Why conservative Christians should stop defending George Carey

Might former archbishop of Canterbury George Carey be guilty of misconduct in public office? We don't know – but some (fairly) prominent Anglicans are outraged that the question is even being asked.  

It emerged this week that police are considering whether to press charges against him over his conduct in the Peter Ball case. However, an extraordinary letter in the Daily Telegraph suggests what it describes as 'attacks' on him are motivated by a hatred of 'biblically faithful Christianity'. 

Lord Carey of Clifton, former Archbishop of Canterbury.Chris Dobson

To refresh readers' memories: Carey, while he was archbishop, colluded with the sex abuser Bishop Peter Ball, jailed for his crimes in 2015. A report by Dame Moira Gibb found that he received seven letters warning of Ball's abuse in 1992 but failed to pass six of them onto the police.

The current archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, asked Carey to step down from public ministry as a result of the Gibb report findings, a move bitterly resented by Carey.

However, according to the Telegraph letter, there are darker forces at work. It's not just Carey in the frame, but conservative Christianity in general. 

The signatories to the letter – among them the Marquess of Reading, who chairs the Barnabas Fund, former bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali and Christian Concern chief executive Andrea Williams – represent a particular strain of conservative evangelicalism.

This kind of evangelicalism is fundamentally oppositional. It divides the world into those who hold the right beliefs and those who don't. But doctrinal orthodoxy is not enough: it's also a mindset that sees modern society as deeply opposed to the gospel, with culture and church locked not in dialogue but in conflict. Everything from gay marriage to judgments against Christians at employment tribunals – usually, when all the evidence is read, richly deserved – is seen as evidence of a 'war on Christianity'.

George Carey – particularly since his retirement – has seemed increasingly to belong to this sub-set of evangelicals, with the result that he is seen by them as 'one of us', to be defended at all costs. As the Telegraph letter concludes, 'An attack on him is an attack on us all.'

Well, it isn't.

Let's be clear: Carey is not being 'attacked'. Whether he should be charged for his conduct regarding Peter Ball is not, with respect, something on which the non-specialist should have a view. The law should take its course. If there is a case to be answered, he should answer it, and the fact that he is a conservative evangelical former archbishop should have absolutely nothing to do with it.

It is, to say the least, particularly unfortunate that a letter like this should appear as the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is in full swing. The horrifying revelations emerging every day underscore exactly what happens when the Church marks its own homework.

If George Carey ends up facing criminal charges it would be deeply embarrassing for the CofE, though Justin Welby's swift action in response to the Gibb report might draw some of the sting. It would undoubtedly be a personal tragedy for him. But the failures of the Church during many decades to deal with abuse have wrecked too many lives for it to claim any moral high ground whatsoever. All it can claim – and rightly – is that it is doing its utmost to make sure such things never happen again. That does not mean that there shouldn't be a reckoning for its past errors.

In that light, an 'attack' on Carey is only 'an attack on us all', if the 'all' are those who won't acknowledge the failures of the past, who persist in seeing relations between church and state in terms of conflict rather than collaboration, and who are deaf to the victims who cry out for justice.

And that has nothing to do with 'biblically faithful Christianity'.  

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods