Synodality: Power to the people

The Synod word has fallen out of widespread use in Catholic circles, but it is back, big-time.

What does it mean? What are the issues? How should we approach a Synod?

Joining Flashes of Insight host Dr Joe Grayland to discuss Synods and Synodality are:

  • Cardinal John Dew of Wellington, New Zealand,
  • Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia and
  • Professor Thomas O’Loughlin, Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.

Synods were introduced to the Archdiocese of Wellington when Cardinal Tom Williams was archbishop.

Reasonably rare occurrences, the Archdiocese has experienced four synods, two while Cardinal Williams was archbishop and two during Cardinal Dew’s time.

Dew told the discussion that while some will be familiar with the concept of a Synod, he suspected most in the archdiocese were unlikely to be. He explained that in the Archdiocese, synods are about working together, listening together and encouraging the participation of lay people in setting the Archdiocese’s direction.

Pressed on whether he thought bishops are prepared to give up their authority, Dew said it was implicit that the episcopal authority would change radically.

He cited a very tangible example of synodality in operation.

Dew told the Flashes of Insight how the 1998 Archdiocesan Synod discussed the issue of permanent deacons.

For a range of excellent reasons, the matter of ordained permanent deacons was something then Archbishop Cardinal Williams was very keen to introduce to help the Archdiocese’s mission.

Other New Zealand dioceses had and still have permanent deacons.

However, because the diaconate was open only to men, the Synod voted overwhelmingly against permanent deacons, deciding to go down the more inclusive line of lay pastoral ministry.

Archbishop Coleridge, a leading figure in the Australian Church’s Plenary Council, agreed with Dew about listening and working together.

It is about everyone, even the Pope, participating differently in the Church. Coleridge says synodality resituates the papacy, the episcopate, priesthood, religious life and the lay vocation.

He emphasised the experience is a new type of faith experience.

In particular, Coleridge highlights the pivotal role of the Holy Spirit and the importance of our listening to the Spirit.

Coleridge was reluctant to describe the process as a ‘power to the people’ moment, saying the phrase has overtones of ‘ideology’ and ‘politics’.

“We need to avoid both like the plague if we want to get to a truly ecclesial and spiritual understanding of synodality”, he emphasised.

Coleridge says synodality is about letting go of power, leaving power to the Holy Spirit.

“Once you listen to a voice other than your own, you surrender power in the belief that will empower you in other ways.”

Pushed on how he thought a Synodal Church would structure itself, Coleridge’s view is Synodality recenters the Church around listening to the Holy Spirit.

Professor Thomas O’Loughlin disagreed a little with Coleridge.

Placing synodality in a historical context, O’Loughlin said, “Human beings don’t stop being political when they become Christians.”

He warned that synodality is a “white-water moment for the Church” and that confronted with fear, some people already want the process to be halted.

Inherent in Synodality is that it is an opportunity and a threat of revolt, he said.

O’Loughlin suggested that for historical reasons, the issue will centre around where the ultimate authority lies.

He said there are different types of synodality in different faith traditions and suggested the Catholic Church might be best to address the question asked by Protestant reformer John Calvan.

O’Loughlin said Calvin’s pivotal question about the fundamental order of the Church. Is the fundamental order baptism or holy orders?

To conclude, Grayland asked each participant for their “Flash of Insight”, a “take away” from the conversation.

Coleridge recommends the Church takes the risk and sets out on the journey.

He also recommends keeping our nerve even when things seem like they are getting out of control.

Coleridge emphasised it is important not to take over but let the Spirit lead and promises those who take the journey will not be disappointed.

O’Loughlin’s flash of insight is that it is important to be ready for a ‘white-water ride’ like we have not seen since the 14th Century.

He also recommends we do not lose our nerve this time and that we ‘stay cool’ and ‘stay lose’.

John Dew’s flash of insight is not to be afraid to talk about any issue.

He has one proviso; to talk about any topic or issue so long as you have prayed and reflect and know it is the Spirit leading and not just an idea.

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