LONDON When Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey retires on Oct. 31, he will step down with a decidedly mixed record, say critics on both the left and right.
Archbishop Carey led the Church of England through a tumultuous period of financial setbacks, the introduction of new liturgies and a wrenching decision to ordain women. Spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans, he also held the Anglican Communion together despite sometimes acrimonious splits between liberals and conservatives.
Yet he will bequeath to his successor a church that, while streamlined at the top, is struggling at the parish level a denomination suffering from declining Sunday church attendance despite the Decade of Evangelism campaign in the 1990s.
Neither side is complimentary about Archbishop Carey’s role in the debate over the ordination of women, a divisive battle that is likely to be replayed sometime in the future on the question of allowing women to be bishops.
“I’d have to say he started off really well, a great champion, and probably the weight of office made him rather go silent over the years,” said Christina Rees, who chairs Women and the Church (WATCH).
“It would be better now, even for those who cannot accept it, if the archbishop of Canterbury had continued to give strong leadership and guidance,” she said.
The church’s compromise in 1992 was to ordain women, and provide “flying bishops” to oversee congregations that refused to accept the decision.
Women now account for about a fifth of Church of England priests, and 45 percent of the 1,400 people now in training. But some 300 Church of England parishes are allied with Forward in Faith, the coalition that opposed female priests.
“He has left the church poorer and weaker,” said the Rev. Robbie Low, a parish priest and member of the council of Forward in Faith. “He is not a bad man, but it was a job that was beyond his grasp, really.”
Mr. Low faults Archbishop Carey for not putting a strong traditionalist bishop in any diocese, though he says Archbishop Carey “has tried to be very fair” to the traditionalist wing.
Financial issues have pressed hard during Archbishop Carey’s tenure, which began in 1991. The Church Commissioners, custodians of the denomination’s investments, ceased to fund clergy pensions after 1997. That burden has fallen on the parishes.
Archbishop Carey shook up the church’s structure with the creation in 1999 of the Archbishops’ Council, chaired by Archbishop Carey and the archbishop of York, David Hope, to oversee administrative matters.
“The combination [of Archbishop Carey and Archbishop Hope] somehow seemed to gel. Both of them I think had a frustration about the structures of the Church of England, and the inability of the church to respond rapidly when something happened,” said the Rev. Martin Dudley, rector of St. Bartholomew the Great in London.
Although there were many doubts about creating the Archbishops’ Council, “it cut through a lot of the bureaucratic nonsense,” Mr. Dudley said.
Last year, a committee set up by Archbishop Carey and headed by former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd recommended a reassignment of many of the duties of the archbishop of Canterbury.
Mr. Hurd proposed that the archbishop of York share the administrative load, that the bishop of Dover take up most of the responsibilities within the diocese of Canterbury, and that a “bishop at Lambeth” be appointed to help run the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Archbishop Carey has not said which, if any, of these suggestions he will implement, but Mr. Hurd’s intention is that the next archbishop of Canterbury the 104th would have more time for prayer and reflection.
Beyond administration, church attendance is another matter that has troubled Mr. Carey. Average Sunday attendance dropped from 1.14 million when Mr. Carey was appointed to 969,000 in 1999.