Lord Carey during the interview in July 2018 at All Saints' Anglican Cathedral - Karim Abdul Aziz
CAIRO – 12 September 2018: On a warm summer day I stood inside All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral in Zamalek, ready to meet with Dr. George Carey. The former Archbishop of Canterbury was in Cairo for a brief visit with Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb before the latter’s trip to the UK.
I noticed the church was not as heavily guarded as others in Cairo—unlike the majority of Orthodox churches, Anglican and other minority churches have not been targeted by extremists in Egypt.
“Egypt is one of the most open of the Muslim societies; it is democratic, a pluralistic life here, many different types of people. It is a modern country and so I like it very much indeed,” Lord Carey told me. “Egypt is a bustling bright country, very hot, but it has got so much color. I will go back and say to Christians in my country and the church I go to, to tell them ‘let’s go there.’”
A formal dialogue between the Church of England and Al-Azhar began during the tenure of Lord Carey in 2002, and is still ongoing quite successfully. Most recently, Al-Tayeb was hosted by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to discuss the role of religion in addressing conflict, as well as to celebrate the Emerging Peacemakers Forum. The event was agreed upon during a meeting of the two religious leaders in Abu Dhabi in 2016. It brings 50 young Muslims and Christians from across the globe to discuss peacebuilding measures.
Young women taking a selfie at the Emerging Peacemakers Forum in July 2018 - Official website of the Archbishop of Canterbury
“We feel that Al-Azhar is the most important [religious institution] in the Sunni world; the grand imam is a very respected religious speaker anywhere in the world. It is madness if we try to avoid [a dialogue],” emphasized Lord Carey, who is a strong proponent of modernism and reformation. In this sense, he encourages people not to be afraid of the world “secular” when it means becoming modern and open, rather than losing values.
"If religious reform stops, it becomes fundamentalism"
“Secular means ‘world’ in Latin, that is what it is. Let’s not confuse secularism with being modern,” Lord Carey said, adding that if religious reform stops, it becomes fundamentalism. Noting his rejection of same-sex marriage as an example, Lord Carey explained that institutions like the church are important when people think that only love matters at the expense of “right and wrong” and values based upon God’s law.
“The Bible, I think, is very clear that practicing homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of God, that is what it says, so we do have a clear statement there and I understand it,respect it and follow it,” he explained.
Despite being “unafraid” of secularism, the 11-year Archbishop of Canterbury had his own reservations. “Equality is becoming the value statement of the secular society, and we’re not equal in that sense, equal in the eyes of God, of course. Secularism has its problems, there’s no doubt about that, because we leave values behind and become very sentimental. The challenge is to open ourselves to the world not to be afraid of the modern world because if we’re afraid, we’ll be driven out the world and we will have no message,” he said.
For this reason he calls for continued “critical scholarship” “In the Western church, we had waves and waves of critical scholarship coming on the Bible from Germany and Britain and the U.S., so we are very used in the West to self criticism. We had reformation, and it was a great challenge to the Western Christianity to evaluate its sources and Islam needs to have its own reformation of self criticism. . . . During the past 500 years critical scholarship has declined, leading to strong resistance to modernity.”
Nevertheless, Lord Carey emphasized how important it is to abide by holy scripts in their entirety. The holy books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are deeply political, not just religious, and they shape how people behave in society, therefore cannot be treated as “heritage,” he said.
“If we take what suits us, then you may take one bit and I take another bit. The Torah, Quran and Bible are fundamental scripts; they are the basis, they are the house if you like. You fill the house with your furniture; the furniture could be the other bits of your faith as well. For me, the Bible is fundamental; everything else has to be tested in light of the Bible.”
Hailed for his progressive reforms during his time in office, it was Lord Carey who first introduced priestesses in the Church of England. Today, the church also has female bishops. “I believe women are equal to men in every respect; I didn’t think they’re inferior and I believe that if women are created by God that they should have the opportunities as anybody else. Of course I can’t comment on the Quran, but I can say as far as the Bible is concerned, there are lots of indications within it to suggest that,” he said, revealing that he has read excerpts of the Quran from beginning to end.
Sister Joanna, head of the Coptic Center for Training and Development, an NGO based in Beni Sueif, a town 130 kilometers south of Cairo, participates in a lecture attended by Christian and Muslim women against FGM in 2007 (AFP)
However, the Anglican Church of Egypt, one of the most progressive churches in the country, does not have priestesses. From discussions he has had within the Anglican Church, Lord Carey believes it is not something expected to happen in the near future, and commented that culture is a major factor in some issues, rather than religion or ethnicity.
When it comes to religion and plight of refugees around the world, Lord Carey emphasized how Christians in war-torn countries as Iraq and Syria are more vulnerable than their fellow Muslims in the face of terrorism but is concerned the West does not care enough.
“I don’t think our country cares a lot for them. Britain is a secular country; sometimes people don’t care enough for the Christian minorities in other countries. I think they should focus more on Christians and give them more,” he noted, highlighting that Muslims generally integrate very well in the UK. That said, Lord Carey believes Britain should be welcoming of all refugees, be they Christian or Muslim. . . . “Some white people hate any foreigner, it doesn’t matter whether they’re Hindu or whatever, and we find these people as much of a problem as a terrorist, in a way.”
In the Footsteps of the Holy Family
During the course of his stay, Lord Carey had the chance to visit several sites and remarked that if Israel receives hundreds of thousands of people who follow the holy sites every year, Egypt has got the Holy Family trail, St. Catherine’s Monastery, and Desert Fathers who first established monasticism in the world. Recalling his trip to Cairo from Alexandria, Lord Carey said that he wanted to stop every 100 yards because there was always something new to see.
Jebel el-Tayr Monastery in Minya, one of the locations believed to have hosted the Holy Family - Maher Eskandar “The message I am going to take back is that Egypt is a safe place,” he affirms expressing his strong admiration of the Egyptian Museum he had visited earlier, and his enjoyment of a Nile-side stroll with his wife. Lord Carey also welcomed organizing trips in the footsteps of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, where almost every stop on the trail now hosts a church or other religious site.