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The Truth Will Set You Free by George Carey

by
18 March 2022

Jeremy Morris reviews Lord Carey’s memoir of his retirement years

THIS is the sequel to George Carey’s earlier volume of memoirs, Know the Truth (Books, 2 July 2002). It covers the 19 years from his retirement as Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002 until the writing of the memoir.

Although it is clearly written, it is at times an uncomfortable read. Carey is direct and unsparing in his recounting of the examination of the Peter Ball and John Smyth cases that have cast a shadow over his retirement and led, on two separate occasions, to the removal of his permission to officiate — an extraordinary outcome for someone who, at least by his own account, had always tried to do the best he could in the circumstances.

Given the continuing controversy over these matters, and also over the handling of the allegation against the long-dead George Bell (on which Carey also has much to say), most readers will be tempted to skim through the early chapters, which deal mostly with Carey’s involvement post-retirement with the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, and the World Faiths Development Dialogue.

That is a pity, because Carey was deeply involved in these matters, and casts an interesting light on the tensions that bedevil those who want to assert the continuing importance of faith in international relations and economic development. Given his own background as the first truly working-class archbishop in many centuries, and not a product of public school and Oxbridge, his participation in these circles is testimony to an extraordinary career — something perhaps not always appreciated by his critics. He gives little sense here of any lack of confidence.

Some chapters follow a themed approach, including his reflections on his commitment to work among the poor, and to education. A chapter narrating his change of heart over assisted dying, from a position of opposition to one accepting the necessity of legislative change to permit it in some circumstances, is particularly illuminating. It is honest and pinpoints, with laudable sensitivity, the awful dilemmas that the terminally ill can face. I can’t think of any equivalent reflection from other senior bishops on such a fundamental change of view, and one that attracted quite a lot of criticism for Carey from other Christian leaders.

But, inevitably, the sense of expectation builds up as the more recent issues come into view. Carey was one of those who doubted the justice of the treatment of the long dead George Bell’s reputation after an allegation of child abuse against him emerged in 2015, having been lodged privately but badly handled some two decades before. Church leaders were probably caught between a rock and a hard place.

AlamyLord Carey at the Oxford Literary Festival in 2018

As doubts about the case grew, Carey aligned himself strongly with the defence of Bell. All this is interesting, but I am not sure how much it adds to our understanding of Carey’s own career. It serves, however, as prelude to the more personally — for Carey — challenging criticisms that surfaced around the same time about his handling of the abuse allegations against Ball in the 1990s, and later against Smyth. Anyone reading this narrative perhaps ought to bear in mind that his is just one perspective; perhaps in time others will be brought to bear.

He points out the pitfalls of the development of safeguarding processes in the Church and law — including the lack of anonymity for the accused, even when subsequently vindicated, the abandonment of the presumption of innocence, and the retrospective application of standards of process known to have been absent in the past — and it is difficult not to feel that he has been treated somewhat shabbily.

But the final word is not a negative one. Despite his recent experiences, at the end, Carey reaffirms his passion for the gospel and his commitment to the work of the Church. He emerges as a principled if — unsurprisingly — somewhat defensive figure, whose gifts to the Church have yet to be fully appreciated.

The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris is a former Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.


The Truth Will Set You Free
George Carey
Isaac Publishing £14.95*
(978-1-9524501-3-6)
*available direct from isaac-publishing.com

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