Lord Carey of Clifton isn’t the retiring sort. He stood down as Archbishop of Canterbury ten years ago, but he wasn’t ready to end his days in quiet contemplation. At 76, he is still a public figure — more so, perhaps, than ever.
He used to be dismissed as a plodding liberal; a typically ineffectual Anglican primate. Today, he is recognised as perhaps the leading British voice of Christian conservatism. He speaks out against mass immigration, multiculturalism, gay marriage and militant secularists.
He makes headlines. He’s recently fulminated against a High Court ban on prayers at council meetings, and attacked his fellow bishops in the House of Lords for their opposition to the government’s benefits cap. ‘I think some people were a bit upset with me about that,’ he says.
Indeed they were. Bishop Stephen Lowe accused him of peddling ‘Tory dogma’. Dr Giles Fraser, the former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, called him a ‘Thatcherite’ — a swear word in most Anglican circles — and one of ‘yesterday’s men’.
Lord Carey doesn’t look like a troublemaker or a bull-headed reactionary. When I meet him in the lobby of the Landmark hotel in Marylebone Road, he resembles other passing guests: wheeled suitcase in one hand, mobile phone in the other. (Closer inspection reveals the dog collar and pectoral cross, and a large ecclesiastical ring.)
He comes across as a gentle soul. He wants to talk about football and pop music so as not to seem out of touch. ‘If you were to look at my iPod,’ he says, rather sweetly, ‘you’d see a strange eclectic mix with Supertramp, the Carpenters … Coldplay even.’
He isn’t soft, though. The son of an East End hospital porter, he has a toughness to him. He shrugs off the insults of his fellow clergy. ‘Giles is Giles,’ he says. ‘You’ve got to have a thick skin in public life. He is wrong to call me a Thatcherite. I loved the film The Iron Lady. But I’ve always thought that she was draconian in some things, with the miners for instance. I’ve always tried to resist being labelled politically.’
Has he not moved to the right, then, since leaving Lambeth Palace? ‘People may say that… but my political affiliations have not changed. I think that this government is doing some things right, but I think it is also making many mistakes.’
He does, however, feel that in recent years Britain has shifted away dramatically from its spiritual foundations, and that Christian values are being brushed aside.
He has written a new book, with his journalist son Andrew, called We Don’t Do God: The Marginalisation of Public Faith, and he hopes it will ‘raise a few eyebrows’.
‘What I am getting at is that we have gone too far on human rights legislation,’ he says. ‘Now equality trumps freedom every time. Homosexual rights trump religious rights. It is almost as if we find no way of accommodating differences.’
He partly blames duplicitous politicians. ‘Everyone knew where Tony Blair stood as a Christian. But it’s almost as if the arguments and policies he pursued were consciously at variance with the way the Church wanted to go. It’s the same for David Cameron. He makes very chipper speeches about the King James Bible and how our country needs the Christian voice and yet he makes decisions, especially about marriage, that seem to run in a different direction.’
Lord Carey directs most of his ire, however, at the legal system and a ‘tiny minority of secularists who will stop at nothing in their attempt to sideline Christianity’. He points to some well-known instances of Christian beliefs being subjugated by political correctness and equality laws. The British Airways stewardess banned from wearing a cross at work; the Catholic adoption agencies shut down because they wouldn’t work with gay couples; the NHS nurse suspended for offering to pray for a patient.
Lord Carey stresses that British Christians should not see themselves as martyrs. ‘We are still very lucky in this country,’ he says. ‘Unlike in other countries, we can practise freely. What we are talking about here is discrimination, not persecution.’
But discrimination might be a ‘prelude’ to something more sinister, he says. Anglicans and what he calls the ‘silent majority’ — those who identify themselves as Christian even if they don’t go to church — must stand up for religious freedoms before it’s too late. ‘It’s up to us to do something. We’ve got to shake up our clergy, shake up the people, encourage them to get over the attitude of “We can do nothing about it, this is now a post-Christian age”.’
British Anglicans, he says, have much to learn from their African counterparts. ‘For them, faith is so important that they would face death for it if it came to that. It’s not an old overcoat that you can dispense. Maybe we have got to learn to be more committed to our faith — sort out the men from the boys, to some degree.’
Implicit in all this, perhaps, is a criticism of Dr Rowan Williams, often accused of being weak in the face of anti-Christian hostility. Yet Lord Carey is diplomatic when asked about his successor. ‘In Rowan, we are very fortunate to have someone who, as a thinker, is first-rate, and as a theologian is top-class,’ he says. ‘He is somebody I have sought to support and indeed we get on very well indeed.’
They have ‘differences’, however. He didn’t agree with Dr Williams’s suggestion that Islamic courts might be integrated into the British justice system. ‘I thought that was a very clever speech, but I don’t think it was clear enough what he was actually saying. I objected to any suggestion that there is a place for a sort of Sharia law that is outside civil law.’
It’s not hard to see why Lord Carey was a well-liked occasional columnist for the News of the World. He has a straightforward style and a common-sense instinct for how people feel. ‘Working-class people don’t think they have a voice,’ he says, ‘and they are fed up.’ Does he think that, in order to survive, the Church of England must re-connect with the working classes? ‘I believe so, yes,’ he replies. ‘Every church relates to its local community in some form or another but we’ve got to do much more of that. We’ve got to make ourselves more relevant, and a good incumbent with a good congregation is going to say how can we serve our community better?’
Many clergymen have tried to make their church ‘relevant’ to the modern world, and failed. But maybe Lord Carey, yesterday’s man, has the right idea.