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Profile : A Working-Class Remedy for Faltering Anglican Church : George Carey, the surprise choice as Archbishop of Canterbury, refuses to be pigeonholed as he seeks ways to bring the church back into the lives of ordinary people.

May 28, 1991|WILLIAM TUOHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — The new Archbishop of Canterbury has already been included among the characters on the satirical TV puppet show, "Spitting Image," depicted as a wild-eyed prelate determined to replace the cross as the Christian symbol with a tambourine.

The tambourine is meant to needle George Leonard Carey's enthusiastic support of the charismatic branch of the venerable Church of England--the church he has led since being named archbishop last month.

At 55, Carey was a surprise choice as the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury. (Despite his title, the head of the world's 70 million Anglicans and Episcopalians actually makes his headquarters in London's Lambeth Palace.)

A church-elected Crown Appointments Commission of 13 members met secretly last summer to come up with two names to be presented to then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Although Carey was considered an outsider, sources say that he had the right combination of relative youth, energy, scholarship, and yet was an evangelical, which was important because religious advisers to Thatcher--particularly Robin Catford, her appointments secretary--tend toward the evangelical.

Carey's name headed the two-man offering (the other contender's name is still secret) and Thatcher was reported to be delighted with the recommendation. Similarly, Queen Elizabeth II, who by reason of her title is England's "Defender of the Faith," was also reported to be pleased with the appointment of a low churchman such as Carey.

Some religious conservatives have been worried about his selection. Commentator Charles Moore, for example, wrote in the Spectator that it was a sign "of the end of our unique civilization--the raised hands of charismatics waving goodby to that strange and beautiful achievement of politics, piety and aesthetics which was the Church of England."

But most religious leaders greeted Carey's appointment with equanimity, seeing it as a way of breathing new life into a faltering church.

The Anglican Church in England is clearly in trouble. Of the 27 million professed Anglicans in Britain, only about 1.1 million regularly go to church. There are more churchgoing Anglicans in Nigeria than in Britain and the United States combined.

The 29 regional branches of the church that Carey heads are largely autonomous and pursue their own policies. Eight branches, for instance, ordain women priests--including the United States, Canada and Ireland. Both the U.S. and New Zealand churches have a female bishop. But the Church of England neither ordains women nor recognizes the legitimacy of women ordained in other regions.

Unlike the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury heads no international hierarchy but is first among equals of the other Anglican primates. Still, the Archbishop of Canterbury does serve as a unifying factor for the worldwide Anglican Church.

As a take-charge, confident bishop, Carey triggered a flurry of criticism from the clerical press when he announced recently that opposition to ordaining women priests--perhaps the most controversial issue facing the church--was a "most serious heresy."

Carey was forced to back down, modifying his charge of heresy to call foes of women priests guilty only of "fundamental error."

But Carey's blunt-speaking manner is what appears to have garnered the support for his nomination as church leader, since in other ways he is regarded as a religious outsider, at least by the genteel traditions of the Church of England.

He is, for example, the first archbishop in generations who is not Oxbridge-educated. Unlike his predecessor, the diplomatic Robert A. K. Runcie, Carey is a product of London's working-class East End.

The son of a hospital porter, Carey left school at 15 to work as an office boy and became a Christian at 17. After serving in the Royal Air Force, he entered the London College of Divinity and earned a doctorate (rare for an archbishop) in 2nd-Century ecclesiology. He taught theology for 10 years, publishing eight books on religious subjects.

His wife, Eileen, is a nurse, and they have four grown children. He is an avid supporter of London's Arsenal soccer team, reads Dick Francis thrillers and drinks pints of beer.

A vigorous, energetic man, Carey was the bouncer for the church youth club when he served as a curate in a tough part of north London. After serving in Durham--where, to the dismay of some traditionalists, he spruced up services with modern music--he was named Bishop of Bath and Wells. He served there less than three years before his selection to head the Anglican Church in London.

Looking back, Carey calls his career "from rags to purple."

The archbishop's views do not follow a set pattern. Carey supports the ordination of women but not practicing homosexuals. He belongs to the evangelical, charismatic wing of the church--which not so long ago was considered the loony fringe. But he also believes in "good management" as being essential to church renewal.

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