Members of the Church of England leaped to the defense of their primate after a national newspaper claimed he doubted the resurrection of Christ.
While some claim Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, head of the worldwide Anglican communion, was deliberately set up by the press, others think he lacks the communication skills needed to be an effective Christian leader.
The story reminded many of Bishop David Jenkins, the former Anglican ordinary of Durham, who revealed one Easter Sunday in the 1980s that he did not believe in the virgin birth or the Resurrection, saying, “I do not believe God did a conjuring trick with bones.”
Hoping to have hit on a similar scoop, the Aug. 1 edition of The Mail On Sunday newspaper led with a front page story that was headlined: “Fury at Carey's attack on the Church.”
It quoted Archbishop Carey as stating, “I can tell you frankly that while we can be absolutely sure that Jesus lived and that he was certainly crucified on the cross, we cannot with the same certainty say that he was raised by God from the dead.”
The story outraged the Anglican faithful.
A typical reaction came from Evelyn Jones, a worshipper in South West England.
She told the Register, “I think they were looking for something like that to get him. They were twisting his words. I am sure Dr. Carey holds the basic Christian belief in the Resurrection.”
Sally Walters, a believer from the same part of the country, backed the archbishop's statement.
“He's right—there are a lot of things we have to take as faith, I think the main difficulty is the clash between the language of theology and the language of the media.”
A spokesman for Archbishop Carey said he “does, in fact, believe in the Resurrection. There is no chance ever of that not being the case.”
He said the use of statements from the archbishop's forthcoming book, Jesus 2000, were “highly selective.” The book is scheduled for release in September.
The spokesman pointed to another portion of the text that reads like a wry premonition of how the archbishop's remarks would eventually be taken: “‘Archbishop of Canterbury doesn't believe in the Resurrection;’ it is a wonderful headline, put your pens down.”
Archbishop Carey also received solidarity from the English and Welsh Catholic bishops' conference which refused to be drawn into the controversy.
A spokesman for the bishops' media office blamed Archbishop Carey's problem on mischievous journalism. “It was an appalling piece of reporting. Most people saw it for what it was—awful.”
But some commentators placed at least some of the blame with the primate himself.
Early in his episcopacy Archbishop Carey created a stir when he called Catholic teaching on the ordination of women “heresy.”
Damian Thompson, former religion correspondent of the national Daily Telegraph newspaper and an influential media commentator, told the Register, “He's never got it right.
“I think in this latest article he was almost goading the media to produce an unflattering story. It is symptomatic of the way he deals with the media.”
Added Thompson: “His communication skills have never improved since his disastrous early days, although maybe some of the people around him are better at clearing up the mess.”
Thompson compared the archbishop's relationship with the press to the one enjoyed by the late Cardinal Basil Hume, whose opinion was often sought when the secular media needed a “Christian” soundbite or quote on a national issue.
“Cardinal Hume was immensely personable,” said Thompson. “In these times the public persona of a church leader is very important. Carey is not a very engaging person and he is gaffe-prone in media terms.”
Catholic theologian and columnist Father Francis Marsden said Archbishop Carey had been naive, adding, “The media want controversy. They … want a good headline and saying ‘the Archbishop of Canterbury doubts the Resurrection’ makes very good copy.”
Father Marsden, a columnist for the British and Irish weekly, The Catholic Times, said, “Although he is an evangelical, [Archbishop Carey] seems to be going partly along the liberal way of separating the Jesus of history [from] the Christ of faith.
Some liberal theologians in Britain and Germany say, although Jesus was a historical figure, titles such as messiah are the projections of the first-century Christian community.”
He added, “I have a problem with his statement that you cannot prove the Resurrection, and [that] it is a matter of faith. It goes back to the old question: If you had a video camera would you have been able to video the Resurrection? I believe, yes, you would have been able to.
“A lot of what we believe in life we take on the evidence of witnesses, and the apostles went to their deaths proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead.
“All but John were martyred for saying this. I agree with Pascal's famous statement, ‘I believe witnesses who get their throats cut.’”
Paul Burnell writes from England.