IF YOU were starting with a blank sheet of paper, would you invent the Church of England’s General Synod? The question was raised not, interestingly, by a group of Anglicans, but at a recent gathering of Roman Catholics. They also asked: or would the Lambeth Conference be a better model?
The question grew out of a presentation by a Dutch canon lawyer, Professor Myriam Wijlens, of Erfurt University, Germany. She described the recent Synod of RC Bishops in Rome as “not just a synod on the family”, but Pope Francis’s hitting the “reset button” on the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II saw synods as a way to shift church governance from a monarchical model to a more collegial one. But what is the best model for a working synod?
It was Clifford Longley, who was for decades the religious-affairs correspondent of The Times, who raised the Anglican correlative. Mr Longley was reporting through the 1970s and ’80s, the period after the C of E’s old Church Assembly reconstituted itself as the General Synod, in order, among other things, to wrestle day-to-day control of church affairs from the Government, so that every significant change did not require the House of Commons to initiate an Act of Parliament.
As a result, this doyen of religion commentators said, the General Synod adopted the form and formularies of parliamentary procedure as its modus operandi. That had advantages when it came to passing binding legislation, but it had the downside of galvanising differing options within the Church into semi-permanent alliances along the lines of political parties.
Moreover, Professor Eamon Duffy said — to the same conference in Durham to mark the 175th anniversary of the Roman Catholic journal, The Tablet (Comment, 6 November) — it had led to a safeguarding system that enabled one of the three Houses of the Synod — Bishops, Clergy, and Laity — each to exercise a veto. It was a dimension that the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams had told him had been a mistake, Professor Duffy told the meeting.
But the Roman Synod is advisory, not legislative. It requires a system that will build consensus rather than exacerbate the tendency towards factions which was evident in the Vatican last month. A better model, perhaps, is the small-group work that was so successful initially at the Lambeth Conferences.
Small groups are better at building consensus. When people come together to worship, pray, eat, and drink, and when they start to use one another’s Christian names, they get to know one another. They begin to see the whole person rather than just an opposing opinion. A parliamentary system is more precise legally, but it can create disgruntled minorities, where small groups can build unity horizontally, and faster, if more messily.
This was in evidence last month in Rome, when two German cardinals, the liberal Walter Kasper and the conservative Gerhard Müller, both unexpectedly agreed on signing a document produced by the small German-speaking group of synod fathers. Getting the Germans and the Africans to agree will be a different matter. But it may be that these two Anglican models offer useful lessons in both what to do, and what not to do.
Paul Vallely’s book Pope Francis: The struggle for the soul of Catholicism is published by Bloomsbury.