Onward, Christian leaders

Published May 28, 2013

This column first appeared in the May issue of the Anglican Journal.

With three knocks on the large wooden door of Canterbury Cathedral, the service to inaugurate the ministry of Justin Portal Welby as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury began. When the doors opened, he faced a gathering of more than 2,000 people, as well as the hopes and expectations of millions throughout the Anglican Communion who witnessed, through the media and prayer, the beginning of the ministry of their spiritual leader.

On March 19, just two days before, Pope Francis had celebrated an inaugural mass as Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church with equally high hopes from the faithful.

Two Christian leaders, each chosen in very different ways-one through a Crown nomination process involving 16 lay and ordained people, the other in an electoral conclave of 115 cardinals. Both have begun their ministries with enormous expectation and enthusiasm, but what were the electors of these leaders seeking?

In the case of the Roman Catholic Church, there may be a real dichotomy between the electing cardinals and people in the pews. Is there hope among some, or many, that the church might reconsider issues such as birth control, celibacy and women priests despite the fact that the cardinals seem primarily interested in maintaining the status quo? The church’s other burning issue is how to deal honestly with the abuse of children-to face the truth, acknowledge what has happened, seek forgiveness and offer retribution. In Canada, it is a matter of fundamental justice for the Roman Catholic Church to start dealing with its denial and complacency concerning abuse at native residential schools.

The failure of the Roman Catholic Church and others, including churches of the Anglican Communion, to address issues related to abuse has affected their mission deeply. In a recent national online survey conducted by a Christian media group for the Church in Melbourne, Australia, 76 per cent indicated church abuse had a “massive” or “significant” negative influence on their attitudes toward Christianity and church ). There is no reason to suspect that people in Canada think differently.

The Crown nomination committee quite possibly was looking for someone who could address issues similar to those the new Pope faces, as well as speak to the Anglican Communion about other pressing issues. We need look no further than questions of euthanasia, women’s ministry (especially as bishops), and the recognition and ministry of and to gays and lesbians.

In too many ways, the churches of the Communion have lost the ability to respect differences. When one part says to others, “You must think as we think, you must believe as we believe and you must interpret scripture as we do,” and fails to see diversity as a strength, the church finds itself embroiled in power struggles where everyone loses. Archbishop Welby has made reconciliation an essential priority as he begins his ministry. Reconciliation is much needed throughout the Communion and there is no doubt that Archbishop Welby will be challenged in addressing it.

Two leaders have stepped forward courageously to guide their respective churches. They will need honesty, humility, compassion and integrity. What will other church leaders learn from them? Unquestionably, that leadership is never about being popular or even about winning the day’s battles. It is about being faithful.


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