Journeying together in synodality and ecumenism

 — July 6, 20236 juil. 2023

The Francis papacy and the synod process is opening up unexpected new paths in the search for Christian unity.

In recent years, the movement towards Christian unity, which had quickened after the Second Vatican Council, seemed to have become mired in a quagmire of insurmountable difficulties. The synodal process launched by Pope Francis has changed all that. The extraordinary synodal journey is not one that the Catholic Church is embarking on alone. The recently published Instrumentum Laboris – working document – for the forthcoming October assembly in Rome devotes a whole section to Christian unity and how the Catholic Church can learn from other traditions. This was the theme of a recent meeting that brought Church leaders and theologians from the Catholic Church and six other Christian denominations to Durham, in the northeast of England.

The Centre for Catholic Studies – part of Durham University’s Theology and Religion department – gathered together more than 120 participants from the Catholic, Anglican, Quaker, Methodist, Baptist, United Reformed and Pentecostal traditions; the main sessions took place at Ushaw, the former seminary, now a heritage centre and conference venue. Seven Catholic bishops, including archbishops Malcolm McMahon and Bernard Longley, were among them, making it the most significant synodal-style meeting to have taken place in England and Wales since Pope Francis launched the synod process in October 2021. Mgr Keith Newton, the leader of the ordinariate, the structure established by Pope Benedict XVI to allow Anglicans to enter into the full communion of the Catholic Church while retaining many of their traditions, attended, as did Fr Christopher Thomas, the general secretary of the bishops’ conference.

On the eve of the two-day symposium, Sr Nathalie Becquart XMCJ, a senior official at the synod office in Rome, delivered the Bishop Dunn Memorial Lecture. She laid the groundwork for the conversations that were to follow, telling delegates that the ecumenical movement, which has always focused on listening, dialogue and mutual learning, has been a sort of “laboratory” for the synod. She cited the idea of “receptive ecumenism,” – which begins by asking: “What do we need to learn from other Christian traditions?” rather than: “What do the other traditions need to learn from us?” – as a good example. This theological framework has been developed over the past two decades by Professor Paul D. Murray, director of the Centre for Catholic Studies and one of the convenors of the symposium.

Read the rest of this article in The Tablet

How receptive ecumenism works in practice can be seen in documents from the most recent phase of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC-III). Its agreed statement of July 2018 encouraged the Catholic Church to give the laity a greater role in Church governance, to open the position of lector to women, and to give more authority to the synod of bishops. All of these have since come to pass, with the opening of both lector and acolyte positions to women coming after a recommendation from the 2019 Amazon synod. At the same time, the Anglican communion was encouraged to set up structures and processes that safeguard the identity of its global Communion, a pertinent recommendation given the recent disputes over same-sex relationships.

Sr Nathalie traced the line between Vatican II, ecumenism and the synod, highlighting an overlooked part of Pope Francis’ 2018 apostolic constitution on the synod of bishops, Episcopalis Communio, which states that, “if he considers it opportune” and “especially for reasons of an ecumenical nature,” the Bishop of Rome “may summon a synodal Assembly according to other formats established by himself.” This opens the possibility for a unique synodal gathering that would bring together the leaders of other Christian traditions worldwide.

The Durham gathering showed that the synod process has led other Christian denominations to sit up and notice that something interesting is happening in global Catholicism. Several high-profile theologians took part, including Paul Fiddes, the leading Baptist theologian of his generation, who noted when he addressed the symposium that “journeying together” was familiar ground for Baptists. The distinguished Anglican theologian David Ford told the gathering: “I feel that we are now in the middle of the most important moment since Vatican II.” And Elaine Green, clerk to the Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations, described the synod as a “gift to the world,” adding: “No other Church could have embarked on this project.” Speakers from other denominations repeatedly described the synodal process as “courageous,” and several observed it had the potential to spark similar listening processes in their own communions.

Although technically a symposium, the gathering in Durham was itself a sort of mini-synod. Participants spent much of the time in small groups reflecting on what their traditions could learn from other denominations. In some ways, it anticipated the October assembly, when bishops, priests, and lay people will be gathered around tables in the Paul VI synod hall. For the Durham synod, the delegates from each of the six traditions – for pragmatic reasons, the Orthodox and Lutheran traditions had not been included – had produced a paper on how synodality is understood and practised within their tradition and what the Catholic process might learn from their experience. The timetable was punishing, underlining that synodality, as the Pope pointed out when he launched the process, is “a slow and perhaps tiring exercise”.

Greg Ryan, of the Centre for Catholic Studies, the other symposium convenor, stressed that the aim of the discussions was not to find answers but to outline “trajectories.” What emerged was practical, insightful and often surprising. It was striking that by practising synodality in an ecumenical context, several pointers to how the Church can become more synodal emerged. What might have started as an academic discussion about synodality became a shared experience of what happens when the rubber hits the road. Three themes and learning points stood out for me.

The first is that structures must go hand-in-hand with a culture of listening and dialogue. Structural change and re-organisation cannot trump listening to the Spirit; discerning together, as many observed, can be demanding and difficult. From the Catholic side, it was stressed that formation in how to be synodal is vital. The synod process must also find ways for the voices of those who practise their faith but do not to contribute to synod gatherings – those Murray described as the “committed non-attender of meetings” – to be heard and listened to.

The second is that a synod assembly is a spiritual process. As the working document for the October synod points out, a synod is more a liturgy than a parliament. On this point, the Quaker tradition of holding meetings in silence and “decision-making through silent waiting and Spirit-led discernment” held important lessons for Catholic synodality. During the symposium, 30 minutes were set aside for a silent discernment, and there were other periods of prayer. While there can be a temptation to begin a church meeting by saying a prayer and then “getting down to business,” the Quaker experience pointed to bringing the two together by ensuring that decisions are made within the context of silent, collective worship. Furthermore, if a decision is contentious or difficult, it can be deferred until a consensus is reached. This idea was built upon by the Baptist minister and theologian Ruth Moriarty, who emphasised the need for “slow wisdom”.

The third is that synodal decision-making must operate at various levels in the Church simultaneously and not in isolation. The process has been, to a significant extent, a “bottom-up” movement, emphasising a “circularity,” bringing together the centre and the local, the bishop and the people. In Durham, Dr Ryan pointed out that the Methodist idea of “flow” in decision-making resonates with John Henry Newman’s notion of conspiratio, a single movement of bishops and people. In the Catholic context, the synod process is a move to achieve a better balance between a hierarchically led Church and greater participation from all the baptised. It was pointed out that religious orders and congregations, with their traditions of collective discernment, offer resources for how to do this. We heard that even those denominations without defined hierarchies have positions and roles with the authority to make decisions. For Quakers, for example, at meetings, the clerk plays a crucial role in encouraging different individuals to speak and deciding when a topic has been fully examined.

The significant female presence among the leadership of every denomination except the Catholic Church was striking. Callan Slipper, the chairman of the Society for Ecumenical Studies, challenged the Catholic Church to find ways to establish structures “to allow the proper presence of women.” At one point, Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, the soon-to-be Archdeacon of Liverpool, said she felt “angry on behalf of the sisters [in the Catholic Church] constantly having to be asked to be let in. That cannot carry on.” Myriam Wijlens, one of the synod organisers, responded that there is nothing in canon law to stop a bishop mandating that half of a diocesan pastoral council be women. She pointed out that if a bishop believes in the Sacrament of Confirmation, where individuals receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, it is imperative to find ways to discern and listen to the Spirit within their people.

The Durham gathering showed that the Francis papacy and the synod process have opened new paths in the search for Christian unity. The concept of synodality, with its focus on the Church of all the baptised journeying together, speaks to a broad audience, and these new paths are appearing in unexpected places. Neil Hudson, a Pentecostal pastor, told the symposium that Pentecostals in Britain see this Pope as a leader and someone who “speaks their language.” Another Pentecostal leader described synodality “as a way of healing” that “leads the Church into the world but also leads the world into the Church”.

Fr Christopher Thomas told me that “conversations with the other churches need to be part of our walking together.” He said the conference had highlighted that all the churches have their struggles in the area of power and decision-making and implementing those decisions. He said the synodal process is pointing to a recovery of “the youthfulness of the Church” and its “sense of mission”.

Francis has endeavoured to be a Pope for all Christians. As the synod develops, the way the papacy is exercised will continue to be crucial. A week after the Durham symposium ended, Francis met a delegation from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. “When, with the help of God, we shall be fully united in faith and love,” Francis told the Orthodox leaders, “the form in which the Bishop of Rome will exercise his service of Communion in the Church at the universal level will have to be the result of an inseparable relationship between primacy and synodality.”

As the Pope has emphasised, the synod is not about producing documents but is an attempt to “plant dreams” and awaken hope through the People of God coming together to learn from one another. The hope for full, visible Christian unity is at the heart of a synodal Church. A follow-up to the Durham gathering will be held by the Society for Ecumenical Studies at the London Jesuit Centre on 23 September. For more details, go to

Posted: July 6, 2023 • Permanent link:
Categories: TabletIn this article: receptive ecumenism, synodality
Transmis : 6 juil. 2023 • Lien permanente :
Catégorie : TabletDans cet article : receptive ecumenism, synodality

  Previous post: Ancien article : WCC to celebrate 1,700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea
  Newer post: Article récent : North American region of WCC challenges regional racism