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Wednesday, 6 February, 2002, 08:53 GMT
Britons 'spiritually hungry' says Hurd
Jonathan Sacks, Zaki Badawi, George Carey and Cormac Murphy O'Connor
The archbishop's role has grown in recent months
By BBC News Online's Ollie Stone-Lee

Many Britons have abandoned regular religious worship but they still hanker after the spiritual lead an Archbishop of Canterbury provides, says former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd.

Lord Hurd, who chaired an inquiry on how the archbishop's role should change, says the job of the most senior Anglican cleric is "overflowing".

With the race on to succeed George Carey at Lambeth Palace, Lord Hurd says archbishops should be "fearless" in intervening in politics.


People know they are lacking something, they are constantly wanting some kind of spiritual guidance

Douglas Hurd
In an interview with BBC News Online, he argued that disestablishing the Church of England would reduce the important impact of such comments.

The Conservative peer also says faith schools are one way of countering the "impoverishing" phenomenon of people who are growing up with no sense of a spiritual dimension to life.

The commission led by Lord Hurd last year recommended the archbishop delegate more of his duties to other senior Anglican clerics, including a new, foreign "bishop at Lambeth".

A lay chief of staff at Lambeth Palace would also enable the archbishop to "hack through the thickets of bureaucracy" and have more time for prayer and reflection, it said.

'Stream of work'

Six core roles were identified for the archbishop: leader of the Anglican movement worldwide (known as the Anglican Communion), Primate of All England, bishop of the Canterbury diocese, his interfaith and ecumenical tasks and running the southern Church of England province.

Lord Hurd explains: "It was a stream of work. He needs space - we are not talking about the chief executive of a corporation, we are talking about someone who is a spiritual leader, who is a pastor."

With Sunday church congregations in decline and 42% of those who do go retired, it is easy to question how much of a role the Archbishop of Canterbury really has in national life.

The ruins of the World Trade Center
Churches filled after the terror attacks
Lord Hurd suggests there is a "funny paradox" about attitudes to religion.

"This a very materialist country and a lot of people have given up any sort of religious adherence to any church organisation," he says.

"Nevertheless, it is like the way the hungry sheep look up and are not fed. People know they are lacking something, they are constantly wanting some kind of spiritual guidance."

But surely in what was seen as the greatest recent national "spiritual coming together" of recent years - the death of Diana, Princess of Wales - the public appeared more willing to take guidance from Elton John and Tony Blair?

Congregations rise

Lord Hurd prefers a different example: "The church has filled after 11 September, which to be honest is a more important milestone than the death of Diana, Princess of Wales."

He is right that the Church estimated its congregations last Christmas, in the wake of the US terror attacks, were up 20%.

But those attacks and the role in them of religious belief - however "distorted" or misguided - have sparked renewed concern about the potential for religion to produce division, not harmony.

Lord Hurd of Westwell
Douglas Hurd wants to find ways through "thickets of bureaucracy"
Lord Hurd stresses Dr Carey is already dealing with that dilemma through his ecumenical brief within Christianity and growing efforts to build interfaith bridges.

Religious division is a key concern of those MPs worried by the growth in faith schools but Lord Hurd believes such education does more good than harm.

"It depends on how it is done but what we are drifting into, which is that people grow up without any sense of a spiritual dimension to life, is just impoverishing."

He decries the "sort of mumbled RE" teachers administer because the law says so but without taking real trouble over it.

"It must not be done, of course, in a dogmatic way but unless they (children) are actually told something about it, they have got nothing either to stick to or to reject. That is hopeless."

Contest 'not ferocious'

There has been speculation Tony Blair might appoint Lord Hurd as chairman of the appointments commission for choosing the new archbishop.

The peer says he has not been asked, nor even "heard a whisper", and does not want to go into whether he would accept such an offer.

Nor does he know whether media reports of the "bitterness" of what some dub the "archbishop stakes" will damage the church, although he does not believe the contest is "ferocious" in reality.

Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester
New archbishop contender Michael Nazir-Ali is said to have suffered "race smears"
The vacancy for the venerable role has, however, renewed debate over whether the Church of England should be disestablished.

Lord Hurd thinks not, suggesting Dr Carey's "justice not revenge" sermon after 11 September and former archbishop Robert Runcie's post Falklands War preaching, said to annoy Margaret Thatcher, set a standard in a way no other figure could.

"If you get an individual like Cardinal Hume he could do it but in a way he's not doing it quite in the name of us all in the way that the Archbishop of Canterbury is doing it."

It is important to have a spiritual figure who can get access to the prime minister or the Queen as of right, says Lord Hurd.

Political role

Such reports as Robert Runcie's "Faith in the City", which attacked government policy on inner cities, would not have had the same impact coming from the leader of a disestablished church, he argues.

"Although some of my colleagues in government grumbled about it, it was absolutely right.

"It helped us all to take more notice of what was going on, particularly in the inner cities. It was undoubtedly politically effective."

Archbishops should be "quite fearless" over such interventions but should measure them to safeguard effectiveness, he says.

Such a national role often conceals the archbishop's fast growing role as leader of the Anglican communion (which includes 70 million Christians).

Calming divisions

Lord Hurd says the archbishop does not have the direct power of a pope but he does have a key role in impartially calming arguments within the Anglican fold.

That role would be much more difficult if the archbishop was elected in a contest that would "inevitably" centre on those internal arguments, he warns, outlining a key obstacle to a foreign bishop taking the post.

That reference to the divisions within the Anglican faith might fuel views of a church in strife but he says he came away more encouraged than not from his one-and-a-half year study of the archbishop's role.

Whether the public will have similar faith in the Church by the end of the "archbishop stakes", remains to be seen.

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