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Opinion: Churches separated but with similar difficulties

10 November 2023

Anglicans would do well to observe how the Synod in Rome navigated differences of opinion, writes Christopher Hill

ENCOURAGED to look over the fence to their neighbour and the so-called Synod on Synodality in Rome (News, Leader comment, 3 November), Anglicans will look at the 41-page Synthesis Report not only for what is said about ecumenism, but also about contentious issues not so different from their own culture wars.

The “Assembly” of the Synod began with an ecumenical vigil of prayer attended by the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The current context of war in Gaza and Ukraine is urgently registered in the report. There is an emphasis on the fact that lay people, clergy, and religious participated — and their participation included voting — alongside bishops, exhibiting communion in a synodal process. The language throughout the report is synodal; synodality is a process rather than an event. There is emphasis on learning to embrace a synodal style, recognising a plurality of positions. Anglicans used to know that.

There have already been two years of consultations at diocesan, national, and continental levels, which have fed into this process. The Second Vatican Council is described as sowing seeds that are now being received in the “experience” of Churches in different cultures, embodied in the Assembly’s method of working in small, roundtable groups. Fear of synodality is also recognised, especially that of departure from the apostolic faith. Others fear no change in the face of what is, significantly, emphasised as “the living tradition”.

THE synthesis then hones down in more detailed sections, with convergences, matters for consideration, and interim proposals. But, first, synodality requires “conversation”, “conversion”, and “listening”, leading to “discernment” in terms of scripture, the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, and, significantly, a “prophetic” reading of “the signs of the times”. The latter echoes the Second Vatican Council, but has not been prominent in the teachings of the two previous popes. All the baptised share an “instinct for the truth of the Gospel”: this is an intuitive sense of faith which, through a synodal process, is discerned as the consensus of the faithful. Readers of the ARCIC-III Agreed Statement Walking Together on the Way (2017) (Comment, 6 July 2018) will immediately recognise this.

A preferential option for the poor is emphasised for the common good, and Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation Laudate Deum (News, 6 October) is flagged in terms of climate change. The problem of polarisation on liturgy, morals, and social teaching is recognised. There is strong denunciation of “the sin of racism”.

An extensive section on women in the Church follows. Women are not an “issue” or a “problem”. Clericalism and a lack of accountability are criticised as wounding the Church and as inappropriate expressions of authority. “Profound spiritual conversion is needed for any effective structural change.” Sexual abuse and the abuse of power continue to scar the Church.

How can the Church include more women in existing positions and ministries? Women deacons are to be examined. Should celibacy be an obligation for priests in the Latin Church? On bishops, what happens when bishops diverge on contentious issues? (Please tell us in the Church of England!) Bishops should be subject to performance reviews, with reference to “styles of authority”, finance, and handling of abuse. Episcopal and pastoral councils should be mandatory in each diocese.

An important section on dissent and open questions follows — again, with relevance to Anglicans’ own difficulties. Jesus meets people “in their uniqueness”, and anthropology can clash with human experience. This is code for binary understandings of human sexuality. Simplistic judgements that hurt both individuals and the body of Christ are to be avoided. Listening and accompaniment ought to be characteristic of the Church; this requires an unconditional acceptance of persons. Participants in the Living in Love and Faith process cannot fail to recognise all this. Structural issues are addressed, including the need for a revision of canon law to enable greater lay participation and other reforms.

TWO concluding observations: the work of ARCIC and “What happens next?” The current agenda of ARCIC is focused on ethical issues, and the important question how the Church changes its mind. As it happens, two members of ARCIC are deeply involved in the work of the Synod: a distinguished woman canonist and ecumenist and an equally distinguished Sri Lankan moral theologian who teaches in Rome.

As for the future, this Assembly concludes only a part of the synodical process. These findings now go back to the Churches and will be debated, discussed, and returned to the concluding Assembly in 2024. There was some dissatisfaction at the variable quality of the listening process last time round, and encouragement to do better this time. Monitoring this will be the Synod Office under the Synod’s Maltese secretary-general, Cardinal Mario Grech, who has met ARCIC and engaged with its discussions on synodality; he is a very unprelatical Cardinal.

It is also clear that Pope Francis will be following closely. Although not all do, he welcomes catholic diversity. He has consistently shown a propensity for encouraging local decisions and respecting and accepting different cultures rather than universal uniformity. Anglicans would do well to watch this space and accompany the Roman Catholic Church not only with fraternal prayer, but also with a view to mutual ecumenical learning.

The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is a former Bishop of Guildford and a former co-secretary of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.


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