Next week within three days arguably the two most influential Christian leaders in the world will be enthroned. It will be a truly unprecedented week when both the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby and Pope Francis are installed into their respective roles. The last time the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury were enthroned so closely together was in 1294, when they were two weeks apart. There will of course be plenty of media coverage to follow the pomp and ceremony of the week’s events, just as there was as millions sat and watched a chimney above the Sistine Chapel waiting for the white smoke to appear and then following that the big reveal on the balcony of St Peters. As the crowds cheered a man dressed in white stepped forward silently watching them almost is if he was overawed by the enormity of the occasion. Framed theatrically by the façade of St Peter’s Basilica and flanked on either side by the cardinals who had just elected him and with the Vatican Swiss Guard below, there was something about that moment that almost made Pope Francis look out of place. He stood, waited and then after praying for Benedict XVI, began by asking that those in the square to quietly pray for him. There was no fuss or grandeur that came from him as he delivered his words before he said goodnight to the crowd and then departed.
As many of us have begun to learn about Pope Francis’ background, this introduction to the world as the new Pope becomes less and less of a surprise. We’ve seen the way he chose to take the bus back to his hotel following his election to the papacy, spending one final night with the cardinals before arriving at the hotel lobby the following morning with his suitcases in hand to pay his own bill. Prior to becoming Pope, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio chose to live in a small apartment, cook his own meals and use public transport rather than live in the mansion he was entitled to as the Cardinal in Buenos Aires. He is certainly not one for ostentation or displays of power as his decision to name himself after Francis of Assisi implies. His Anglican compatriot, Justin Welby is moulded in a similar way. He has declined to have new robes made for his enthronement. His tone is one of self-depreciation and he chooses to opt to wear black rather than the more grandiose purple he is entitled to as a bishop.
One thing the two men certainly have in common is that they are both outsiders. Rowan Williams and Benedict XVI were both noted theologians and were very much part of their respected churches’ establishment. Justin Welby and Pope Francis most definitely are not. Neither were expected to be appointed to their posts. Apart from shunning many of the trappings of power within the Roman Catholic church, Pope Francis is the first non-European Pope since 741 and the first Jesuit. He is also not a Vatican insider. Like Justin Welby he did not train initially to be a priest but instead studied chemistry at university. It is now well-known that Welby worked in the oil industry before deciding to training for ordination and when he did apply, the local bishop did not warm to him saying, “There is no place for you in the modern Church of England. I have interviewed a thousand for ordination and you do not come in the top thousand.” He had only been a bishop for less than two years when appointed to Archbishop of Canterbury. Prior to this he had said that he did not want the job: ”Let’s be clear, I’m one of the thicker bishops in the Church of England,” he said.
Pope Francis and Justin Welby are in good company when it comes to outsiders being put into positions of power and authority by God. Moses had been wandering around in a desert looking after sheep for forty years before God rapidly appointed him to leader of his people. King David was only a shepherd boy when he was thrust into the national limelight. Peter was an uneducated fisherman before he became leader of the early church. Paul was a persecutor fixated on the destruction of the Christian faith before God transformed him into the great evangelist and writer who took the news of Jesus around the Mediterranean with intense fervour. And of course there is God’s son himself, Jesus, who was conceived outside of marriage and grew up in a village of no importance away from the religious hub of Jerusalem before dramatically changing history for ever.
Before the cardinals entered the Sistine chapel to elect the new Pope, they prayed that the Holy Spirit would guide them. The Crown Nominations Commission undoubtedly did the same before their discussions over the next Archbishop of Canterbury began. If you believe in prayer then it’s hard not to accept that God does honour those prayers and the Holy Spirit guided those decisions. If there was evidence needed for this, the election of two men who were off many people’s radar is surely it. How often would this sort of appointment be made in the business world? The two appointments could just be seen as brave and maybe a bit risky, but when you see the way that God has thrown unexpected people into the spotlight before, it should come as no surprise to see such things happening.
There is one other thing about the way God’s Holy Spirit intervenes and elevates outsiders to positions they would not be expected to obtain normally; when this sort of thing happens it usually heralds change. With these biblical examples given above along with many more, God used them to do new things within their nation and beyond as well as within the community of God’s people. God was on the move and the consequences were huge. Without invoking any messianic pretensions upon Pope Francis and Justin Welby, it seems given the timing of their enthronements and the nature of their appointments, that the global church is potentially on the edge of something new. These two men through their roles have the skills and backgrounds to take the church in new directions and to break down many of the barriers between denominations and beyond that will allow the church to continue to be an effective witness to the world. Unity and working to heal division is something both men are known for.
The church has its problems at the moment, but God is bigger than all of them. His church has come through everything that has been thrown against it so far over the centuries. The world still needs to hear the message of Jesus and God’s salvation as much as it ever has and the church is God’s chosen agent for spreading it. A new phase in the church’s history may be about to begin, or it may not. But the signs appear to point to significant change. The church is not and never has been about one or two men at the top. It has always been about the body of believers who profess to know Jesus, but few of us get to stand in the positions of authority and influence that these two men do. They need God’s Holy Spirit to fill them in abundance and give them direction in order to fulfil the role that they each have been given and serve the church well.
This is already a time of great expectancy within the Church. Pope Francis and Justin Welby now have the opportunity to play their part in forming history too. They undoubtedly need our prayers, but if God is leading his church in a new direction then all of us who follow Him must be aware that it is not down to a few leaders to make this happen. Each of us has a role to play as members of the body of Christ in ensuring that we do not hamper the work of His Spirit irrespective of where He may lead us.