Archbishop George Carey
3rd November 2002, 4th Sunday before Advent
Micah 3:5-end; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 24:1-14
If you are now expecting an apocalyptic sermon after that apocalyptic reading, you will be disappointed. I want to be a bit more personal than that. Perhaps instead, you might imagine what it was like for Jesus’ disciples who, according to Matthew, received this lecture (the beginning of Jesus’ huge final discourse) privately. It must have been quite a fearful prospect for them.
I hope this morning you will forgive me if I am a little nostalgic. I have tried over the two and a bit years that I have been here not to talk too much about the post from which I came. It can be hugely tedious to have to listen to lots of stories from places you haven’t been to and about people whom you do not know. Of course from time to time little reminiscences have slipped in to my sermons, but I hope that they have always been relevant to the theme that I was trying to explore. Today, however, the Church of England, and the Anglican Communion stand in the midst of a moment of change, a moment of opportunity. To use a biblical Greek word, it is a ‘kairos’ moment.
On Wednesday evening, Fran and I went off to Lambeth Palace for the final farewell to the Archbishop of Canterbury and Mrs Carey. We were rather fortunate to get there and, thanks to a total gridlock of traffic in North London, we were an hour and a quarter late, thus making the joyful reunion of all the senior members of staff who have served Dr Carey in his eleven and a half years as Primate of All England, somewhat more brief than we would have liked. Lord and Lady Carey - as they are now known - have now disappeared to relative anonymity in Bristol where they will, I hope, be able to refuel and enjoy themselves in a way they have been unable to for a very long time. But of course, they retire with echoes of very many columns of newsprint in their ears (if that’s possible), articles which have examined and accused and poked fun at, and occasionally appreciated a ministry which has been faithful, determined and courageous; a ministry which has been rooted in prayer and inspired by a vibrant faith in a God who is immersed in his world and constantly prompting us to fresh vision. Little of that cuts ice with the media.
I wonder how we would react if we found ourselves subject to such a cruel and intrusive critique of every move we make and every word we say. Because, I can tell you, that is what it feels like. The Archbishop, and those around him, put enormous time, energy, thought and prayer into every speech that he made and every visit. Ninety per cent of those speeches, all of which were circulated very widely through the media, went unreported because there were no words or phrases that jumped out of the texts at journalists, no criticisms of fellow bishops or of anyone else, no unorthodox doctrinal or moral statements - just carefully thought through reflections on matters of faith, sometimes taking up a key social or political issue, always encouraging, hopeful and positive. On his visits overseas, in which I was intimately involved, he was widely respected; he was listened to, and he responded to the warmth and affection that was shown to him. He was often controversial in the sense that when there was a particular issue burning away in a given country, he would find a way of addressing it, sensitively but firmly speaking up for the ordinary people.
I well remember the first visit I made with him. We went to Kenya to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Anglican Church of Kenya. The visit coincided with the National Day celebrations in Nairobi, the climax of which was a huge military parade through Uhuru Park in the centre of the city. The Archbishop was invited by President Moi to say a few words and to offer prayers before the parade began - a rare honour, it has to be said, to a foreigner. It is a sad fact that President Moi’s government has long been dogged by accusations of corruption. As it happened, there were at the same time, many unfortunate incidents also damaging the British Government (this being the end of 1994), and the Archbishop carefully but determinedly made reference to the need for transparency and integrity in government. It caused President Moi to leave the prepared text of his speech, and actually became the subject of a very interesting conversation in the private meeting with the President that followed. But not a mention of it in the British press.
In 1995 he went to Rwanda in the wake of the genocide. He was the first western leader to do so. The BBC sent a camera crew, and there was some reporting of the visit on their news bulletins. The press showed no interest. His continuing determination to use his influence - not huge, but nonetheless significant - to encourage the rebuilding of Rwandan church and society, that has persisted to the end of his time, has passed unnoticed. Yes there was some reporting of his visit to Sudan in the same year, but little attempt was made seriously to hear what he was saying and to report it - the main interest was that he criticised an unpleasant, anti-Western government; and again his continuing commitment to the very poorest people in that war-torn country has been ignored. In 1996 he went to Mozambique, just beginning to recover from its terrible civil war, and honoured the Anglican bishop there who had been and continues to be a beacon for peace throughout their society. Unnoticed. In Egypt, it was he who opened up serious conversations with the then Sheikh of Al Azhar, one of the most influential - and hard-line - Muslim leaders, a contact which has grown and multiplied, and paved the way just a few months ago for the Alexandra Declaration on Christian - Jewish - Muslim relations in the Holy Land, and on principles for peace. Again little notice taken of this revolutionary progress.
There are so many stories I could tell, but what I know is that, at times, that passage from St Matthew’s Gospel which we have just heard read had very personal meaning for George Carey. He was attacked and lampooned for nothing at all - for the way he looked, for the fact that he wore a jumper to record his first New Year’s message, for the odd careless phrase. To be in his position is inevitably to be a martyr. I have not agreed with everything he has said and done. Indeed I would admit from time to time to some frustration with him - and he no doubt would say the same about me! He is certainly not perfect - any more than any of us are. But he has suffered great injustice and deeply hurtful criticism. Robert Runcie suffered it for different reasons in his time. And now it seems Rowan Williams must bear it too. The pain this time is that it is Christian people who are loading the cross on his shoulder. I have written and spoken about him. I stand by every word. This man is the man to lead Anglicans for the next ten or more years. There is no doubt in my mind about that. He has been properly appointed - whether or not the appointment system is the best it could be. It is wrong, and verging on the sinful, that he should be subjected to such a barrage of criticism before he has even taken office, by groups that represent a small proportion of Anglican Christians; and that these criticisms are being given so many column inches in both the religious and secular press.
It is quite clear from this momentous passage, which is the beginning of Jesus’ great last discourse to his disciples in Matthew’s version of the story, that his earlier call to ‘take up your cross and follow’ is very much the crux of the matter of discipleship. In our comfortable and rather complacent form of Christian witness, much of the starkness of that message has been compromised. Over the centuries we have allowed the church to become a place of refuge, a place of escape, a place of security. And thank God for that. We have all benefited from that generosity of spirit which is passed from generation to generation. Indeed, if you look at the mission statement which was drawn up a few years ago for this congregation, this is the heart of the matter. Welcome - be at home. But does this prepare us for the big bad world, or are we really being rather superficially cocooned against it. Some find themselves thrust into situations where the cross is burdensome indeed. Perhaps each one of us, if we really believe that we too are disciples of Christ, must rise to the challenge to be ready to take up our cross; and not only to take up our cross, but to understand that that cross is actually Good News because there is so much through and beyond the cross.
That is what has sustained George Carey; that rock-like faith. I thank God for his ministry as Archbishop of Canterbury. That faith sustains Rowan Williams too, and now as never before he needs our prayers and our active support; but of course the best support that we can give is to build and develop our witness here in Nottingham to show that the rock is firm and that we are committed to the service of God’s people.