Lord Carey’s resignation: this is exactly the kind of accountability we need

Former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey (Getty Images)

The resignation of Lord Carey as honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Oxford, in the wake of the report into the handling of the Peter Ball case, marks the sad end of a life dedicated to the service of God in the Church of England.

However, given the way the report, “An Abuse of Faith”, uncovers how the then Archbishop Carey handled the allegations made against Peter Ball, then Bishop of Lewes, there was really no alternative but for him to go. Lord Carey’s resignation, coupled with his apology to the victims, now seems the least he can do.

The commentary on this matter has been surprisingly reasoned and calm. The Guardian’s commentary seems pretty fair, as does that of its religious affairs specialist Andrew Brown. Over at the National Secular Society’s website, the lawyer Richard Scorer takes a very measured view of things. He concludes that “The main lesson of [the] Gibb [report], although the report does not say so, is that only external oversight will guarantee that church safeguarding practices comply with secular standards.” No one should really argue with that, and one assumes that the Church of England, which commissioned the report, by Dame Moira Gibb, former chief executive of Camden Council, would agree. The report itself is an example of external oversight.

Quite absent from any commentary I have read is any attempt to blame the current Archbishop of Canterbury, or overblown claims that the whole institution of the Anglican Church is somehow corrupt, let alone calls for the immediate arrest of Lord Carey and others. This represents a huge improvement on the way such cases were discussed in the public forum only a few years back; in dealing with this sort of crime, a cool head is needed, and it was a lack of dispassionate judgement that perhaps led to the initial mistakes being made.

As Richard Scorer points out, the concept of oversight is key. And yet oversight is a Christian concept – episcopos, from which we get the word “bishop”, means “overseer” in Greek. Peter Ball, sadly, had oversight of the flock, as Bishop of Lewes, but he himself was overseen by the Bishop of Chichester. As a superior of a religious order, one assumes that he was overseen by some Anglican ecclesial authority. So, how did it all go so wrong? And how did it all go so wrong in Catholic religious orders, where the religious is hardly allowed to do anything without the superior’s permission? And how did it all go so wrong in various dioceses where abusive priests were under the authority of a bishop and all the paraphernalia of government that a diocesan bishop has to help him?

What the Gibb Report seems to point to is a culture where those in authority look after those in authority, and this is surely wrong. Those in authority are meant to serve those who are entrusted to their case, as Jesus Christ himself makes clear. “I come among you as one who serves,” says Jesus in Luke 22:27, and from this idea flows the structure of the Church as a hierarchical communion. If the supreme authority, God Himself, is the one who serves, it must follow that the Pope is servus servorum Dei, the servant of the servants of God; the same must follow for all the bishops. What is most regrettable in all abuse cases, because most unChristian, is the way the hierarchies of all churches have seen complainants as a threat, rather than as people in need of help.

Mr Scorer’s article seems to hint that if the Church of England cannot get its house in order then someone should step in to do that for them. That is true: one cannot have a licence to abuse. But given that the Church of England is under the authority of Parliament, it is hard to see how any such external oversight would work, given the degree of external oversight the Church already labours under.

The real nub, to my mind, is the question of accountability. Lord Carey has resigned, which is an admission that in the end he is accountable for his behaviour before the people of God and God Himself, as well as before those he has failed in particular in the matter of Peter Ball. This is the sort of accountability that we need to promote as much as possible.

Funnily enough, it is the sort of accountability that is enshrined in the Confiteor where we admit ourselves accountable to God and to our brothers and sisters. These are words with which Lord Carey, a deeply religious but flawed man, just like the rest of us, will be familiar, now more than ever.