A religious leader is an administrator of faith. He, and in rare cases, she, is less a spiritual leader. But we want a spiritual leader. We want someone to give advice on ‘knowing’ God, not only knowing ‘about’ God, and how to organise religious matters.

We, certainly, do not just want opinions on more or less petty issues about how to live and whom to love. We want to know how to seek God, how to become “Nearer, my God, to Thee”, as a hymn by Sarah Flower Adams (1805-1848) is entitled. All the other things in everyday life are more cultural than religious, and they do and must change over time.

A religious leader should be less an administrator of faith than a spiritual leader. If he or she can be that, (s)he would also have the authority to make faith relevant in our time, with the ecclesiastical organisation that suits people now, so that we can be drawn to faith and do God’s will in this life - and reach salvation through grace and faith alone - judged not by deeds, but by our efforts.

A few days ago, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation at the end of the month. He is 85 and has been in the post for eight years. In any other leadership post, it would have been unprecedented to take office at the age of 78, as the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger did, and he had unsuccessfully requested the previous Pope John Paul II to let him retire. It would have been seen as about time to resign as Cardinal at 78 and now after many years in the top post.

Not so officially in the Catholic Church, with a billion faithful under its wings, and well over another billion in other denominations. It is 600 years since a pope resigned, similar to monarchs, who are also expected to serve until their death. Obviously, these are outdated practices. Hence, it was good to hear that Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, 75, recently decided to resign, or abdicate, as it is called, this spring, handing over to her son, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander, who is in his mid-forties. For him, it is about time to begin the job he inherits, to be the country’s head of state.

Yes, they are following an outdated, undemocratic practice where the eldest son (nowadays, the eldest child irrespective of gender) succeeds the outgoing monarch in those 30 or so countries with this old institution, excluding 16 Commonwealth realms recognising Britain’s Queen Elisabeth as their head of state. There is no election. Good then that the role of monarch is only ceremonial, at least in Western democracies.

In the Catholic Church, democracy is also yet to reach. Strangely, most members, or at least many members, of the largest denomination of Christianity seem to accept the undemocratic organisational rule. It is thought-provoking that religious organisations and institutions seem to be more difficult to change than secular ones. From that perspective, the Pope’s decision to resign is modern. Several heads of state, other politicians and top leaders can draw lessons from him.

When I was a diplomat in Africa 20 years ago, my Ambassador was getting old. Well, we never thought of him as old, probably because of his relatively youthful looks and his wife, who was 15 years younger. But then, he became 70, and no Norwegian civil servant is allowed to stay beyond that age. In Pakistan, another diplomat reached 70 recently, at the middle of the month, and he wanted to stay for a few weeks longer till the end of that month, but there was no option for that in the Norwegian civil service, and into retirement he went. It was, probably, too rigid, but still better than to allow leaders to stay into senility.

As far as I remember, the scriptures say that 70 is a man’s natural duration of life; all beyond that is “bonus”. In our time, thanks to better healthcare and living conditions, especially in the West, life expectancy has reached the mid-eighties, and many live longer in fairly good health of body and mind.

It is not entirely illogical that a mature person can shoulder a post of faith better than a younger person. Experience counts in leadership posts. Leaders of faith need wisdom of life. After all, there are not many more difficult posts to hold. However, when age counts heavily in giving authority to persons, it is also a problem. Because when all or most leaders in a secular or religious organisation or institution are old, it is a big problem. Such institutions tend to become very conservative, restricting change and modernisation.

More so, women have little say in religious institutions; neither in the Church nor in Islam. The Protestant Church has for a couple of generations included women as ordained preachers, and in many countries, women can become bishops and hold other leadership posts. Unfortunately, the Anglican Church, with close to a hundred million faithful, recently decided that women cannot be bishops, only ordinary parish priests (pastors). In the Catholic Church, women are not allowed unto the pulpit at all, but they can hold many other positions. Yet, it is about time that the Church allows women as priests and leaders. It is also about time that it again allows priests to marry, as they were allowed to earlier.

The rule of celibacy came to be practiced more frequently from about 400 AD and was made stricter from about 1100 AD, probably mainly because of the Church’s secular power and riches. There could be pretenders for inheritance and power from legitimate and illegitimate children. Hence, better then to ascertain that priests live in celibacy, ignore possible children they might have, and defrock those priests who have children if it gets known. Some of Jesus’ disciples were married, and some seem to have left their wives. Preachers were usually “elders”, and it was sometimes required that the old men refrain from sex and spend all their focus on their love for God and the flock at large. The Church and other religions, too, have many old rules that are discriminating against women, and religions seem to focus far too much on sex, control and power.

It should be noted that celibacy is not a ‘doctrine’, but a ‘discipline’. Hence, it can be changed whenever a Pope so wishes. It is my take that within a few decades, we will see many married priests. Perhaps, it is necessary in order to be able to recruit men into priesthood. I also believe that we will see women priests, but I am afraid that will take a bit longer, and it is likely that the Catholic Church will restrict women to stay in lower posts, as is still the rule in the Anglican Church. In the Protestant Church, however, it is likely that in a generation or so, the majority of the ordained preachers will be women, including bishops and other top leaders and administrators.

Why did Pope Benedict XVI decide to resign? I believe he did so because he felt he had become more an administrator of faith than a spiritual leader. And at his age, any human being should have the right to “rest his head on a stone”, as Sarah Flower Adams wrote in the hymn I mention above. The Pope made the right decision and I hope in future the high office will give the Pope better working conditions to fulfil his role as spiritual leader. The administrative tasks should be decided more democratically and openly by elected members and appointed staff. By resigning the Pope has set the Catholic Church en route to modernisation in unexpected ways.

I hope that there can be closer cooperation between the Catholic Church, the Pope, the World Council of Churches for most mainstream Protestant churches, and other unifying organisations, and also Islam and other religions. We need many pyramids, many groups, and much broader ecumenical discussion and cooperation. We need a ‘World Council of Faith’ for all believers and seekers of God.

As spiritual leader, the Pope and other top leaders in the Church and other religions should be more concerned about many issues related to ordinary people’s poverty and suffering, lack of equality between men and women, deep class rifts, growing differences at many levels as part of globalisation, and many other issues, indeed the world’s capitalist economic system. These are the important issues in our time, and in all times, and these are the issues the next Pope should address, as he attempts to fulfil the human beings’ desire of reaching “Nearer, my God, to Thee”.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid. Email: atlehetland@yahoo.com­