‘The Papacy’ – Does a resignation denote a more worldly relevance?

The pope’s resignation has finally revealed that the papacy is simply a job

The purposes of the almighty do not flow exclusively through the narrow weir of the papacy

Pope Benedict XVI Delivers Angelus Blessing - February 17, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI delivers his angelus blessing from the Vatican on 17 February 2013. Photograph: Franco Origlia/Getty

The resignation of the pope, whatever the reason that motivated it, may well have a consequence far beyond that of its intended purpose. It reveals that the papacy is simply a job, an office. And by so doing, it rightly challenges some of the cult of personality that has built up around that office, as if the job affords the office holder some special proximity to God. It doesn’t.

The purposes of the almighty do not flow exclusively through the narrow weir of the papacy. But this news isn’t really news to Protestants, nor indeed to the English.

Henry VIII, admittedly one of the greatest cultural criminals of English history, created the Church of England as a means of having his way with Anne Boleyn. His vast destructive ego demanded a legitimate male heir at all costs – and that required marriage. If it also required a break with Rome, then so be it. Nobody was going to tell Henry what he could or couldn’t do, not even the pope. He wasn’t especially enamoured of those earnest Protestant reformers and their new European ways. They were just a means to an end.

Still to this day our coinage reflects Henry’s belief that he could shoulder the weight of Catholic Christianity on his own, without the pope. “Elizabeth II DG FD” is what is still written on all our coins. FD is an abbreviation of fidei defensor – defender of the faith. It was the honorific given to Henry by the pope several years before the break with Rome. And he wasn’t going to give that one up.

So he effectively made himself the English pope – transferring the glamour of papacy to the English crown – and appropriated the wealth of the monasteries, knocking to the ground these traditional strongholds of Vatican power. He cared little that the monasteries were the National Health Service of the medieval world. He cared little that they were great centres of education and learning. That is why he was a cultural criminal of world historical proportions. But he wasn’t a Protestant ideologue. Henry created a new church because the old one said no to him.

Henry’s original sin is loaded into the constitutional DNA of the Church of England. “Is this a Protestant church or a Catholic church?” is a question tour guides at English cathedrals get asked every day. And the answer is completely baffling to visitors from mainland Europe: “It’s both.” It is pretty much impossible to explain to a Spanish tourist with broken English how this can possibly be. And it seemed pretty much impossible to several generations following Henry VIII as well. Yet I would describe myself as a Catholic, just not a Roman Catholic.

And that is not simply because I like smells and bells. Catholicism is bigger than the job description of a bishop of an Italian city. To be a Catholic is to regard oneself a part of the universal church, one the stretches back in time, yes, but one also that spreads out over the four corners of the earth.

Catholic Protestants, like me, believe in a form of Christianity with a far greater degree of institutional subsidiarity, a religion that is not just top down and doctrinally authoritarian. I guess that is why, at a certain level, we take a certain pride in our theological squabbling, however unedifying that may be at times. Politically, we are natural democrats. And democracy is messy, without the dangerous glamour of any cult of the strong leader.

The Church of England was born in disgrace. This has always seemed to me its strongest feature. What better way for a church to be inoculated from the outset against its own self-importance?

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Fr. Giles Fraser has a wonderful way of stating what he sees as ‘the obvious’. In this article from the ‘Guardian’ newspaper, Giles postulates the question that; if the Pope can feel free to resign his papal office, does that render his position more mundane than  the way in which it is normally perceived? The rarity of such an event as the resignation of a reigning Pontiff had hitherto been considered to endow the position with a mystical significance, which might be seen to become null and void with the papal resignation.

The fact that former Popes have (mostly) retained their hold on the Chair of Saint Peter until the day they died, has allowed the tradition to become associated with the idea  that the papacy is unique, in its resistance to any thought of personal preference on the part of its tenant as to whether or not he should die in office, or hand over to another elected contender.

The mystique of the papacy, Fr. Giles maintains, might be something associated more with an understanding of total commitment to unreservedly carrying out the duties of office until death. However, in this resignation, the reality might be that the former mystique has been surrendered, to include the possibility of the more worldly tradition of accessing the right to resign from office when the burden becomes too hard to bear – or to provide a more efficient and perhaps more capable capacity for leadership.

It might, of course, be argued that Saint Peter would never have resigned from his role of leadership in the Church. However, in the early Church there was no real organisation set up solely around the person of Peter himself. Each of the Apostles had a share in the rule and governance of the scattered community of believers.  It is doubtful, too,  whether the Apostle Peter would ever have agreed to the prospect of being set up in a corralled community like the present real estate of the Vatican City, in order to rule over the expansion of the Body of Christ, which seems always to have been objective of the Roman Catholic Church in the West.

There can be little doubt that, in the tendering of his resignation from the papacy and the Vatican Enclave, Pope Benedict XVI has helped to highlight the human vulnerability of the claims of the papacy to be the sole, isolated fulcrum around which the Body of Christ is meant to function. As Jesus appointed Twelve Apostles, so there is a variety of cultural leadership in the Church, reflecting the intention of its Founder that no one person should be paramount in the outworking of His Mission to all humanity, for whom he died, was raised from the dead, and now lives in the glory of His Father and the Holy Spirit. When Jesus called Peter “The rock on which I will build my Church”, there was no mention of the fact that future Bishops of Rome would automatically become the heirs of St. Peter.

Perhaps this resignation could give birth to a new spirit of collegiality in the Roman Catholic Church, that would more closely represent the Apostolic Band whom Jesus appointed to preach the Good News of His Gospel.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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