Huw Spanner
Thoughts into words,
ideas into action
Curriculum Vitae



Be Generous!

I interviewed George Carey, then Archbishop of Canterbury, in the corner of a vast stateroom at Lambeth Palace on the 16th October 1997. His office had initially insisted that even to national newspapers he gave only 30 minutes, but I had held out for an hour and eventually got it. It was, I think, a measure of the esteem that Third Way was held in by church leaders, and a recognition of its influence.

Some people regard interviews as an opportunity and some as an ordeal. My impression was that Dr Carey was among the latter. At the end, to my amusement, he said: ‘Well, Huw, you’ve asked some most searching questions!’

The interview was reported at some length in the Times.

When Diana, Princess of Wales died, a lot of people praised your Thought for the Day and said that at last you seemed to have found a voice you were comfortable with. Is that how you felt, that this was the real you speaking?

I have always felt that it’s the real me speaking, from the time I was first ordained. I have always said my piece. It rather surprises me if people feel that I’ve changed.

Inevitably, of course, any leadership role puts constraints on you. If you are a politician, you can’t simply act as an ordinary person, you have to represent an organisation – in my case, a church. Inevitably you are squeezed between certain things: the kind of thing I’d love to say as George Carey, the things I must say as Archbishop of Canterbury, the things I cannot say just at the moment because the timing is wrong. Sometimes when I am criticised by people for not saying something, I may have it in mind to say it at a more strategic time.

There was some correspondence in the church press which said that the church made a mistake in speaking comfortable words after the princess’s death and blew the chance to preach the gospel. After all, maybe she isn’t in the arms of Jesus now. Shouldn’t the church have said that?

I expect the parish priest to deal with a lot of those questions. But what I think is important was the way in which the churches (and particularly the Church of England) opened their doors. I mean, we were talking about literally hundreds of services in that week, 15,000 candles sold in York Minster, clergy on the streets talking to people – and in listening to that kind of inchoate spirituality and engaging with it, I think that was actually a generous church operating. I emphasise again and again in my addresses about being a generous and a welcoming church.

The second thing to bear in mind is the public or civic role that the Church of England plays in the nation. And if you are trying to appeal to and work with people many of whom do not call themselves Christians, to come in making condemnatory statements about individuals —

I’m not talking about condemning anyone, but isn’t the most crucial role of the church to bear witness to the reality of judgement?

Indeed, indeed. But I have never used a funeral service to preach judgement. I think it would be pastorally quite, quite wrong. What you have to do is to preach hope into that situation. Preach the resurrection. Now, in the case of the Abbey my role was to lead, as responsibly as I could, the prayers. And if you look at the way I crafted those prayers, you will see themes to do with resurrection and so on very clearly there.

People look to the head of any church to ‘speak out’ – in other words, to be prophetic. But whereas most of the great prophets of the Bible were loose cannons, in that they weren’t accountable to anyone except God, the Archbishop of Canterbury can’t be. Is it actually impossible for you to be prophetic?

Well, I would encourage you to look back over my seven years. Actually I have got myself in hot water. For example, I spoke out quite early on about the Newcastle riots. I have spoken out on housing. I went with Basil Hume to see the Secretary of State for Social Security on the Asylum Bill. I went to Khartoum and stood alongside the Sudanese people and said tough things to their government. I am the only archbishop in living memory to initiate a debate on schools and moral values in the House of Lords.

I am quite prepared to speak out when the time comes. I seized such an opportunity just six weeks ago at the TUC conference. In the last century, my church sided with the Establishment. So, I have got a record of speaking out and getting a lot of flak. A lot of flak.

Of course, you can make any number of speeches but on certain issues the media will simply not report you, so that your apparent agenda is in fact set by them. Do you think the Church of England could take a leaf out of Labour’s book in terms of manipulating the media?

We can all learn lessons. Maybe we need to be a lot tougher with the media. But I remember talking to the last prime minister [, John Major,] about this. A speech he had given the previous night had just been ignored by the media, and he was pretty upset about that. I remember saying to him, ‘So, it’s not only the church that suffers from this,’ and he said, ‘Oh no. We are all victims when it comes to this.’

That’s fair enough, but one could say that the Prime Minister’s primary job is governing but the church’s is prophesying, so it’s more crucial for the church to be heard…

Prophesying is only a part of the church’s work. It may not even be the most important part. I mean, you don’t find much about prophesying in the New Testament.

But actually I would reject the idea that we have totally failed. We can do better, I am sure, but I think we have a good record. People sometimes say, ‘Doesn’t establishment get in the way of being a prophetic church?’ And I say, ‘OK, if that is the case, look at the record of the Free Churches in this country. I challenge you to name any prophetic Free Church leaders who have got a hearing.’

Cardinal Hume and Thomas Winning do, but maybe that’s just because the media are having an affair at the moment with the Catholic Church.

Well, that sometimes happens, and certainly one is not minimising what other churches are doing. I regard myself as very much in step with them on the social issues. But I would say that the Church of England is more often than not the church that is quoted in the media. They’re very interested in church affairs, and although it is often negative, it is the Church of England they are focused on and not other churches.

But if I can ask you: what have Cardinals Winning and Hume spoken out on in the last 10 years that you regard as prophetic?


Well, it is very clear where the Roman Catholic Church stands. Now, on that issue I (and most Anglicans) would go as far in being for life as I possibly can, but I can’t say that abortion is always wrong. That is where the Anglican position takes us.

How do you choose what to speak out on? Is it a case of what you feel that God is most concerned about? Or where you think you have the best chance of influencing the outcome? Or is it pure opportunism?

No, it is not pure opportunism. Look, let me fill you in on where I stand in terms of vision. I have been emphasising three themes to the Church of England from the very beginning of my term as archbishop in the early days of the Decade of Evangelism, and it will go on until I retire: confidence in our spirituality, mission in our life and work, and unity – because if you are not a united church you can’t be a missionising body. That has been my basic plank. To turn this enormous beast – and it is: 16,000 churches, 5,000 schools – and to make it much more effective in the life of our nation.

And then there have been three or four themes through my ministry. One, of course, is evangelism and mission and spirituality. Although I am very much into social action, first and foremost we are here to declare God and preach the word of God faithfully to his people.

Second has been moral values – that we are a country in danger of losing our memory, of losing that treasure of Christian morality. Third has been that dimension of helping the Church of England to be at the heart of the nation, and to witness to that nation as a generous, giving and accessible church.

And a church which is holding on to the treasures of the past can reach forward with confidence into the future, and therefore is not afraid of change – because change is the nature of life in any case, isn’t that right?

There are some elements in your own constituency of evangelicals who would applaud all of that but find fault with what one might call ‘the social gospel’.

Yes, I know.

Traditionally, evangelicals have said that the only way to change society is to change individual human hearts through conversion. How would you respond to that?

Well, I wouldn’t want to take such a simplistic stance as that – and I would want to go back to the biblical witness. Jesus didn’t put evangelism into one box and social care into another: it all came from a generous heart. And so healing and care for the widows and prostitutes as well as preaching the kingdom are all of a piece. You see that social witness in the early church as well.

I think that is where I am – although I would want to say, because I am still deeply an evangelical, that preaching the faith and building up the local church are a priority for me. I was seven years in Durham: what did I do? Well, we built up the local church. But I wasn’t only interested in its own life. I was also a prison chaplain. I was interested in work with young people and working out into the community and that kind of thing. The local church is a springboard for Christian witness and social witness as well.

In a House of Lords debate, you quoted Basil Hume: ‘Our task is the training of good human beings … themselves with a vision of what it is to be human and the kind of society that makes that possible.’

Some Christians would say that you can’t be a ‘good human being’ unless you have faith. So, they might argue, surely the whole purpose of the Archbishop of Canterbury is to cultivate faith, not morality, because morality is the outworking of faith?

Oh, but I have said on so many occasions that Christianity is not a moralistic religion. That doesn’t mean that we are not interested in morals, but first and foremost we are here to preach Christ and to lead people to salvation. And out of that relationship comes a new life, and a new lifestyle.

In that speech my focus was on schools, where we are trying to make people citizens of one nation. So, at that particular point it’s not contradictory to say that the aim of education is to make people good, moral people. But I went on to talk about the focus of the Christian faith, that we are interested in more than just moral behaviour. But of course you have to hold the two things together: faith in God and a moral life.

In a sermon last year you said: ‘If people do not accept the authority of scriptural revelation or of church tradition, we shall not persuade them by simply repeating snatches of scripture or church doctrines with the volume turned up louder.’

Does that mean that on some issues, such as premarital sex perhaps, there is no point in the church ‘speaking out’ at all, because our position is built almost entirely on scriptural revelation?

Well, I need to make myself clear. When you are working in a nation which is losing its biblical memory, where children are not being taught the Lord’s Prayer and so on, it’s no good just standing on a street corner shouting John 3.16. They won’t know what it is. They won’t even know which John you are referring to.

Therefore, we have got to preach into this situation and find a new apologetic in which we can talk about God – and I believe that the local church is where you start. In fact, preaching Christ and living Christ are all of a piece. In the first instance, people are more likely to be impressed by the quality of our living than they are by the words we say. The quality of our humanity has to speak to people and we draw them into our fellowship, and that’s where the encounter with God often takes place today.

On the issue of premarital sex, I would say that it is certainly not God’s ideal. I have said again and again, sexuality is expressed within a faithful, loving, lifelong relationship —

But that is not an argument, is it, that will carry any weight with a society that, as you say, does not accept biblical revelation?

No, it is not an argument: it is a position that comes out of a way of living, and your understanding of biblical revelation.

Part of the problem is that if one is a ‘gathered’ church, with very clear, black-white differentiation between the world and the church, you may satisfy your conscience that we are biblical and so on and they belong to darkness, but you can have no way of speaking into that situation.

What we have to do is, while holding on to the central tenets of the Christian faith and Christian revelation, to be accessible. We have got to listen to the questions of the world. We have got to be available to enter into a dialogue. It’s very difficult to be a church like that, and therefore I have often said that the Anglican communion is a body with ragged edges. But it doesn’t mean to say that we haven’t got a clear body of doctrine. We certainly have, in our Articles and our commitment to scripture.

On some issues – environmentalism, perhaps – the church has seemed to follow the wider culture. As a leader, how do you discern between the spirit of the age and the Spirit speaking through the world? Take the ordination of women. As John Gummer remarked, how did the present generation of church leaders know that they were right and 19 centuries of Christians before them were wrong? And wasn’t it a bit of a coincidence that the church should change its mind just after the rest of the world had?

Well, sometimes it is quite difficult really. But if you go to the Bible, you will see the way in which God uses people like Cyrus as an instrument. We mustn’t think that God cannot teach the church a thing or two through the wider culture. For me, God’s grace is perceived and reached through a number of different sources.

The second way into that question is to recognise that on a number of these questions the gospel has been saying things long before the church has picked them up. Take slavery, for example. It took the church and society 1,900 years, but it was an Anglican layman,William Wilberforce, who, listening to scripture, said that this is wrong. But the Epistle to Philemon had been saying that, Galatians 3.28 had been saying that, and so on. To our shame we are not always listening to scripture.

Take the ordination of women. Why do I believe in that so passionately, and have done all my ministry? Because as I looked at scripture and the implication of baptism and the gifts of the Spirit, and women prophets in the New Testament, and women possessing gifts of leadership, and Galatians 3.28, it seemed to me that the tenor of scripture was leading us to say, ‘Look, women are being imprisoned and rejected so much by men.’

And if you press the question ‘Why now?’, well, because that general tenor of teaching has also coincided with the emancipation of women. Women are liberated now.

Lately there has been a significant rapprochement between Christian and Jewish and Muslim leaders. Is there a danger that by placing such emphasis on our shared values you are failing to bear witness to much more important truths which divide us?

Yes. I don’t think anyone can accuse me, though, of in any way diluting the Christian faith, because in my commitment to dialogue between the religions I have been very much upfront in emphasising the uniqueness of Christ. Christ is the only way of salvation. I did it in my enthronement address.

I was asked this question in Leicester just two days ago – and Leicester has got the largest number of Hindus in Britain – and so I was able to say to them, ‘Look, the last thing you want is a bland Christian leader. I’m not bland. I believe that Jesus Christ is the only Saviour. Now, I can tell you that because I know that I have also got to listen to your story, too.’

For me, the central issue is not evangelism but the way we evangelise. We should be Christlike in our evangelism to people of other faiths and should listen to them and respect them. Enter into dialogue, understand them – just as my namesake William Carey spent 14 years learning the languages of India before he felt it was right to preach into that situation.

Interfaith dialogue is important – do not minimise that; but I am unapologetic in my commitment to evangelism.

But might not interfaith dialogue and ecumenism feed relativism? People see you sharing a platform with the Chief Rabbi and they think, ‘Oh, it’s all just a matter of perspective. There’s not actually that much difference between them.’

Well, there is always that danger. But what good would it do if I didn’t do that? What kind of message would it send out to the world? That the Christian church is not interested in these other people, does not value them as people, will not enter into a dialogue. I think more harm would come of that.

Inevitably, there will be some people, ignorant, complacent and so on, who will always read the wrong thing into whatever one does. If you went around trying to get 100-per-cent approval, you would never achieve it at all. You have always got to risk being misunderstood. So, I gamely carry on risking that.

Some people would say that the best way to show you value people is to present the gospel to them. Yet you dismayed some evangelicals by distancing yourself from the Church’s Ministry among the Jews. Was that to avoid giving offence to the Jewish community?

No, it wasn’t. I am quite unapologetic about that. I must control my own ministry and not have it controlled by other people.

I came in as president or patron of over 400 organisations, so I had to clean it up. I believe in the responsibility: if I am a patron, I take it seriously. What did I find? I was president of the Council of Christians and Jews, and patron of CMJ. I had no contact with CMJ actually, I was just on their letterhead. I found that it would be very difficult for me to do both, and CCJ was a crucial thing. One didn’t take me seriously, the other one wanted a contribution from me.
I am still on good terms with the leader of CMJ, but what it has done for my ministry is to clear the clutter, and that was what I was anxious to achieve. Sorry to speak with strength on that, but I want to get that across.

Suppose that when his time comes to accede, Prince Charles were to say, ‘I want an interfaith coronation service.’ Would you be happy with that?

I really must reserve my position on that, because it’s so hypothetical. I don’t mind being quoted that it’s ‘No comment.’

I hope that people know that I am a person who doesn’t compromise on central beliefs and I do not agree with interfaith worship. And other faiths don’t like it either. You won’t find a Muslim who would want it.

Assuming that establishment lasts, and I believe it will, it will inevitably be a Christian service.

And you would defend that? You wouldn’t say that as we are a pluralist society —

No, no, we are not. We mustn’t concede the game to being a multifaith society – we are not. Other faiths comprise less than 10 per cent of the population. So, 90 per cent still are rooted in a Christian position.

You talk a lot of the importance of unity in the wider church, and you have said, ‘We know deep down, even if institutionally we have difficulty in admitting it, below all our divisions heart speaks to heart.’ When you have a high-profile meeting, say with the Pope, which the media like to portray as a sacred summit, how do you go about realising the unity of the Spirit?

I have no difficulty respecting Pope John Paul II as a very fine Christian man. I have worshipped with him in his chapel, side by side in silent prayer, and heard him praying – and he’s very Christocentric, actually, as a leader. So, I respect that.

Of course, there are fundamental differences between us that we need to sort out – things like Marian dogmas, papal infallibility, all these things are very serious issues that still have to be dealt with theologically.

At the organisational level, there is a lot of work to be done, a lot of putting right of history and so on. Most of us have been influenced by our traditions and we see these churches as somehow over against us. When I was a younger Christian, the Roman Catholic Church seemed to me very unbiblical. But it’s at the level of personal encounter you realise there’s more, much more, going on. Over the years you realise there are wonderful, faithful men and women of God there.

That is why I am passionately committed to unity – not because of ecclesiastical joinery or anything like that, but for the mission of the church and Christ’s kingdom. For me, ecumenism is very important, because it’s the witness of the church that is affected. When the world looks at us and sees that there are something like 300 member churches in the World Council of Churches and some important ones, such as the Roman Catholic Church, are not members, it’s a scandal, it really is.

And evangelicals are not good at unity. Since the Reformation, we have been a very fissiparous group of people. We will often divide over finer points of doctrine until, you know – we think we have salved our own conscience but in fact we are weakening and weakening the mission of the church.

I wish I could believe that unity is round the corner. It’s not. In the meantime, we have to trudge on as pilgrims.

It seems to me that being Archbishop of Canterbury is an impossible job —

Well, I think it is most of the time, yes.

What do you hope to achieve in it? I’m mindful that you have said that Christ calls us to faithfulness, not necessarily to success.

Yes, well, I do have clear goals. I always have had in my ministry. But the goals have to be shared, and one must not be afraid of failure. I think I would rather encourage people to set out on a journey and risk failure than to sit at home and achieve nothing.

If at the end of my time I can leave a Church of England behind which is much more confident in its mission, with every church focused on growth and service, I would be happy.

The ordination of women happened in my time. I am delighted that we now have 2,000 women priests. Thirdly, we are dealing with the structures of the Church of England at the moment. The Turnbull proposals will bring together finance and policy and vision, which I want to achieve. Fourthly, if we can make the Church of England more secure at the heart of our nation I would be pleased.

Fifthly, I want to strengthen the Anglican communion throughout the world. That is a very important dimension of my ministry. I am concerned about international debt. I am concerned about the world’s poor, and the women and orphans in the Anglican communion. I am trying to strengthen the structures of the Anglican communion.

But it’s not for me to assess success. I often go back to 1 Corinthians 4.4, where Paul says, ‘I am not being judged by you. It is God that judges me.’ That is a very precious text for me.

© Third Way 1997

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