A bit of a dud

Know the Truth: a memoir

George Carey <em>HarperCollins, 468pp, £25</em>

ISBN 0007120303

George Carey has had a bad press for revealing, in these memoirs, his conviction that Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles - whom he counselled as archbishop of Canterbury - should stop living in sin and get married. Such remarks are, his critics claim, a cheap trick to sell more copies of the book, and therefore quite unbecoming of the former leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion. But this analysis misses the point. Surely, the royal revelations were simply a smokescreen to draw attention away from what is otherwise a terrible, turgid and empty autobiography.

Carey's reputation, both within and outside his church, is as a bit of a dud. He is seen as the bumbling, dim evangelical whom Margaret Thatcher plucked from obscurity in 1990 in an act of revenge against the Church of England for having been her only effective critic in the 1980s. He certainly failed to make any sort of impact during his ten years at Canterbury, too often sounding more like a train- spotter than a church leader.

His one great triumph - Synod's approval in 1992 of the ordination of women - had been brewing for decades and would have gone through with or without him at the helm. Many felt that Carey in effect surrendered the role of spiritual leader of the nation to brighter, Godlier figures such as Cardinal Basil Hume.

Yet, throughout his period in office, a small band of admirers argued that there is more to Carey than meets the eye, that he has endless degrees and PhDs in theology, and that he has been the victim, as a working-class boy from Dagenham, of the same arrogant prejudice that makes the British assume all American presidents are halfwits. So his memoirs - the first ever written by an archbishop of Canterbury - could have been his opportunity to set the record straight.

Unfortunately, Carey cannot write. Know the Truth is written in the style of a footballer's memoirs. No detail is too banal to be excluded. No tantalising hint of psychological depth is backed up by any sort of insight or self-knowledge. Every sentiment is turned into cliche. Describing his first visit to the Catholic headquarters at the Vatican, Carey talks about Rome being "part of my heritage of faith". But what does that mean? Is it the buildings that recall the early Church, or is he revealing a hitherto unsuspected vein of Catholicism?

No less infuriating is Carey's habit of contradicting himself. During a brisk account of his time as vicar of Saint Nicholas's Church in Durham (to which, as is his general practice, he ascribes the jolly nickname "St Nic's"), he devotes a whole page to fundraising efforts to restore the fabric of this ancient church. Yet, in the next chapter, he sounds off against those who think leading the Church of England is "all about maintenance and not mission". Presumably, he would include himself in this.

The absence of self-criticism is remarkable. During Carey's tenure, Sunday attendances fell dramatically. Rather than acknowledge this, however, he proudly observes that a few more people started coming on weekdays.

Almost everyone of any significance is praised the first time they appear ("intelligent", interestingly, is Carey's highest accolade), and then criticised when they slip back into the text a second or third time. David Jenkins is attacked simply for being "too clever". Robert Runcie - whom I believe will go down in history as one of the most ambitious and best archbishops of the modern era - is initially lauded as a dinner-party host, but then slammed for having no mission and no fixed ideas.

What, you end up wondering, was George Carey's mission? From his own account, it appeared to consist of doing all the obvious things, only a little bit harder - more jumble sales, more youth clubs, more travelling, more speeches, more hymns, more handshaking. Des-cribing his decision to accept the job at Canterbury, he talks of such things as duty and the needs of the institution, but never once mentions God or, more specifically, the notion that God may have been calling him. That would be fine if he was describing answering the call to run a bank in Warbington-on-Sea, but he was being asked to lead an ancient, global spiritual organisation.

And that is the yawning gap at the heart of this book. You could forgive it for being an overlong, dull, mean-spirited account of an underpowered man who fluffed a potentially fascinating post, but to be all of those things, and so utterly devoid of spiritual insight, is truly sinful.

Peter Stanford's Heaven: a traveller's guide is published in paperback by HarperCollins