'Religion is not the problem--extremism is': An exclusive ENS interview with Archbishop of Canterbury George L. Carey

September 10, 2002

Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey was in New York as part of the observances of the first anniversary of the September 11th attacks in America. ENS deputy director Jan Nunley talked with Carey shortly after he arrived in New York.

ENS: What do you feel, in broad terms, was the spiritual significance of September 11?

CAREY: Actually, I regard it as a declaration of war. I really would put it in terms like that. I think we've all been well aware for a very long time of these very dark forces in the world and within the Islamic societies of anger towards the West, and then suddenly September 11 brought it back, with that declaration of war on the West, its culture, its life, its economy, its freedom. They attacked America particularly because America is seen as the major place where capitalism reigns, and the targets such as the World Trade Center, Washington--not only the military base but it looked like one of the planes was going to hit the White House. It was devastating, and the implications if the President had been there and wiped out, quite devastating. And the mischief done by that, because who is behind it?

I think the President then after that initial shock has done extremely well in consolidating the Western position, and he got a broad-based consensus from China, Russia, the UK, Europe, throughout the world to say 'we must fight this battle against the al-Qaeda evil.' That's been moderately successful. I say 'moderately successful,' because we haven't yet got Osama bin Laden, and that's important. We've got to carry on that war, and it is a war, against terrorism in every shape and form.

It's not completed yet, and we've got a long way to go. So that's very important.

Now the spiritual side of that, actually, I think it made people aware of how very fragile life is, how very vulnerable life is--that's going to be the theme of my sermon in Trinity tomorrow [September 11, 2002]. I'm going to take on two things: vulnerability, and our interconnectedness. The vulnerability is the fact that--I'm going to use the idea of the bell, John Donne's poem that when 'the bell tolls, it tolls for thee'--'every man's death diminishes me.' The other one, Donne is saying that we're connected, we're not an island, we're 'part of the main,' he says.

So those two things are very important. That's why at the moment it does look as though America is out of step with the West on Iraq. I think from the British point of view those of us who are raising questions at the moment are saying so, because we said a year ago, America sought the help and encouragement of its allies. It got it. Now, as we embark on what may be the second phase, it needs the support and affirmation of its allies. That I think is terribly important. As you know, I'm not convinced that this is right to go for a ground war yet on Iraq, unless we have clear evidence.

From a Christian point of view of course we do want a peaceful world, and I think September 11 did actually make people aware not only of vulnerability and how transitory life is, but there are forces of good and honor and justice which speak to us of God and his love for us. And I think the church actually, your church and our church, we've actually responded incredibly well to that. What happened here and what happened in Trinity and at St. Paul's Chapel, was a remarkable witness of Christians, local Christians reaching out to others.

'Say our prayers for us'

ENS: Some commentators have suggested we found the limits of organized religion in the response to 9/11--the initial spike in church attendance falling off as the year went on.

CAREY: I don't think we ought to be disappointed if, for example, it peaks and comes down again. It is obvious that at moments of raw emotion, people turn to the church, and that in itself is saying something quite remarkable. They don't turn to the local football stadium, they turn to the church, and they say 'will you please say our prayers for us? We don't know, come up with the language, but we know it must be God to whom we turn.'

So I think we ought to be honored by that in your society, our society. It doesn't really matter if people revert back to the old habits. But we're there, we're there to help them and respond to their needs. And I do know in Britain of people who are now regular churchgoers, for whom they made a definite commitment because of September 11, and I'll give you two illustrations.

One is a mother, a mother-in-law. Her son, British, married to an American girl, they had a small daughter, and the daughter-in-law was wiped out. But it brought that mother-in-law and son back to God. That in itself is quite a story. And then quite recently I was in correspondence with a young lady who lost her husband, and for her it meant the same thing: a rediscovery of the importance of Christian faith, and what she said to me was that, 'I realized that God was there in my suffering, and therefore I'm not going to walk away from him now, just because I've got over the raw emotion. He was there for me then, so I'm going to walk with him.' And you hear that kind of story, and it comes from ordinary people--outside the church.

Religion is not the problem

ENS: What effect has September 11 had on relations between Christians and Muslims?

CAREY: I don't think in my dealings with Muslims it is seen by moderates, a majority Muslim position, as a Christian-Muslim conflict. I know that there are extremists on both sides who might see it in those terms, and certainly my moderate Muslim friends tell me that the fundamentalists do. But they're not speaking for the main body.

I think what has happened, actually, is that September 11 has given a spur, a renewed urgency, to dialogue between the great faiths. We all assumed it was going extremely well, and so this has really shattered us. Let me mention two things: First of all, my prime minister, Tony Blair, phone me ten days after September 11. He said, 'We've got to do more on the international side,' and asked me if I would convene an international gathering, which I did in January--our government paid for it, totally paid for it, quite an unusual, unique thing for a government to do that. Left the organization to me, but took great interest, and we're repeating it next year in Qatar in April, and the Emir of Qatar is actually paying for that. So that's deepened the dialogue on the international level.

Secondly, a project that the president of the World Bank, Jim Wolfensohn, and I have developed called the World Faiths Development Dialogue. Jim was getting a lot of problems from his board in the World Bank. They said essentially that the World Bank shouldn't have any truck with religion--even the Archbishop of Canterbury, you see? And so they weren't prepared to back it. September 11 happened, the president of the World Bank phoned me up and said, 'George, my board are now saying to me, we were wrong. This is an idea whose time has come.' And I think there's no doubt about it--we've got to find ways of deepening that dialogue to show that religion is not the problem--extremism is.

If there are Muslims who believe that they've got to kill Christians to make a way for the Islamic faith in the West, not only would they be disappointed, but it will lead to conflict, there's no doubt about that. But we've got to find ways, however strong our faith is in Allah, or in our case Jesus Christ, we've got to find ways to live together in this very small world.

Vulnerable Christians and Muslims

ENS: How has September 11 affected Christian evangelism among Muslims, especially in the so-called '10/40 window' of least-evangelized nations, West Africa to East Asia--from 10 degrees north to 40 degrees north of the equator, where most of the world's Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists live?

CAREY: I think that's a very important point. See, what has happened post-September 11 has made Christian minorities in Islamic countries far more vulnerable. Pakistan--since then, there've been three killings, two churches, one Christian hospital, where my wife Eileen visited some fifteen years ago. Work done by wonderful Christian people, Pakistani Christians, who've been killed. It made them very vulnerable indeed, and we've got to be aware that whatever we do in the West now has its effect on our brothers and sisters living in these countries--in Palestine, in Saudi Arabia--Christianity is banned from Saudi Arabia, but there are many, many Christians there and throughout the Middle East.

And indeed, one is so delighted to know that, I visited the Gulf last November, a very flourishing Christian congregation there, Anglican congregations to boot, and they were trying to establish a new church in Qatar. And that's very exciting, because if we can get it going, get the agreement, it will be the first Christian church in the Sinai Peninsula since the seventh century. So that's very good indeed.

But I think we've got to be very careful, that the vulnerability of our minorities after September 11 is very, very precarious.

ENS: What about Muslims in majority-Christian nations?

CAREY: Initially, of course, they had a rough time in your country and my country. There were some wonderful stories over here, one Episcopal priest I know went out of his way to go along to the mosque the following day and to say, 'I'm here for you. I'm not blaming you.'

In my own country there've been attacks on Muslims, on their mosques. But they have been very few in number, and I think actually after that initial shock we've addressed many of these issues, people are living together more comfortably.

But there are many Christians who cannot understand the fact that we give such freedom to Muslims and the rest. In my country there are 1500 mosques. But we find it difficult to build churches and Christian schools, meeting in Pakistan and places like that.

ENS: Do you plan to continue working on this issue during your retirement?

CAREY: Oh, yes, definitely. I want to do three or four things, and I have worked with Jim Wolfensohn on this World Faiths Development Dialogue, because I know that we have got to try to make the faiths part of the answer, because in some places they're part of the problem. So helping to focus on development, on the poverty of so many people, that sort of thing.

Secondly, I'm going to be working with the World Economic Forum, trying to bring faith leaders into contact with business--very similar to the other one.

ENS: Will that also involve conversations about corporate responsibility and ethics?

CAREY: Absolutely. That comes into the World Economic Forum part of that, is to challenge them to invest in the poorer world. … Africa only represents less than 4 percent of the world's gross productivity. And that's the problem, you see? Africa could fall off the back of the lorry and no one would notice it in world economic terms. And that's why there are such problems in Africa. So we've got to change a mindset and say to businesses, invest in those parts of Africa where there's now stability, where there's no conflict. I can understand they can't invest where there's war, but where--they can invest now in Mozambique, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya--many places, and they're not doing it. And so there's a moral challenge there.

Focus on the Gospel

ENS: What are your thoughts about the Anglican Communion as you move closer to retirement in October?

CAREY: As a leader, what has come first has not been the 'issues,' but the Gospel itself, and to create a confident, vibrant Christian church that loves God and has got a message worth believing in. That remains the impulse within me.

Within the Anglican Communion we have this tendency to focus too much on issues. One I've been passionately committed to, of course, is women's ministry; I believe solidly in it as a Gospel issue and we've found our way through that. The other issues--what we need to do with them, they are important, but we should be going not from the viewpoint of controversy, but actually with prayer and support for one another, spending time with one another, not colliding and fragmenting.

So my plea to the Communion, and to the primates and the bishops in the church, is--we can do our work better, we really can. One of the motions I want to bring to the ACC [Anglican Consultative Council] when it meets in Hong Kong in ten days' time, I want to produce a motion, a resolution urging all dioceses, before they make a change that affects the faith and order of the Anglican Communion, that they refer it to their province for consideration and agreement, and the province refers it to the wider church so we can keep in step with one another. And if we could do it in that kind of way, there'd be a little less controversy, and hopefully we'll be able to focus on the bigger issue, and the others will take care of themselves.

To all Episcopalians of the American church, I'd love to say: Thank you for your support, thank you for your rich contribution to the Anglican Communion. I say this in so many parts of the world--you will never find me criticizing ECUSA because they are one of the most generous branches of the Anglican Communion, and I want to say to them, thank you very much and keep that support going.