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A great Archbishop – and friend in faith and football

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Eleven-and-a-half years ago, I received a delightful invitation. Dr. George Carey had just been elected Archbishop of Canterbury, I had just been chosen to be the next Chief Rabbi, and neither of us had yet taken up office. Someone discovered — how, I’m not sure — that we were both passionate Arsenal supporters. Would we like, he asked, our first ecumenical gathering to take place in his box at Highbury Stadium (a midweek match, of course, for religious reasons)? Enthusiastically, we both agreed.

The great night came. We were given a splendid reception, taken down to meet the directors, and then led out on to the floodlit pitch itself, where we presented a cheque to charity. The loudspeakers announced our presence to the crowd, and a cheer went up. Whichever direction Arsenal supporters took in the theological wager, that night they had friends in high places. If the power of prayer counted, Arsenal could not possibly lose.

A nachtiger tog, as they say in Yiddish, which roughly means “Would that it were so!” That night Arsenal went down to their worst home defeat in 63 years, losing 6-2 to Manchester United. The next day a national paper carried the story in its diary column, and concluded: “If the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi between them cannot bring about a win for Arsenal, does this not finally prove that God does not exist!” The day after, I sent them the following reply: “To the contrary, what it proves is that God exists. It’s just that He supports Manchester United.”

Well, we’ve had many laughs together since — not least this past year, when Arsenal did the double. And it seems to me not a small thing that today, after almost 2,000 years of estrangement and a history written in tears, Jews and Christians (and for that matter Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians and Bahais) can meet in friendship and mutual respect.

That has become a feature of British culture, all too little known, appreciated and understood — and it owes a great deal to Dr Carey himself, a man whose warmth, generosity of spirit and sheer humanity have been a gift, not just to the Church but far beyond.

There are two conflicting attitudes that do a real injustice to faith. One is the belief that any friendship across religious boundaries is a fatal compromise of the self-sufficiency of revealed truth. That is a nonsense. In every faith there were great souls who saw beauty in creeds and codes other than their own.

The other — all too common — is the opposite belief that there are no real and irreconcilable differences when it comes to religion. We should all be able to pray together, eat together and endorse one another, as if nothing in religion mattered very much beyond the fact that there is one God and one humanity. That too is absurd. Each great faith is a universe and none is reducible to any other.

What matters is the ability to respect differences and yet be friends. A true friend is one who honours our principles though they are not their own and who never asks us to compromise our conscience as a condition of friendship.

Such relationships between faiths have been rare indeed in history, and that they exist today in Britain is a rare and special blessing. For making it possible, we owe much to Dr Carey. May his years of retirement be long and full of blessing and may this facet of his work flourish into the future.

(First published in The Times)