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George Carey

Lord George Carey of Clifton was chancellor of the University of Gloucestershire until 2010 and is currently president of the London School of Theology. He was enthroned as the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury in April 1991 and retired from his position in November 2002. As the leader of the...

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A Discussion with Lord Carey of Clifton

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Background: Lord Carey visited Washington for a World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) trustees meeting in February 2012. In this exchange with Katherine Marshall, he reflected on his longstanding interest in international development, his role in these matters during his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury, and his vision and the history of his role as a founder of WFDD, as a partner with James D. Wolfensohn in the venture. He emphasizes that his understanding of his Christian faith puts social and poverty issues at the very center of his beliefs. Largely through his many visits as Archbishop to countries in Africa and Asia, he came to understand development as an essential component in his Christian faith. He also saw the deep pitfalls of religious competition and tensions and thus saw interfaith work as critical for success in development. Lord Carey reflects on the complex tensions that surround proselytizing, and around coordination of the many faith-linked groups that work on social issues on the ground. Development, he argues, is a slow process that depends on steady hard work and deep commitment, not on quick fixes. He speaks about the Alexandria Process that brought together religious leaders to bring peace in the Middle East, and on prospects for Christian minorities in the Middle East.

Interview Conducted on February 4, 2012

You have written your autobiography where you reflect on your path and particularly your years as Archbishop of Canterbury, but as you look back, where did your keen interest in development issues come from and when did it begin?

It was, I believe, born very directly of my experience of Christianity, and my understanding of the Christian faith.

I came rather late into the church, in my late teens. My coming to the church was linked to the challenges I faced as a young man, related to the experiences of the war years. That period was profoundly disturbing for a child and a young man. My family was evacuated three times, and I was the eldest of five children, and thus felt a responsibility for what the family was experiencing. The war and our experiences during that time meant that I had to face deep intellectual questions as a teenager, about what the world is about, and the meaning of the events that were unfolding. Gradually these brought me into the church. My family came into the church as well, but rather later, so this was a personal journey.

But as I learned about Christianity and read the Bible, I realized that Jesus did not spend much time in the synagogue or in speaking about theology. He spent most of his time teaching and working directly with people, especially those who were very poor and marginalised. I came from a working class, indeed a very poor background. My parents were what I would call working class Tories, and they cared passionately for moral justice. Clearly now I must consider that I am middle class (there’s no kidding ourselves!), but that far less prosperous background is always with me. And it gave me a true passion to change things, so that, to misquote Jesus, the poor can inherit the earth.

So when I was ordained, my first concern was about how I could change the conditions of the poor in London, where I was living.

At the age of 18 I was ‘called up’ to do my national service. I chose to join the Air Force and was posted to Egypt and Iraq. It was Iraq that made a real impression on me. I was sent to Shaibah, near Basra, where there was a squadron of jets that patrolled the region. My job, as a direction finding operator, involved me not only sending messages to aircraft but also tracking down Russian spy ‘satellites.’ I was the only one of the 100 young men on the squadron who had interest in Arabic, so I had a teacher to myself and for over a year took lessons from a lovely Muslim gentleman. A fascination with Islam has stayed with me ever since.

My interest in and awareness of international development came much later. When I became Archbishop, I had travelled very little, except for my time in the Air Force. As Archbishop, I travelled constantly. I found that I very soon came face-to-face with development issues and with world poverty in a very real way.

During my first visit in 1991, to Papua New Guinea, I began to see what the church was doing and how effective it was. I was able to appreciate how church growth went hand in hand with education. I also saw some bad examples of the roles of churches, in the cargo cults, for instance. That was an extraordinary phenomenon and pretty sordid business. Some Christians – if one can call them that – mark out a territory, then would fly over the area and drop cargoes of goods. A few days later they would come by foot to the same place, with leaflets and would talk about how the cargoes had come from God. Such proselytizing is abhorrent and unworthy of any faith.

But that visit taught me clearly that mainstream development work has to focus on a steady, hard process. In my view it is against the core of my faith to proselytize. You can lead people into faith only by example and by service. In Papua New Guinea I saw some magnificent work done by all the denominations.

During my second visit as Archbishop, to Southern Sudan in 1993, I discovered that so broken was the South that the churches were the only institutions that were doing anything for health care and education. That changed my whole attitude to the work of the church. I had come from an evangelical background, and this awareness of the core social work of the church was quite unusual for evangelicals of my generation. At that time the evangelical traditions generally separated the Gospel from good works and social care. For me there could be no true separation. Sudan proved to me that social work was integral to the Christian gospel and not separate from it.

In Southern Sudan I also saw the sharp separations between Christianity and Islam, and came to understand viscerally that where you have such combat among religions it is the poor that that suffer most. We had to work to overcome that. Religious communities could and simply had to overcome their tensions and work together for the benefit of the poor. Such ideas were to influence me later on as WFDD developed.

Thus my understandings of the links among politics and poverty, religion and service, and peace and interfaith work and development came to me from my faith and from the experiences of faith in action. It brought me to my faith in ways that make these links seem natural. If that is not the core of faith, what is the point of it?

In some respects I would say that I am not terribly religious. To me, worship is a natural, essential part of the rhythm of life. I have no burning ambition to go to church every day, just for the sake of going to church. Eileen and I are practicing Christians, of course, and we go to church and enjoy the fellowship. But that is not the essence of my faith. The essence of faith is service.

A third turning point for me came quite early on. A wonderful friend, Andrew Rowe, a well known Member of Parliament, offered some advice. Following an address I had just given on poverty, Andrew asked me, “When you step out of your plane, and meet government representatives and others, do you ever stop and ask: ‘who represents the widows and the children?’” I was struck by that, and from that moment on I started to do so. Indeed, soon after that piece of advice, I paid a visit to Uganda. I recall the long row of representatives gathered on the tarmac to greet me as Archbishop. I asked the minister of Education, who was the senior Government official, “Who is here representing the very poor, particularly the widows and children?” I was greeted with a blank look and, in panic, the Minister called someone to answer the question. And I asked if I could meet and talk to some of them.

From that moment I made sure that every time I went somewhere I would have at least some meetings with people who might have some authority in speaking of poverty and for poor people.

Eileen was able to help me in this, as often she could dig in a little deeper than I was able to do during official visits. My role inevitably meant attending meetings galore, but Eileen was often able to go into schools and clinics and meet ordinary people, especially women. She often had a view of the country that I did not have. We were able to pool our knowledge and so deepen our understanding of what international development involved.

What is your recollection of how you and Jim Wolfensohn first met and embarked on the path that led to the creation of the WFDD?

I remember one morning in early 1998, my secretary entered my study to say that the President of the World Bank wanted to speak to me. I warmed to Jim Wolfensohn immediately. He told me that he had come to realise how central faith communities were to development, and he disagreed with the World Bank view that the Bank and religion should be distinct entities. From that conversation we agreed that a meeting of leaders of faiths should meet him and a few Bank officials at Lambeth Palace later. Indeed, that meeting was set up and took place at Lambeth Palace [in London] in February, 1998.

The Lambeth meeting was quite large, and at the time I saw it clearly as make or break. It took place in the Guard room. There were two Catholic cardinals there, one of them Echegaray, the Aga Khan, senior Muslims, a fiery Hindu, eloquent rabbis, and others. We had an electrifying day that included some fierce arguments and attacks on the World Bank. But it calmed down and we navigated to a position of real exchange. We all felt that this was an extraordinary moment, that it offered a unique opportunity with the World Bank. Jim Wolfensohn was offering an opening and we made a commitment there to do something. At the time it was not clear what – both the name and concept of WFDD came later – but a commitment was forged there. It was followed up with the help of our senior officials and that eventually led to the next leaders meeting, in November 1999, in Washington.

In the interim there was the rather disastrous experience at the Lambeth Conference [that took place in August, 1998. This gathering of Anglican bishops every ten years is presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury]. The President of the World Bank flew in for the occasion especially. He had an excellent speech prepared and the occasion would have been very happy, but, unfortunately, a Christian Aid video was shown just before his talk, which contained unwarranted attacks on the World Bank. This was just too much for Jim who put aside his prepared address and addressed what he saw were the inaccuracies in the video. He spoke brilliantly and I remember him facing the large gathering and saying, “Do you really think I and the World Bank are abusing the poor? We are your Bank.” Then he went on to give his prepared speech, which was fine and penetrating. He reached out to us. But the bishops were mystified by this man. What he said had to be said, but the sadness is that a lot of the bishops closed their ears after his fiery beginning. The damage was done, and he went away feeling rather aggrieved by the reception he had received. It was altogether unfortunate, and shows the damage done when Christian groups are too closely associated with a political agenda.

With the Washington meeting in 1999, we agreed that we wanted to have a concrete, official relationship between the World Bank and the religious communities. What was so new and so important was that through this initiative the religious communities felt that they had access to the Bank and its thinking, so that together we could work together to change the world in which we live. This was the time when the ideas of the development goals were being formulated. [The Millennium Development Goals were formally defined after the September 2000 UN Millennium Summit.] We saw these goals as crucial for the very poor because they gave us criteria to assess success or failure.

So after that meeting we began the process of launching the WFDD, informally at first with Wendy Tyndale, seconded by Christian Aid, working from Oxford, and Canon Richard Marsh working from my office. The Aga Khan was a great supporter at the time. Ironically, at a later stage, it was Michael Taylor who took charge of WFDD for some years, and to some degree it had been he who had a part in the Christian Aid video that had created the trouble at the Lambeth Conference.

In your formal role as Archbishop, what engagement did you have on development policies and issues?

The engagement with the ministers was active and frequent. When I was appointed [in 1991], Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister, although by the time I took office the ‘iron lady’ had left and John Major was the Prime Minister. But it was Tony Blair who was the Prime Minister for most of my tenure.

In the initial period I worked especially closely with Linda Chalker, then the Development Minister. [Lady Chalker served as Development Minister from 1989 to 1997.] She did wonderful work but did not get a lot of credit, in part because she was rather eclipsed by her successor, Clare Short. But we owe her a lot, and she was indeed very committed to development. We met often to discuss the work of DfID. I remember particularly a visit to Kenya where we talked at length during the long flight there. It was also in part a pastoral relationship, one of the distinctive features of the role of an archbishop. During Linda’s time as Minister for Overseas Development, DfID grew in stature and importance. We owe much of that to Linda’s leadership.

I also got to know Chalker’s successor, Clare Short, well [Secretary of State for of Development 1997-2003]. We did not always agree, and she was often rather belligerent, but she cared deeply about development. She worked from a foundation as a strong Christian. She called herself a lapsed Catholic, and had little time for institutional faith. Her experience came in part from her own history as a single mother. I do remember a most moving event when, shortly after she came into office, the publicity surrounding her appointment led to her meeting her son who had been adopted when he was an infant. I had great admiration for her. She was tough, but her heart was in the right place, and she saw the significance of faith communities and what they could do. Once, returning from a visit to Africa, she talked to me about how so much was being done by the churches, but that the governments of the countries did not know how to deal with it. We needed to help in outreach. Clare Short also saw clearly the significance of WFDD, and spoke forcefully at the Canterbury Leaders’ Meeting [2002].

She was, however, critical of the Church’s commitment to debt forgiveness. In Britain, the Jubilee 2000 campaign was strongly supported by the churches but she considered that debt forgiveness was far too simplistic. Debt could not be waved out of existence. Debt owed to other countries or to the IMF/World Bank had to be honored. However, Claire changed her tune over time, agreeing eventually that there were circumstances, when those with countries crippled by heavy debt, needed some forgiveness of debt, if they were to recover from errors of the past. South Africa was a case in point, where the Apartheid Government had borrowed heavily to retain power. It was unthinkable to expect the post-Apartheid Government to pay the cost of repression. This transformed the debate.

Another important step in the history of our relationship with the World Bank and WFDD was the meeting with African leaders in Nairobi in 2000. A major goal for that meeting was to help people to understand economics, to appreciate the practical things that shape the world.

Another important moment that Gordon Brown referred to often during his time in office as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister was when members of the G8 meeting in Birmingham (1998), woke up on the second morning to find the hotel surrounded by thousands of protesters – largely church goers, demonstrating for the very poor. That was, he said, a significant wake up call for G8 leaders who realised the depth of concern as well as the focus of church people, alongside other groups.

You speak often of Gordon Brown. How did and does he view the role of churches and of WFDD?

Gordon Brown was even more committed to engaging with the churches than Tony Blair. My relationship with the government was transformed when he was Chancellor. He regularly used the breakfast slot to meet with a wide range of individuals, including senior religious leaders and NGOs, at his official home at Number 11 Downing Street. I attended often and was impressed by the commitment he showed and his serious engagement with development issues. He was totally behind us on WFDD. Tony Blair was also, and both supported us on many public occasions.

Some argue that the work on debt was the central issue for churches, and debt relief the main accomplishment. Did you see it that way?

No. The Jubilee Movement was part and parcel of all that was going on during that period in the United Kingdom, and it was also related to our national discussions about how to bring people out of poverty. But debt was one of the most popular topics on the church agenda. It added a moral dimension to the issue of development but it made the answers seem too simple: forgive debt, then everyone could get back to work, and everything would be wonderful. This sometimes meant that, in both the UK and beyond, wider issues such as the role of education, job creation, health, gender, and so on were overlooked or minimised.

You were deeply involved in the Alexandria Process. How did you see that linking to your work on development?

Most people involved in development realise that peace, and especially peace in the Middle East, is a constituent element in the work of bringing people out of poverty.

The impetus for my own involvement in the Middle East process began around 2000, during a visit to Israel. The situation at the time was in a mess. I recall that the Presiding Bishop of the US Episcopal Church at the time, Frank Griswold, was planning a visit to the Holy Land, but because of a deteriorating political situation, pulled out. After a phone call with Bishop Riah of Jerusalem, I agreed that Eileen and I would pay a brief visit. The Archbishop of Armagh accompanied us. I remember visiting the Prime Minister of Israel, and we had a tough and frank discussion. I emphasised the concern that we shared for all in the ‘Holy Land’. This raised an interesting outburst from the Prime Minister. “Yes,” he said, “You Christians may call it the Holy Land, but for us Jews it is the Promised Land.” That was an amazing admission! Here was a secular Jew claiming the land belonged to Jews because it was God-given. It brought home to me the large differences in expectations, and how very difficult the prospects were (and remain). However, this meeting was one of the reasons why a year later I was approached to help an unusual initiative.

Following 9-11, Canon Andrew White contacted me. Andrew was then Director of International Development at Coventry Cathedral. He said that Simon Peres wanted to talk to me. Simon Peres then phoned and asked me if I would support an initiative to bring religious leaders together to try to contribute to peace. Of course I offered my support. Within a few hours Rabbi Michael Melchior, who was then in the Jewish Government, phoned, and pressed me to co-chair an initiative to get the religious leaders to agree to a communiqué on peace. He said that they needed our help in getting leaders together. We met for the event in January, 2002. The idea was to convene leaders from the major faith traditions in the Holy Land. It was impossible to meet in Jerusalem or anywhere in Israel, so with the agreement of the Egyptian government, we met in Alexandria, and the Alexandrian Declaration was born. I co-led the meeting with Dr. Tantawi, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. Dr. Tantawi was a warm individual, although unfortunately he possessed no English - thus the chairing of the meeting fell on me. It was a historic moment because such an agreement opposing violence and committing our religions to work for peace was extraordinary. Sadly, in some respects, it was the right agreement at the wrong time. A religious settlement is dependent upon positive political relations. Sadly, this did not and still does not exist. Religious leaders can make significant contributions to peace but not when a hostile political environment prevails. There is a great need to pursue the dialogue. On December 3rd last year an important debate took place in the House of Lords led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. The debate illustrated how much has been achieved in the Middle East and yet how much there is still to do.

How do you see the prospects for Christian minorities in the Middle East?

The situation is very gloomy, and Christians are leaving the region steadily. They are down now to a small minority. People feel under pressure and unwelcomed. Most who are still there would love to leave if the opportunity arose. Many of such Christians are in England, the States, and Canada because they see no future for their children in the Middle East. Who can blame them? It is understandable that after so many years of longing for peace, they should seek safety with security for themselves and their children. It is, I said recently in a speech in the House of Lords, rather like Disney World: you can see the historic sites, but barely a living Christian. And there are some evangelicals who, driven by a crazy theology, believe that by helping extremist Jews to control the Temple Mount the Messiah will return and hasten the End.

But there are flickers of hope. There are some strong Christian communities in Palestine who maintain a faithful presence. Both the Greek Orthodox Church (the dominant Christian denomination) and the Catholic Church are vigorous in their service to the people. The Anglican presence is small but important.

Since you left Lambeth, you have been extraordinarily busy! What are the main causes that excite you today?

Apart from WFDD (which I think has a very high priority and great promise), I have a new book out called We Don’t Do God, co-authored with my son, Andrew. We are concerned by the rise of hostile secularism towards all faiths and especially Christianity. I expect reaction towards the book but as long as it results in a thorough conversation about the issues, I don’t mind criticism. I am also very involved in education in the UK and am especially anxious to create opportunities for children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds.

However, there are other things that take up my time: I try to get into the House of Lords a few times a week, and I am involved in inter-faith work as well as teaching and lecturing a few times a year.

Tragically, attitudes towards homosexuality and the status of homosexual couples continue to divide the Anglican Communion. I know that you continue to reflect on this question from many different angles. What are the questions you are exploring now and what do you think might offer a path towards greater harmony?

Yes, I have pondered these issues over many years, and like many others I have to admit that I find myself at times very confused. Instinctively I am conservative but I am deeply saddened that the Anglican Communion is so divided on the issue. Let me say a few things about my approach.

First, there are absolutely no grounds for violence and discrimination towards same sex couples. Jesus gave us a commandment to love one another and this includes everyone. In the past the Church has behaved appallingly towards homosexual people, and I am ashamed that in the name of Jesus Christ traditionalists have rejected people who above all have sought love.

Second, there is a question that troubles me and that revolves around the issue of whether homosexuality issues from culture and upbringing or whether it is inborn and innate. The matter will no doubt be resolved by further research. If such research reveals that homosexuality is basically innate, then the Church will have to rethink its position and this may have major effects on our doctrine and especially our practices. I try to keep out of controversy on this issue but still maintain a traditional approach whilst keeping friendly relationships with those whose stance is more radical.

As you look at the world with all its problems, are we ultimately doomed?

Well, I don’t mind admitting that there are times when I wake up in the morning and wonder how the human family can resolve all the major problems facing us! Think of the vast environmental problems, the terrifying growth in the world’s population, the widening gap between rich and poor, religious extremism – to say nothing of unrest in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, the Middle East, and elsewhere. But the depression does not last long because the Christian hope I have persuades me that we are a species that has a tenacious determination to overcome challenges. We are not doomed but we shall need to dig deep into our resources to triumph over the problems that confront us.