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Leader comment: Synodality: learning from the neighbours

03 November 2023

IT IS often fascinating to look over the fence when your neighbours start building something on an adjoining property. It might seem like snooping, but there is now Vatican approval. The Synthesis Report from the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (a name that may mislead, since lay people, including women religious, had a voting presence, too), which finished in Rome last weekend, has a section on ecumenism. Baptism, it says, constitutes the foundation of ecumenism. “Through it, all Christians participate in the sensus fidei and for this reason they should be listened to carefully, regardless of their tradition.” The three-week-long Synod functioned as an audit of the Roman Catholic Church, touching on many aspects of its organisation and function, but its underlying focus was on synodality itself: how the whole people of God might be more involved in the decisions that shape their life together.

Any temptation to smugness in a Church that embraced synodality decades ago ought to be fleeting. Reading the Synthesis Report is like glancing at the architect’s plans for next door, after your own were mislaid long ago. So, that’s how synods should function, and how they fit together with the rest of the Church. . . It is often hard to marry the Anglican experience of a synod with the description here of “conversation in the Spirit”. This, says the report, “is a tool that, even with its limitations, enables authentic listening in order to discern what the Spirit is saying to the Churches. Its practice has elicited joy, awe, and gratitude and has been experienced as a path of renewal that transforms individuals, groups, and the Church.” A Roman Catholic reading these words is invited to compare this description with a hierarchical structure in which male bishops make all the important decisions, clericalism and chauvinism are rife, the laity are discouraged, and engagement with the poor could be more widely spread. An Anglican might reflect on poor attendance at meetings, a reluctance to be involved, unrepresentative membership, party factions, and a growing tendency to conduct the most important business away from the synodical structure.

There is here, in fact, a remarkable contrast. Both RCs and Anglicans recognise that, in the words of the Synthesis Report, they are “affected by polarisation and distrust in vital matters such as liturgical life and moral, social and theological reflection”. For Anglicans, this has created a distrust of the forums in which this polarisation breaks out most clearly. The RCs, however, are enjoined to “recognise the causes of each through dialogue and undertake courageous processes of revitalising communion and processes of reconciliation to overcome them”. Anglicans have a choice. They can call over the fence: “Oh, we tried that, and it didn’t really work.” Or they can invite the neighbours to see if the combination of experience and fresh thinking can lead to structures that function well and reflect the glory of God.

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