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Lord Carey of Clifton on love, life and religion

PUBLISHED: 09:00 22 December 2014

The Most Reverend and Right Honorable George L Carey addresses the United Methodist Church's 2000 General Conference in Cleveland

The Most Reverend and Right Honorable George L Carey addresses the United Methodist Church's 2000 General Conference in Cleveland

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Lord Carey of Clifton, former Archbishop of Canterbury, lectured recently at Blenheim Palace Literary Festival on ‘Moral Dilemmas of the 21st Century’. Katie Jarvis spoke with him about morality, religion, and the joy of Christmas

Blenheim PalaceBlenheim Palace

Lord Carey of Clifton – now here’s a genuinely kind man. He’s keen to sit wherever is easier for me – inside or outside at the Feathers, Woodstock, where he’s residing during Blenheim’s literary festival. (It’s mild, so we end up at a table outside.) He tries to pay for our coffees (I won’t let him); and he’s solicitous about me having mine. “Do finish your drink,” he tells me, when it cools as we speak.

Somehow – I don’t know – it seems more valid (is that the right word?) when someone kindly offers moral advice. Because, let’s face it, moral advice isn’t easy to hand out. Even for a former Archbishop of Canterbury. (Actually, especially for a former Archbishop of Canterbury.)

But George Carey is on something of a moral crusade.

Yes, yes – he’s always been on a crusade around moral issues, I guess. Whether his support for divorced people (he encouraged the Prince of Wales and Camilla to marry); or his overseeing of the first – and desperately controversial at the time – ordination of women priests. He’s been clear about his views on homosexuality and marriage (“I’m unhappy with it because I do believe marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman where children are born”).

And earlier this year, he announced – to great all-round surprise – that he had changed his mind about legalising assisted dying, despite his own long-standing opposition. “I seem to have polarised the thing,” he admits, with a trace of a silent sigh, “but I’ve stacked up the arguments both sides and have come down to the fact that a compassionate approach to a limited number of people is to assist them in their dying.”

All good old contentious moral issues. But I’m talking here about a crusade that doesn’t so much grapple with issues as with the bedrock of morality itself. A crusade that asks how we make moral decisions, if we don’t look to the Church or to the Bible for answers.

And he’s clearly troubled about this.

“I’m devoted to my country and love it; I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else - and we [with his wife, Eileen] have travelled the world,” Lord Carey tells me, with careful preface. “But what I think is happening to our country is this: we are losing a sense of right and wrong. We are, as the Old Testament says in one very wonderful passage, doing right in our own eyes.”

For a Christian, certainly, morals are non-negotiable; a set of divine rules that should govern every waking moment. But if, on the other hand, we are non-believers (or if, indeed, we are believers who pick and choose from the Church’s teachings), how can there be a morality that trumps all? In fact, where do we even begin to look for our moral framework?

Blenheim PalaceBlenheim Palace

For George Carey, our consumerist society supplies the answer immediately. And it’s not a great one.

“‘We’ becomes the judgement of what’s right and wrong,” he says. “And that’s a very worrying thing because, once a society loses its sense of what is good; what is pure; what is holy, we’re at the mercy of our own instincts. So I do worry.”

Nor are we talking about the minutiae of morality – taking pens from the office; tweaking Libor rates; skewing crime figures. We’re talking about the 10 written-in-stone tablets of Christian teaching, handed down from God to Moses on Mount Sinai.

“We have actually toned down the Ten Commandments,” Lord Carey iterates. “’Thou shalt not commit adultery’ is changed to, ‘Well, you’re cheating on one another’. We almost make a joke of it; we minimise the significance of it.”

And, by doing so, make it acceptable?

“Yes, one might say that.”

It’s not just, he adds, that the Church has historically been at the core of establishing ethical behaviour; it’s that it added an element vital to Christian understanding of the world: love.

“You don’t find in the Ten Commandments any emphasis upon love; but it’s love, Jesus said, that interprets them. It’s that element of compassion that comes into the way we behave and so on. That’s why I believe that the Church has a really important role to play in our society. But the Church has lost confidence. It’s been so frightened by secularism that it’s withdrawn into itself; it’s cosy in its church life. I don’t want to minimise church life: there are a lot of barren patches; but there’s more good going for it than negative. I want to encourage: Look out! Make a contribution! Don’t be afraid of our society! Don’t let the voices of Richard Dawkins and others cow you into silence!”

If what he says is true – and it undoubtedly is – then for many it’s come at a disastrous time. Because, as he points out, the falling away of the UK from a Christian ethic is coupled with a growing presence of other faiths: “Particularly Islam, with a very strong ethic; but it’s different from ours. It’s different because they have a different perception of women. A different perception of rights and wrongs, based on the Sharia. And they come with a certainty that we are lacking.”

The Most Reverend and Right Honorable George L Carey addresses the United Methodist Church's 2000 General Conference in ClevelandThe Most Reverend and Right Honorable George L Carey addresses the United Methodist Church's 2000 General Conference in Cleveland

So how many Christians are there in the UK? It’s a good question – and not one easy to identify in any real sense. The 2011 census showed a sharp decline in the numbers of English and Welsh declaring themselves to be Christian – a fall of four million to 33.2 million, within a decade, out of a population of 56.1 million.

But the real question, one might claim, lies more in the quality of that declaration. Despite vast swathes of barren ground, figures show that churchgoing in Greater London is on the increase, for example; and there’s equally a boom in Cathedral-attendance. But it’s Christmas itself that’s shown the greatest revival of all. In 2011, a soaring 2.6 million worshipped in a Church of England Christmas Day service, 14 percent up on the previous year.

Does Lord Carey baulk at the idea of empty pews in more workaday services?

“No,” he smiles. “I’ve never been a kind of Christian who’s moaned about people only coming along at Christmas, saying, ‘How dare they!’ Let’s be grateful that they come along at all. Let’s offer the Festival to them. And it’s lovely for children; for schools. The carol services; the joy is palpable.

“We’ve got to encourage the churches to say: ‘Here’s a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with society in a fresh way; to show that we’re human.’ I grew up in a non-Christian home - or a non-church-going home - because my parents were scared of going to church. They were scared because there seemed to be a different ethic prevailing. They felt they were going to do something awkward, such as drop a hymn-book and everyone would look at them. My mother used to say, ‘I haven’t got a hat’.”

Anyone who has read his memoirs, Know the Truth (he’s the first Archbishop to write an autobiography) will be aware that his background was solidly working-class. He tells of how his paternal grandmother was regularly abused by her second husband: “Dad’s second memory was of a night in his early teens when he was woken by loud screaming and the sound of breaking furniture… The following day he found out that his older brother had also heard the screaming and had pulled their drunken stepfather off their mother, who had been savagely beaten.”

By contrast, Lord Carey’s own childhood, despite the on-going war, was a happy one. When their London home became too dangerous a place to live – his best friend at school was badly injured in a doodlebug attack – the family (sans father) was evacuated to the country. Interestingly, although his parents weren’t churchgoers, there’s a telling anecdote about his mother. During an evacuation to Warminster: “A deserter came to the door one day asking for bread, and Mum gave him some. The woman who owned the house was furious with her, and a violent argument ensued.” She threw the Carey family out, despite the fact that there was only money enough to get them to Paddington. But ‘Someone’ was watching over them; out of the blue, as they shivered destitute and hungry in the railway station, a neighbour appeared, bought them fish and chips, and gave them the money to get home.

It’s far from all ‘piety’, however. He equally includes less edifying episodes – though, as is the nature of these things, the very act of inclusion makes them edifying – such as playing truant from school with best friend Alex Harris, using Alex’s mother’s shopping money to see a horror film at Barking cinema. “What made this incident particularly distressing was that the late Forties were very tough for ordinary people,” he shudders.

There’s also an interesting moment (which tallies with what he’s been saying about the role of religion in morality) involving his period of National Service at RAF Cardington. The vicar at Old Dagenham, the Rev Edward Patterson – affectionately known as Pit-Pat – drummed into his young parishioner that he should disclose his Christianity right at the start of his air-force career. “Don’t be ashamed of your faith”.

Accordingly, when bedtime dawned, George surveyed the crowded billet, full of high-spirited comrades, and (taking a deep breath) knelt down by his bed and spent several minutes in prayer. Whatever commentators have made of this moment – and there has been a variety of views – it must have taken moral courage. And, perhaps, one might add this: religion makes uncomfortable demands that exercise moral fibre as a gym strengthens muscle.

Maybe because of his own childhood experiences, he’s a passionate advocate of making churches work not just for Christians but for communities, too. The current movement towards taking out pews and putting in post offices, cafes and community shops is one he readily approves – though with caveats.

“Indeed, churches are not only for worship once or twice on a Sunday but they’re for the gathering of people – that’s what the word ecclesia means. In my church in Newbury, we’re putting bore-holes 300 metres down to extract the heat so we can be a seven-day-a-week church: for the school, which is next door; for the community.

“I can understand, actually, people being up in arms about taking out pews and so on, especially if, for example, they have a named pew, or their parents got married there – all these precious memories and links with the past.

“But the church has probably got to do its job better in presenting the argument for change.”

For Lord Carey, that bringing of people back to church also means a realignment of Britain’s moral core. For him, the Bible is the ultimate arbiter. He used scripture to establish his controversial stance on assisted dying, even though, “two thirds of the post that I got was from very sincere Christian people who were horrified because I’d ‘let the side down’.” He also uses it in his stance against gay marriage: “While there is not much the Bible says on assisted dying, there is very clear teaching in scripture [on practising homosexuality].

His ultimate message, however, is one, not of judgment, but of love. “God cares for us and loves us,” Lord Carey says. “And that’s a terrific ethic for children to grow up with, in that they are loved; and warmed; and life is ahead of them in all its beauty. Because, actually, new atheism doesn’t explain very much. We still live in a mysterious universe.”

For more on Blenheim Palace Literary Festival, which takes place each September, visit blenheimpalaceliteraryfestival.com

The official website of Lord Carey of Clifton is at www.glcarey.co.uk

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