End of the hairy lefties?

The present incumbent of Lambeth Palace has recently received unwelcome visitations from the ghosts of archbishops past and future. From the past, George Carey pitched in to the debate over welfare reform on 25 January with all the intellectual subtlety of Jason Statham trying out ballet. His beef was with his fellow bishops and their resistance to the government's programme of benefit cuts. "Hallelujah!" splashed the Daily Mail as Carey instructed scroungers to get off their backsides and learn a lesson from his life story - how he worked his way up from a Dagenham council estate to one of the highest offices in the land. Bishop Stephen Lowe called it a "dismal intervention", letting slip the following comment on Twitter: "George Carey has disgracefully bought Tory dogma about undeserving unemployed poor. Go to work in a job centre and learn. Ashamed of him."

Carey proceeded to use the spotlight to return to his favourite subject: homosexuality. The poor man seems really quite obsessed with it. This time, he intervened to defend some dodgy psychiatrist who thinks that being gay is a ­mental illness of which people can be cured.

Enjoying the sunshine out in the Caribbean and perhaps feeling a bit left out, the future archbishop of Canterbury (according to Ladbrokes, at least) John Sentamu decided to take the opportunity to attack the Prime Minister's liberal flank by protesting against gay marriage on 27 January. Apparently, David Cameron's desire to allow same-sex couples the right to express their love for each other in terms of mutual and public promise makes him into some sort of "dictator". More cheers from the traditionalist wing on the Tory back benches.

The present archbishop may have described himself once as a "hairy lefty" but he seems to be hemmed in on every side by the voices of right-wing populism. Does this mean that the Church of England is reverting to the caricature of the Tory party at prayer?

Not a bit. Sentamu aside, those dredged up by the right-wing press for an eye-catching headline are all yesterday's men. It is significant that the go-to bishops - Carey and the former bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali - are both retired (though neither in the golf-playing sense, unfortunately).

Witness the bishops' revolt against the government's welfare reform legislation. There are many things to say about the presence of bishops in the House of Lords, but on 23 January they played a blinder, presenting a common front against laws that would affect some of the most vulnerable in our society. With too much concern for the opinion polls - the latest British Social Attitudes survey shows that 55 per cent of people in England think that benefits are too high - the Labour Party lacks the courage to speak out against benefit cuts. So, thank God for the bishops.

From rough to smooth

It's all a bit of a throwback to the 1980s. During that period, while Thatcherism was doing its worst and the Labour Party was lost to internal dispute, the Church of England took up the mantle of unofficial opposition to the government. Bishop David Jenkins lambasted the treatment of miners in Durham. And the Church's Faith in the City report of 1985 shone a powerful light on urban decay and the growing gap between rich and poor.

Dismissed by Conservative politicians as Marxist propaganda, Faith in the City showed a church rightly concerned with the effect of government cuts. Mrs Thatcher hated it. Her response was to promote Carey to Lambeth in 1991. He was a man after her own heart.

This is why Carey's attack on his fellow bishops is entirely predictable. His outlook comes straight from the Thatcherite self-help handbook. But in the current Church of England, he represents a very limited constituency. Today the Church looks much as it did in the 1980s. As the government's austerity programme targets the "undeserving poor", the clergy are finding their voice.

Which brings us back to Sentamu. Rumours abound that Rowan Williams will vacate the See of Canterbury after the Queen's diamond jubilee later this year. I am not entirely convinced this is true. But if it is, then it gives the current Prime Minister the opportunity to do what Mrs Thatcher did and use his muscle to install another right-winger.

Folklore has it that in papal successions a fat pope is always followed by a thin one. And it would seem logical for a hairy lefty to be followed by a smooth right-winger. But Sentamu is not a right-wing cleric from Central Casting. For all his instinctive conservatism about homosexuality, he was at one with his fellow bishops on welfare reform.

The truth is that there is no longer a plausible George Carey-type candidate in the Canterbury stakes. And that says a lot about whom Carey speaks for. He has become a one-man band, peddling a narrow version of Christianity as old-school as the Iron Lady. So, come on, George, do us all a favour - take up golf.

Giles Fraser is the former canon chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral