Belfast Telegraph

Is too much emphasis put on Church leaders' importance?

By Alf McCreary

Following the Easter celebrations last weekend, there have been more worrying reports that Pope Francis may step down early from the Papacy due to exhaustion.

There are also reports, not surprisingly, that he continues to face strong opposition from hardline figures in the Vatican and elsewhere, who object to his proposed liberal reforms.

The two reports are not unconnected. The Pope is now 78 and the role would tax even a much younger man - particularly as opposition from entrenched hardliners anywhere can be energy-sapping.

When the Pope was appointed three years ago, I ventured to suggest on a live UTV programme on the evening of his election that he may have already been too old for the massive job facing him.

That was not ageism, but realism. In the past there have been elderly Popes, such as John XXIII, who was elected at 77 and served for five years until his death at 83.

He was a very good Pope, who showed that age alone is not necessarily a barrier to high office. Our own Queen is also a remarkable human being for her age, or any age.

However, Pope John was an exception and since then the Roman Catholic Church has decided that its bishops retire at 73, so why should popes be allowed to stay on?

In the past, it was unthinkable that the Pope should retire, but Pope Benedict broke the mold when he shocked people by retiring over three years ago, because he was too frail to carry on.

The modern precedent has been set and Pope Francis may, decide soon that he has done all he can in the past three years to try to liberalise the Catholic Church.

All of this raises the important question about how the main churches elect their leaders and about how long they should stay in office - in the best interests of all concerned.

The Anglican Church has set its own precedent quite recently, when Archbishop Rowan Williams retired at a relatively young age to concentrate on Biblical scholarship amid the cloisters.

Archbishop Welby is young and vigorous and is unlikely to retire any time soon, but high office at that level - whether in the Church, or politics, or commercial life - makes huge demands on a person's stamina.

Back home, there has been quite a turnover of senior Church figures in recent years, with two relatively new primates and several new Church of Ireland bishops.

The Presbyterians and Methodists move along steadily - and nowadays quite quietly - with a new leader every year, but this begs the question as to how long he, or she (though a "she"not yet affecting the Presbyterians) should stay in office.

Some people would argue that a year is far too short and that a one-year leader has just learned about what the role should, or could, really be before it is time to make way for someone else.

The counter-argument, of course. is that in some churches, or even congregations, the leaders or ministers can stay too long, and people have a difficult job of getting rid of them.

All of which begs the further question: do we actually need Church leaders and, if so, what should they do?

Recently, I asked several current affairs people, whom I thought would know the identity of our Church leaders, and hardly anyone could name even one.

How many could you name - without using Google? Now that is something to think about.

Belfast Telegraph


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