Archbishop of Canterbury keeps busy, but church struggles with decline

Posted: Friday, February 01, 2002

LONDON -- When Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey retires on Oct. 31, he will step down with a decidedly mixed record, say critics on both the left and right.

Carey led the Church of England through a tumultuous period of financial setbacks, the introduction of new liturgies and a wrenching decision to ordain women. Spiritual leader of the world's Anglicans, he also held the Anglican Communion together despite sometimes acrimonious splits between liberals and conservatives.

Yet he will bequeath to his successor a church that, while streamlined at the top, is struggling at the parish level -- a denomination suffering from declining Sunday church attendance despite the Decade of Evangelism campaign in the 1990s.

Neither side is complimentary about Carey's role in the debate over the ordination of women, a divisive battle that is likely to be replayed sometime in the future on the question of allowing women to be bishops.

''I'd have to say he started off really well, a great champion, and probably the weight of office made him rather go silent over the years,'' said Christina Rees, who chairs Women and the Church (WATCH).

''It would be better now, even for those who cannot accept it, if the archbishop of Canterbury had continued to give strong leadership and guidance.''

The church's compromise in 1992 was to ordain women, and provide ''flying bishops'' to oversee congregations that refused to accept the decision.

Women now account for about a fifth of Church of England priests, and 45 percent of the 1,400 people now in training. But some 300 Church of England parishes are allied with Forward in Faith, the coalition that opposed women priests.

''He has left the church poorer and weaker,'' said the Rev. Robbie Low, a parish priest and member of the council of Forward in Faith. ''He is not a bad man, but it was a job that was beyond his grasp really.''

Low faults Carey for not putting a strong traditionalist bishop in any diocese, though he says Carey ''has tried to be very fair'' to the traditionalist wing.

Financial issues have pressed hard during Carey's tenure, which began in 1991. The Church Commissioners, custodians of the denomination's investments, ceased to fund clergy pensions after 1997. That burden has fallen on the parishes.

Carey shook up the church's structure with the creation in 1999 of the Archbishops' Council, chaired by Carey and Archbishop of York David Hope, to oversee administrative matters.

''The combination (of Carey and Hope) somehow seemed to gel. Both of them I think had a frustration about the structures of the Church of England, and the inability of the church to respond rapidly when something happened,'' said the Rev. Martin Dudley, rector of St. Bartholomew the Great in London.

Although there were many doubts about creating the Archbishops' Council, ''it cut through a lot of the bureaucratic nonsense,'' Dudley said.

Last year, a committee set up by Carey and headed by former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd recommended a reassignment of many of the duties of the archbishop of Canterbury.

Hurd proposed that the archbishop of York share the administrative load, that the Bishop of Dover take up most of the responsibilities within the diocese of Canterbury, and that a ''bishop at Lambeth'' be appointed to help run the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Carey has not said which, if any, of these suggestions he will implement, but Hurd's intention is that the next archbishop of Canterbury -- the 104th -- would have more time for prayer and reflection.

Beyond administration, church attendance is another matter that has troubled Carey. Average Sunday attendance dropped from 1.14 million when Carey was appointed to 969,000 in 1999.

That contrasts embarrassingly with the church's persistence in including the estimated 25 million people baptized in the Church of England as part of the official total of 70 million Anglicans worldwide.

''After all the well-documented reforms Dr. Carey has managed, at least one can say the boat is reasonably watertight,'' commented David Harris, a columnist for Church Times, a weekly newspaper. ''What remains to be seen is whether the next man can encourage more passengers to clamber on board.''

At one time during Carey's term, the church simply refused to release Sunday attendance data; lately it has pointed to studies which indicate Sunday attendance figures may underestimate the total number of faithful and less-regular communicants by up to 40 percent.

Carey became the most widely traveled archbishop of Canterbury, making some 60 journeys, including to such places such as Sudan and Pakistan, where the church faced persecution.

''George Carey was very courageous in some of the places he went overseas, places with a lot of conflict and where the church found itself in a tight spot, like Sudan or the bishop of Jerusalem,'' said Canon Roger Symon, who served Carey and his predecessor, Robert Runcie, as secretary for Anglican Communion affairs from 1987 to 1994.

Carey also presided at the sometimes tempestuous Lambeth Conference, a gathering of the world's Anglican primates at Canterbury in 1998, which strongly opposed ordaining homosexuals and blessing same-sex unions, as did Carey. Bishops from Africa, where Anglicanism is thriving, fulminated about the views of liberals such as the Right Rev. John Spong, the former U.S. Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J.

Bishops from Singapore and Rwanda got involved in the U.S. feuds by ordaining bishops for a traditionalist group that has broken with the Episcopal Church. The heads of world Anglican branches will again discuss the situation in a closed-door session at Canterbury April 10-18.

Yet the Anglican Communion survives.

''I think he (Carey) has done extremely well, because he came to the job with, and indeed still cherishes, very firm Christian convictions, but has kept contact with those who disagree with him. In that sense, the office molds the man,'' Symon said.

''I think that is a huge credit to him, that he has managed to remain uncompromised so far as his own views are concerned, and yet to bind people together.''


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