We live in a country that condones abortion. Some of us attend churches that do not condemn it. As a pro-life Anglican, I was unsettled by comments made recently by the head of the Anglican Church, Dr. George Carey, on a London radio show.

Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, appeared on Radio 4 Today earlier this fall to promote his newest book, Jesus 2000. Part of his agenda as a guest was probably to squash rumours of heresy which began when portions of his text were plucked out of context and blasted across the front page of newspapers all over the world. Instead Carey unwittingly ignited another fire, and burned his fingers on the issue of abortion.

The interviewer asked Carey if pregnant teenagers should have access to the “morning-after pill.” The issue of pregnant teens in the United Kingdom has been dissected under the media microscope since Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke of the need for a “new moral purpose” in the country after two 12-year-old girls became pregnant.

Carey, known as a conservative evangelical, waffled with his answer before reluctantly admitting that, yes, he thought pregnant teenagers should have access to the morning-after pill. In fairness to the Archbishop, he acknowledged that giving the morning-after pill to teenagers was “a profoundly moral issue.” He then pointed out that it was quite wrong to offer the morning-after pill merely as an “antidote to pregnancy.” However, it is impossible to think of why else a young woman would take it.

After fertilization the embryo makes its way into the uterus. The morning-after pill, with its high estrogen content, alters the endometrium so that the fertilized egg cannot implant itself in the wall of the uterus. It is flushed out of a woman’s body and down the drain.

British pro-life groups quickly condemned Carey’s comments. One spokesman said, “For a Christian leader to be advocating the destruction of early human life, even in part, is deeply shocking.” In my own informal and utterly unscientific survey of one Canadian bishop, a seminary professor, several priests, and numerous lay people, I did not unearth any deep shock. All were mildly surprised at Carey’s position, some doubted the validity of the news report, and most had not heard a word about it.

One friend of the Archbishop said perhaps Carey did not understand that the morning-after pill is an abortifacient. However, if that were true Carey would surely not have done the side-step shuffle around the question. The interviewer would not have had to, in the words of one commentator, “painfully winkle” an opinion out of him.

A successfully “winkled” Carey elaborated in words heard more often from the pro-choice camp than from an international church leader. He said, “Morality cannot be imposed and Archbishops are living proof of this. You just cannot say to people ‘This is what you must do.'” These are sad, weary words from a man who has been known to take bold and biblical stands on explosive issues within the Anglican Church. The Church miserably fails its prophetic mission when even an Archbishop does not feel he can issue a clear moral directive.

In a statement released after the radio show, a spokesperson for Carey said, “He believes that the case for terminating a pregnancy depends substantially on the particular circumstances – and that is fully in line with the teaching of the Church.” In 1980, the Church of England described abortion as “a great moral evil” and approved it only “in situations where the … pregnancy threatens the life of the mother.” The church has slid far from that stand when it condones popping a pill to get rid of a pregnancy.

The Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) has not said anything officially about abortion since 1989 when it released a statement that supported abortion only “for serious therapeutic reasons.” It described abortion as “always the taking of a human life” and committed itself to working to alleviate the conditions of marginalization and poverty that might lead a woman to choose abortion.

The ACC has not made any statement about the morning-after pill. And George Carey’s comments do not necessarily reflect any position it may take in the future. He is not a Protestant pope. By virtue of his office he has moral and spiritual authority and he is considered to be the first among equals of all Anglican Bishops; but he does not rule the world’s 70 million Anglicans.

Pro-life Anglicans will be relieved to be reminded of that.