Faith Works 2-16-13
Religious leadership takes many forms
We're now a few days into Lent, the preparatory season preceding Easter, and since the cycle of dates for Easter is running early this year, we have one of our earlier Ash Wednesday beginnings of Lent, let alone Easter itself falling in March.
All my thoughts of fasts and feast days were banished by the startling news last Monday that Pope Benedict XVI was resigning his office. It turns out that, like a Supreme Court justice in the US, you CAN resign the papacy, it just doesn't happen much.
Only every 600 years or so.
The man once better known as Joseph Ratzinger may have been thinking about precedents, and his predecessor, the much loved John Paul II, whose death was a long and painful process lived out largely in full public view.
There's something to be said about the courage and example of living with limits and dying without embarrassment over those limits slowly closing in over you, but Benedict XVI clearly believes that there is also a public witness in saying by deed that the papacy is an office, with responsibilities, that it is not just a regal role that should always end only in death, and whatever long dying comes before.
Pope Benedict XVI will, with the dawn of March, become Cardinal Ratzinger once more, and retire to a monastery within the Vatican walls after a time in residence at the papal summer residence outside of Rome at Castel Gandolfo. His successor will be a man, probably a cardinal himself, but not necessarily. Whomever the papal conclave elects, if they are not a priest, a bishop, or a cardinal, they will quickly be ordained to each order of ministry there in the Sistine Chapel before the election to Peter's chair is made official (so it can't be a woman, since canon law would not allow that person to be ordained a priest etc., but the rules do allow any Catholic male to be considered).
If you're curious about a "papal conclave," you can type that pair of words into Wikipedia, where an admirable summary of no short length is waiting for your edification.
Many Christians are not interested, online or offline, in the papacy, consider it a misunderstanding beginning with Emperor Constantine, and while they're happy to acknowledge a Bishop of Rome, don't call that ecclesiastical figure a "primus inter pares," a first among equals. Anglicans have an ambiguous relationship with Rome, as does the Orthodox communion (Eastern, Greek, Russian Orthodoxy etc.), while many other Protestant bodies have a dialogue or discussion of some sort with Roman Catholic officials, but don't consider the Pope a figure of respect beyond that extended to any wise, humane public figure.
In my own very congregationally oriented tradition, I was momentarily surprised by a visitor making a comment recently about Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins. For the Disciples of Christ, we elect a "General Minister and President" who serves a six year term, and can be re-elected once; Sharon is in the middle of her second term. She is a one-time missionary, scholar, and was pastor of a rural congregation down the road from my parents' church, where her husband and my dad got to be pals.
She's no pope, in other words.
But her writings, and her role as a spiritual mentor for President Obama, made Rev. Dr. Watkins a figure of importance and meaning to someone trying to understand my denomination. That was startling for me, for a moment, but then again, why not?
If you are a member of a religious tradition, do you know who the leading cleric or organizational figure is? Does that person "represent" your faith in a particular way? The fact is, even for those of us whose traditions are built around NOT making a particular person a central locus of faith and practice, there's a tendency for that sort of thing to happen. It can be a problematic tendency, such as with the heads of ministries who put their face and name on everything and try to have their children or family members succeed them, or it can simply be a definitional tendency, such as with the practical role of a Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church or a Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) becoming the people who give press statements.
A central figure can be unifying, and that person can be polarizing, and even divisive despite their best intentions to the contrary. How does your faith community handle this?
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's not in charge of much except for the sermon tomorrow. Tell him who you think should be in charge of what at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Knapsack.