Former archbishop of Canterbury visits Episcopal community at Princeton

December 1, 2003

Former Archbishop of Canterbury George L. Carey, now Lord Carey of Clifton, and his wife Eileen spent four days visiting the Episcopal community at Princeton University in New Jersey, preaching to a congregation of a thousand and lecturing on “Islam and the West: Challenges Facing the Human Family.”

In his sermon at the Princeton Chapel as part of a convocation on “American Unilateralism: Leadership or Domination?” Carey began by saying that “there is too much ‘America bashing’ going on.”

“We look at our broken and flawed world and consider the deepening problems of Iraq, the seemingly hopeless situation in what we call the Holy Land, as well as the continent of Africa riddled with poverty, conflict and the crisis known to us as HIV/AIDS,” he noted.

Drawing on the verses from Micah, Carey said that “we must do justice.” Micah was “mostly concerned about the oppression of the poor by the rich” and he “rebuked the powerful for their mistreatment of others and told the religious who came to worship piled high with sacrifices that their sins mocked the Covenant God of Sinai.” He argued that justice “is not merely something we admire from afar in legal theory, it must be demonstrated in action, in the way we behave, in the way we live… And justice must precede peace.”

The 103rd archbishop of Canterbury asked the group of faith leaders a direct question: “What is the task of leadership in communities when people on both sides are convinced they are right and where room for maneuver seems so small?”

In response, Carey said that “we must always side with justice, love and peace. We are mandated to find solutions which enable different peoples to live together in harmony; we are mandated to encourage political leaders to seek the pathway of dialogue; and we are mandated to challenge the often-assumed position that concessions and compromises are signs of political weakness.”

And what does it mean to love mercy, as Micah commands? Carey asked. “When we love mercy we find a place for the poor, the victimized, the child in distress and those marginalized in all our societies. Mercy implies that the strong have a particular obligation to the weak; and the powerful have a particular responsibility for the powerless.”

As for walking humbly with God, Carey described his hope that it might be possible “one day, for Jewish believers, Muslim believers and Christian believers—in spite of deeply held differences—to walk humbly together in mutual tolerance and deeper respect towards a Jerusalem both full of peace and holy to all.”

The challenge of Islam

In his November 10 lecture, Carey said that while he was not an expert on Islam “I think I can say with some confidence that I have a reasonable idea of the challenges that Islam presents to the West and the challenges that Islam faces today.”

Recent terrorist events, particularly the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, make the topic “essential and urgent: What is Islam? Should we fear it and placate it? Should we hate it and fight it?”

“Living with Islam is no longer for those who work abroad,” Carey said. “However, Islam’s association with terrorism presents an enormous challenge for all seeking a peaceful, prosperous world.” Terrorism seems to signal that “we are witnessing a clash of cultures and are dealing with two quite different worldviews,” as suggested by Samuel Huntington in his controversial 1993 essay on the subject.

“There are over one billion Muslims in the world and the vast majority are peaceful and good people just as anxious as we are to bring up their children to live in harmony with others,” Carey pointed out. “And rather like Christianity, Islam is not monochrome in its makeup. It too is composed of many groups and sects and its people include secular as well as religious Muslims.”

Islam itself is being challenged “as never before,” Carey said. It stands not only in opposition to other religions but also to the democratic governments in the West. “Throughout the Middle East and North Africa we find a legacy of authoritarian regimes with deeply entrenched leadership, some of whom rose to power at the point of a gun and are retained in power by massive investment in security forces,” he said.

Theological Islam is also being challenged as it continues to resist any attempt at critical scholarship of the Koran. “But scholarship and the questions of modernity cannot be kept at bay forever,” he argued. “The dyke will be broken one day.”

He added, “The danger for Islam is that in the opinion of many it is equated with ignorance and superstition, illiteracy and violence, instead of being seen as a religion of peace which has potential to heal the wounds of others.”

Challenges for Christians

Carey then asked, What then is the challenge to the West and to Christians in particular?

Urging Christians in the West to “own up to our shortcomings and failings,” he nonetheless said that the West “is the repository of fairness and liberal values. Democracy is a beautiful and fragile flower and we should support it, value it and protect it. It allows for dissent, for freedom of expression and for rights for all.”

Carey said that “there is much we can admire in Islam,” especially “the devotion of the people and their desire to promote their faith. We can admire their commitment to traditional values, the family, children and peace. We Anglicans need to note that the recent election of a homosexual priest as bishop of New Hampshire is seen as a horrifying matter in the Muslim world,” Carey said, “and embarrasses our beleaguered Christian brothers and sisters there.”

Yet Islam is not to be feared, Carey added, because “they will always respect people who stand up for their faith and are prepared to talk about it naturally.” While Islam and Christianity are confronting each other in many parts of the world, “Islam rebukes our complacency and apathy and calls us to stand up and be named as Christians willing to follow Christ. It is time to value Islam and understand it.”

Carey said that he does not accept the assertion that “the future is one of escalating violence, deepening bitterness and a grudging dialogue between incompatible faiths and cultures.” He called for a deeper level of interfaith cooperation and understanding and a focus on the “root causes of unrest where religions clash and seek to heal the wounds of the past.”

In conclusion, Carey said that “we live in dangerous times but we live, no less, in times where goodwill, understanding, frankness based on respect and tolerance may yet offer an exciting future. Let us look forward to the day when we shall not talk about Islam versus the West but Islam and the West, in an enduring partnership based on the shared values that make us human and capable of giving and receiving “God’s gift of love.”

According to the Rev. Stephen White, Episcopal chaplain at Princeton, the Careys also met with undergraduate students, answering questions about their 11 years in residence at Lambeth Palace. The archbishop also celebrated the Eucharist at Miller Chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary and spoke at a luncheon for Episcopal students studying at the seminary.

Click here for the text of Carey’s sermon on the web and here for the lecture.

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