Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

An Easter Tale of Two Global Churches, Fractured yet Hopeful

Timothy Sherratt


April 5, 2013

By Timothy Sherratt

The central message of Easter is the hope engendered by Jesus’ resurrection.  As it happens, two global churches have recently embarked on new paths with new leaders, both of whose early actions call on and engender this hope.

In assuming his new role, Pope Francis has declined many of the trappings of papal splendor. During Holy Week he engaged in the usual Maundy Thursday service of foot washing. But those whose feet he washed were not priests, as is customary, but teenage inmates, male and female, at a youth prison in Rome, which is decidedly unusual. This simple liturgy accentuates the centrality of service in the proclamation of the Good News. Done in such a setting it takes the Church into the places of the world’s hurt.

The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, used his Easter sermon to caution against misplaced trust in human organizations, whose fallibility would predictably disappoint. "Human fallibility recognized, God's sovereignty trusted; these are also the only stable foundations for human beings in society," he said. The Church’s confidence, he said, must lie "not in vain human optimism but in the certainty that God raised Jesus from the dead and will also raise us".

Both the Roman Catholic Church and the smaller Anglican Communion are global churches. That feature is perhaps an under-appreciated blessing in the Christian community. What it brings into view is the reality of our membership in the Body of Christ. When membership is global, questions of diversity, evangelism and service take shape as present reality, not abstract aspiration. Global neighbors really are neighbors, who read from the same liturgy and share in the body and blood of Christ.

The Church of England chose an English bishop to be Archbishop of Canterbury, as it has always done—even though the vast majority of the world’s Anglicans are found in the developing world. In contrast, the conclave elevated the first non-European to the Papacy.

Both the Pope and the Archbishop assume leadership of damaged churches. They suffer from self-inflicted wounds as much as from external challenges like those posed by modernity or secularization or hostile public laws.

The sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church will cast long shadows over the coming decades. But under present leadership, the Church seems unlikely to make concessions to modernity.

The Anglican Communion suffers a more serious fracture over basic tenets of Christian theology, which preceded, but was exacerbated by, The Episcopal Church’s decision to consecrate a homosexual as bishop in the last decade. Of the nearly 40 provinces (national churches) in the Communion, the fault lines run between revisionist provinces in the developed world stressing their communion with Canterbury, and orthodox ones in the global south, which remain in communion but are highly critical of Canterbury’s continued tolerance of revisionism. The young, orthodox Anglican Church in North America is recognized by the global south provinces but not by Canterbury, which continues to recognize The Episcopal Church. Moreover, the Archbishop of Canterbury does not wield doctrinal or legislative authority over the independent provinces in the Communion, but is a first among equals.

Pope Francis appears to be pursuing a path of genuine vulnerability in his first days as Pope, one of modeling Christian service to the most vulnerable in society rather than challenging the ‘powers that be’—political or ecclesiastical—directly.

Archbishop Welby, less by his words than by his surprising elevation—a former oil company executive who took holy orders as a second career, he had been consecrated bishop less than a year before his becoming Archbishop of Canterbury—represents an unusual profile. An evangelical who came to faith at Holy Trinity, Brompton, home of The Alpha Course, Welby, like Francis, has committed himself to a path of vulnerability and trust.

Both Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby have, by actions and words, taken a critical stance towards the institutions they now lead. If I read them correctly, their message to the Churches is an Easter message: Institutions matter, but health requires that they be tailored to their mission, taking risks rather than taking refuge.

—Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”