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The New Archbishop of Canterbury

Letter from England

By John Warwick Montgomery | December 1992
The Rev. John Warwick Montgomery, a Lutheran clergyman, is a practicing barrister and Principal Lectur­er in Law and Human Rights at Luton College in En­gland.

Many Anglicans breathed a deep sigh of relief when Archbishop Robert Runcie arrived at the mandatory retirement age. During World War II Runcie had been a tank commander, and it was said that his last resolute decisions were made in that capacity. Certainly, as Archbishop of Canterbury he was the archetypal “good ‘ol wishy-washy Charlie Brown.”

Now the mantle has fallen on George Carey. What is his theological perspective? He is generally identified as evangelical-cum-charismatic, and as such — on the lesser of evils principle — he can only be an improvement on his predecessor. But evaluating him requires an examination of his views.

Just before his elevation to Canterbury, Carey declared that opposition to the ordination of women priests is a “heresy.” This produced a veritable uproar. Many pointed out that the new Archbishop was — de minimis — rusty on his theological terminology. The strong definition of “heresy” involves “the formal denial or doubt of any defined doctrine of the Catholic faith,” and quite obviously the Church Catholic has never defined a pro-women’s ordination doctrine. The weaker definition of heresy entails denial of a cardinal or salvatory teaching of Christian faith; but a refusal to ordain women hardly reaches the level of imperiling the Gospel. As the hubbub increased, Carey retracted his statement, nonetheless leaving doubt as to his theological, and indeed also his political, skills.

If that were not enough, the Archbishop-elect also suggested that liturgically “a lan­guage 300 or 400 years old” is used “for sentiment’s sake.” The Prayer Book Society responded in no uncertain terms:

Canon A5 makes the Book of Com­mon Prayer a yardstick by which the doctrine of the Church is defined. Since many modern services represent inadequately the doctrine of the Church, we would ask what sort of faith the Church will pass on to future generations if they are kept in igno­rance of the Book of Common Prayer.

In other words, the issue is not guitars versus Palestrina and Bach. Again, the depth of Carey’s theological commitment was left in doubt.

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