Like many non-Catholics, I’ve been following the papal election closely and watched on live-stream as the Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was presented to the world as Francis, the 266th Pope.
Most non-Catholics feel about the Pope the same way most Americans feel about British royals. We love to watch them, but we’re glad they’re not ours.
As a Wesleyan, I am occasionally enamored of Roman Catholic pomp and pageantry, but there are good reasons why my church doesn’t have a pope—and doesn’t want one.
With respect toward my many Catholic friends and colleagues, here are a few of those reasons.
1. We Believe the Holy Spirit Works through the Whole Church
The Roman church believes that the Pope is the direct ecclesial descendant of the apostle Peter and is therefore the representative of Christ on earth. Wesleyans (and many other Christians) believe that Jesus is present within his Body, the church. Therefore, our way of making decisions, affirming doctrine, and dealing with church discipline makes use of the whole body. We all vote on important questions in a local church. At the district and general church levels, we send elected representatives from congregations.
Our general superintendent is an administrative and spiritual leader, but nobody mistakes this person for the representative of Christ on earth. That’s a job for the whole body.
2. We Believe the Church is Always Reforming
Though The Wesleyan Church is not part of the Reformed tradition, we do like the idea of Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda—the church is reformed and always reforming. A leader’s authority comes not from standing in direct succession from Peter or other apostles in an institutional or legal fashion but from being heir to the Holy Spirit, the doctrines of Christ, the “good deposit” that Paul wrote about. Occasionally the Holy Spirit does a little housecleaning by removing leaders—even institutions or whole denominations—that have drifted from the true faith. So Wesleyans don’t honor a leader simply because he is “next in line.” We are constantly seeking the fresh wind of the Spirit.
3. We Believe God Calls and Gifts Women for Ministry
The Pope must be a man, which leaves out at least half the church from eligibility for leadership. Wesleyans believe the Holy Spirit can call anyone to serve the Lord in the leadership of his church. In fact, our current general superintendent, Jo Anne Lyon, is a woman. She is ineligible to be Pope, but she’s clearly gifted, called, and effective at leading our little corner of the church.
4. We Avoid the Concentration of Power
From its inception, The Wesleyan Church has been skeptical of central authority. We believe the gifts and graces of God are given liberally to all believers, including to laypeople. Our form of government diffuses power throughout the church in just that same fashion, we hope. Laypeople are equally represented in all of our conferences (our version of a conclave). We believe Jesus intended to disperse authority through his disciples, not concentrate it in them.
I will pray for Frances, as I hope all Wesleyans will. No single person commands the attention of more Christians—and of the non-Christian world. Yet at the end of the day, I am content in a Christian tradition that governs itself based on deeply held belief that the Holy Spirit speaks to all believers.