Church must reflect culture, Carey says

Published June 1, 2002

Retiring Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey during interview.


The retiring head of the Anglican Communion discourages the parceling off of the church into factions, especially when it is faced with the unprecedented challenge of relevancy in a postmodern age.

“I am evangelical; I am catholic; I am charismatic; I am liberal, because I have indwelt all those,” Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey said during an interview while visiting Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa. on May 3. Archbishop Carey was the keynote speaker at the 25th anniversary celebrations of Trinity, one of the largest and most evangelical seminaries in the United States

Whatever his encounter, he said, he still embraces a faith in Jesus Christ and in the reliability of scriptures. And in spite of his unapologetic adherence to traditional values such as marriage being the ordained expression of the “mysterious gift of sexuality,” he says his library probably has more books from the liberal tradition than from any other.

“That doesn’t mean I swallow everything they argue, but they do teach so much to me ? I think we’ve got to remind ourselves that the church is far bigger than my version of it,” he said.

During his lecture to the more than 500 people gathered for the celebration, he took a less objective position. In making a case for the significance of viewing the church within the framework of its global environment, he noted that Francis Fukayama, author of The Great Disruption, points to “liberal democracy” as the long-term future for worldwide civil society.

He then added that the author also concluded that the moral relativism that drives liberal democracy undermines the regime itself when applied to its core values.

“If nothing of fundamental value underpins society, then society itself unravels as a collection of atomised communities, loosely bound by convention, language and geography,” he said. This he sees as an encapsulation of postmodernism.

In a postmodern age, where change is rapid and unpredictable, Archbishop Carey stresses the importance of the church adapting its leadership style to reflect its culture. There is no one way to do it, he said, pointing to the success of Nigeria, which a decade ago appointed nine missionary bishops to establish new congregations and dioceses.

“We wouldn’t do that,” he says of the West. However, much as the West might reverse the process, appointing bishops only when the territory was established, he feels there is a growing need for missionary bishops. He defines them as leaders who “know what it is to lead somebody to God and to Christ and are confident in their Christian faith.”

During his public address, Archbishop Carey laid out five characteristics of Christian leadership. He said these characteristics stand in contrast to what leadership often reflects: a tendency to put budget before mission, to soften the message and to fail at attracting disciples.

Those five principles were: knowing first and then directing others; having a passion for the faith; living principled lives, particularly in the area of sexuality; showing compassion and inclusivity; and having a vision that knows no boundaries.

He threw the mantle to seminaries to shape such qualities: “Our communion needs people of such faith, hope and love,” he said, noting that leaders who forget that it is a calling to serve are “in danger of confusing leadership with lordship.”

When the question of the separation of church and state (disestablishment) arose during a dialogue with the media, he again underscored the relationship between the church and its culture.

In Britain, he said, in spite of dialogue about it, no one is in a hurry to dismantle establishment; however, he said, it has changed in the past 100 years and will continue to change over the next 100. Whatever the future holds, politically, he believes the church will continue to do its job.

He sees the convergence of church and state as positive, an opportunity to publicly represent the gospel.

“The establishment of the Church of England has never stopped me from speaking out against government policy,” he said.

Archbishop Carey said the United States also has establishment, where powerful churches influence politicians. “In our country, we are less of a church-going people than Americans are, but Christianity is more public in Britain than in America,” he said.

Archbishop Carey also asked where the public turns in times of grief or national turmoil. “Does it go to Wembley Stadium or the local ice rink? No, it goes to a major cathedral. It wants to celebrate its joy ? express its mourning. ? It looks to the church to do it on behalf of the nation.”

Marjie Smith is a freelance writer who lives in Pittsburgh.


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