but George, following his younger brother, became a Christian through his involvement with the Old Dagenham Parish Church youth club. After National Service and a menial office job with the London Electricity Board, he applied to be ordained.

He married Eileen Hood halfway through his theological training. It seems sadly fitting that he should have had to take a Hebrew examination two days into their honeymoon. Although he frequently describes theirs as a joint ministry, Eileen’s is very much restricted to the domestic sphere (she opens a bed and breakfast in their Durham vicarage). The Careys have four children, as well as a still-born son, who is memorialised in the most moving passage in the book.

Whatever the achievements of Carey’s early ministry, they are devalued here by the flatness of his prose. Of his Islington curacy, he writes: ‘We were poor but happy’. He then leaves for ‘a very happy four years’ at Oak Hill theological college, followed by a job among ‘the happiest team I have been privileged to be part of at St John’s College, Nottingham.’ It comes a relief to encounter a new adjective with his ‘exciting seven years’ at St Nicholas’s, Durham.

In 1991, he was the surprise appointment to the see of Canterbury. He records all the key events of his primacy, from the ordination of women to the Lambeth Conference. He also gives his impression of many of the public figures with whom he worked, from John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who will be grateful, to Michael Howard and Ann Widdecombe, who will not.

Inevitably, it is the issues of sexual morality that will be most controversial in his account, just as they were at the time. He was privy to the unravelling of Charles and Diana’s marriage, which he describes in detail, including his own secret meeting with Camilla (‘a most attractive and charming person’) at his son’s house in Peckham. He ends by declaring that he would welcome the Prince’s remarriage.

He declares his support for the remarriage of two divorcees in spite of the gospel’s unequivocal condemnation of divorce (indeed, on no other matter of personal relationships does Christ express Himself so strongly). His own daughter is divorced and only pressure from Mrs Thatcher and Billy Graham prevented a Sun expose of ‘The Sexy Secrets of the Archbishop’s Daughter’. And yet he remains adamantly opposed to gay partnerships on the grounds that they are forbidden by Scripture.

It is such blatant double standards that have led so many people to abandon the Church. It is no wonder that the title of the book reads as deeply ironic.