Habemus Papam?

The resignation of Pope Benedict came ‘out of the blue’ for all of us. I produced this statement in response:

“Christians of all traditions will have heard of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI with regret. He has been a distinguished holder of his office, widely respected for his scholarship and his spirituality.
“Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain was a significant event during his term of office and I was privileged to meet him. His speeches showed his willingness to engage with the issues of faith in a complex and secular society.
“The challenge of leading a historic faith institution in a time of rapid change is very great. Pope Benedict has made a difficult personal decision which shows the mark of a humble servant of Jesus Christ. We wish him a peaceful and holy retirement.”

Inevitably speculation turns to the choice of a successor. But the more interesting discussion is about whether this decision to resign and retire rather than to ‘serve until the last breath’ changes the nature of the Papacy. Some of it is obviously to do with the unavoidable demands of leadership. I suspect that the pressures may be even greater in churches which attempt to stand against the pressures of the world than in those which attempt to accommodate to them.

But beyond that lies the much more subtle area of the way in which leadership in our various faith communities is very different. In the Anglican Communion, we have been learning that some of our misunderstandings have been to do with assumptions which we have made about leadership authority and what leaders can ‘deliver’. The Archbishop of Uganda and the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church are both Anglican Primates. But their ability to speak authoritatively or to make commitments on behalf of their churches is very different. In Scotland, the Moderator and the Cardinal are seen by their churches as very different kinds of leaders. And the inter-faith area is different again.

I think that to accept that a Pope can resign and retire is a radical change. It means that a younger candidate can be chosen. And, as Benedict’s statement implied, it becomes possible to
think about stamina, performance and resilience. I happen to think that leaders have a ‘shelf life’ after which change is welcome and good. I always remember meeting the former Archbishop of Sweden just before his retirement – he said simply, ‘Nothing graces leadership like the way you lay it down’

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