Pray for Them
Surely this is the first time in history that a Pope and an Archbishop of Canterbury have been installed within three days of each other. Ironically and perhaps symbolically, the installation of the Archbishop took place in an older setting than that of the Pope: one in the homeliness of a medieval paradise, the other in the almost kitsch grandeur of baroque excess.
Few could have missed the similarities in emphasis: neither man is beholden to the inner establishment of their respective churches: Francis has never been part of the Roman Curia, and Welby hasn't been a bishop long enough to have had his spine removed. Both sent clear signals about simplicity, humanity, ecumenism, global awareness. Both seem determined: each clearly has a steely side. They will need this steel, but they should also beware. Each, pushed to certain limits, and in spite of what they profess, has the potential to use this steeliness to become a tyrant.
Huge hopes and fears hang on these men; Francis is already seventy-six, with a limp and only one lung. His time to get things done is a lot shorter than Welby's, all things being equal which, of course, they never are. Most of the expectations are probably unrealistic. If the Pope can reform the curia, that in itself will be a heroic, gargantuan task. If he can reform the curia, then, it seems to me, the rest will follow: the reform of the Vatican bank and the addressing of child abuse. What it is unrealistic to expect is that he will have the time or energy or personal belief also to change the Vatican's position on clerical celibacy, birth control, women's ordination, and the official attitude towards gay people. On the other hand, he may surprise us. I'm not counting on it. I'm not even hoping. But I would welcome it.
Welby is even more unpredictable. A product of Holy Trinity Brompton, the fount of happy-clappydom and the idolatry of experience, Welby is an evangelical who crosses himself and is a Benedictine oblate. What we have not been told, intriguingly, is of which house he is an oblate, whether it is Roman Catholic or Anglican. [Later: Anglican, of Elmore Abbey now at Salisbury.] His recent remarks, which have already put him at odds with some of his evangelical colleagues, about the profundity of relationships that he has observed and admired in some gay partnerships, are most welcome but also something of a surprise.
Probably in the first flush of their installations, neither of these men knows exactly what changes their time in office will be able to facilitate: it is impossible to imagine exactly how dreadful the curia is—whether the official Roman curia or the unofficial Anglican one—until they start trying to work with their respective dens of demons. It is possible that Francis will be defeated, as have so many popes before him, by the sheer size, viciousness and intricacy of the Roman curia. Let us hope it does not overwhelm him as it did John Paul II. At Francis' installation one had the sense that he was asserting himself over the curia but letting them have enough rope to hang themselves, that he was biding his time. And only time will tell.
But let us not kid ourselves: the Anglican 'curia' and factions are equally vicious; one had a sense with Welby at his installation, however, that he was totally in charge, and that you wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of him. He will need this determination and this fearlessness in the days ahead. The tradition and, more, the intransigent egos he is up against are in some ways even more entrenched than those of the Roman curia, because much of the power and preferment in the C of E is tied to the monarchy and the state.
It's almost as if the part of the world that still cares about these things is holding its breath until the new battle lines, the strategies and tactics, become manifest—as manifest as they will ever become, for most of the work will doubtless be done out of sight of the public arena. We need to pray for these men that they can hold their nerve and do the very difficult house-cleaning that needs to take place in both institutions, and most of all that they may do so without losing their own souls.