Lord Carey of Clifton: Billy Graham changed the lives of countless thousands
Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey reflects on the life and career of the late Billy Graham, who he first heard preach in 1954; invited to his enthronement in 1991 and who will be buried today in North Carolina.
One of the happiest memories of my life was when, as an eighteen year old serving my national service in the RAF, I attended Billy Graham’s Harringay Crusade in 1954. My wife, Eileen, was one of the many who went forward at Billy’s invitation to ‘give her life to Christ’. It changed her life and encouraged me as a young Christian.
He was an impressive man; far less emotional and more thoughtful, than all his critics ever protested. If the questions which he raised were not academic, they were questions of meaning, which people in the post-war era yearned for. He changed the lives of countless thousands.
Billy also tapped into the beginnings of multi-media modern communications. Remember that, back then in 1954, the television industry was at its beginnings in black and white. Billy Graham’s mass crusades were forerunners to the multi-media formats of modern communications. And they were colourful and diverse. He used humour, music, speech and spectacle to reach out to thousands.
And most of all he did not create his own church or cult. And he had no desire to have his own following. He sent those who answered a call to the Christian faith to their local churches. He was trusted throughout the world by church leaders and also by heads of state and politicians.
The first time I met him was in 1991. I had made a decision to invite him to my installation as Archbishop in Canterbury Cathedral because I felt Anglicanism, and the Church of England in particular, owed him so much. And also, to be honest, I wanted to send out a signal about the nature of the Christian faith I wanted to present - something warm, relevant and less ‘churchy’. This decision sparked no controversy in the UK although, interestingly, some American Episcopalians were not at all happy; regarding him as a Baptist bumpkin from North Carolina! This reminded me of Jesus’ saying: ‘A prophet is not without honour save in his own country’.
But that is not to say that he was unpopular in his own country. Indeed, the reverse was the case. He was highly respected and became the confidante of political leaders and trusted for his counsel and advice. I recall George Bush Snr, telling me of conversations with Billy Graham that helped him with tough political questions. Perhaps the central reason why he was so trusted was his integrity and honesty. Not a whiff of shady dealings, sexual misconduct or suspicion of ‘fingers in the till’ ever dogged his career. His marriage to Ruth was the foundation of his life and his faith was his compass.
Why, we might ask, did he never address the searching political questions of his day whether they be about the H-bomb, poverty, environment and sex? I think he would answer: ‘All these matters are secondary to the fundamental question of all which is about your standing before God. Do you have a faith that will sustain you through all the questions of life? That is really the most important issue of all. Find Christ and everything else will fall into place’.
Simplistic? Many will think so. But not those – and they are very many – who have found out from experience that his message still has a power to change lives.
Could Billy Graham’s Crusades work today, seventy years on? I doubt it. The world, media and communication generally, have changed out of all recognition. His message, however, has not changed and that is why the Church, in all its many forms, is still as relevant today as it ever was.
Although invited, my wife and I are sad not to be at his funeral in North Carolina, to pay tribute to a truly ‘holy’ man who walked with Kings, Queens, Presidents and never lost his common touch. Thank you, Billy, for teaching that power, wealth, fame and money are paltry things compared to what really matters.
Lord Carey of Clifton is a crossbench peer and was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1991-2002