Pope Francis vs Archbishop Justin: God vs Mammon?

It’s quite unusual for a new Pope and a new Archbishop of Canterbury to be appointed in quite such temporal proximity, and it rather invites comparison. Justin Welby seems to have no potential skeleton in his ecclesiastical cupboard to compare with Francis I’s alleged conspiracy with a fascist military dictatorship, but in a way that merely underlines another contrast in their CVs. Justin has hardly any ecclesiastical back story of any kind, dubious or otherwise, having been a bishop for only months rather than years.

In what follows, I am not making any kind of personal criticism of either pope or archbishop. But I am struck by the symbolic contrasts in their respective appointments. Pope Francis’ reputation other than that of possibly cosying up to dictators is altogether more wholesome. He is widely described as modest, humble, and one to eschew the trappings of wealth, power and high office. He travelled on public transport in Buenos Aires, and declined to wear the ermine-trimmed shoulder-wear he was offered on being elected pope. His first public pronouncements have emphasised the need for a “poor church serving the poor”. How long this admirable outlook will be able to survive the inevitable disjuncture with papal palaces, sumptuous ceremony, and all the other worldly accoutrements with which the papacy has entangled itself for centuries remains to be seen. But the virtues for which he was elected pope seem to be spiritual first, and managerial second.

Compare the selection of Justin Welby. The key qualities for which he was chosen seem altogether more worldly. His experience as an oil executive seems to have been considered of much greater significance than his patent lack of experience as a bishop. His key tasks, it would seem, are considered to be more to do with managing the seemingly unmanageable fissures and disputes within the Anglican Communion than to do with any orientation of the church around a principle as basic as poverty. Let me emphasise again that in making this point I am not criticising the Archbishop, nor am I suggesting that his appointment was not a good one. He has certainly not shied away from taking on the Government on the issues of welfare reform, and I think that augurs well.

But I do think that the contrast I have drawn is not insignificant. In many ways both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches have pressing internal problems to address: for the former pre-eminently that of sexual misbehaviour and its mismanagement, whilst for the latter it’s the corrosive disputes about gay priests and women bishops. Faced with such serious concerns, Anglicanism has chosen a manager from secular society, whilst Roman Catholicism has chosen a Jesuit concerned with fundamental principle.

It’s perhaps unfair to suggest that one has chosen God, and one Mammon. However, if either Church is to be able to overcome its current difficulties, the Roman Catholic hierarchy will need to show much greater managerial skill than it’s shown recently, whilst Anglicans will need to be less obsessed with sex, and more concerned with the Gospel. Perhaps Francis would have been a better Archbishop of Canterbury, and Justin a better pope!

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