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An ecumenical panel on synodality | One Body

Sr. Donna Geernaert, SC

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Detail of The Road to Emmaus by Robert Zünd (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

An ecumenical panel on synodality

by Sr. Donna Geernaert, SC

A recent blog by Nick Jesson identifies “six signs of an ecumenical springtime” as a cause for renewed hope in the search for Christian unity. Not mentioned by Nick but perhaps a seventh sign of an ecumenical springtime is a growing appreciation for Saint John Paul II’s reference to dialogue as an ecumenical gift exchange. Pope Francis offers clear encouragement: “If we really believe in the abundantly free working of Holy Spirit, we can learn so much from one another!” (Evangelii Gaudium 246). With this in mind, the Catholic Ecumenical Officers of Western Canada saw Pope Francis’ invitation to the whole church, Catholic and ecumenical, to reflect together on synodality as an invitation to host an ecumenical panel on the topic.
On February 15, Archbishop Linda Nicholls (Primate, Anglican Church of Canada), Dr. Irma Fast Dueck (Professor, Mennonite Church Canada), Fr. Geoffrey Ready (Professor, Orthodox Church of America), and Rev. Stephen Kendall (Principal Clerk, Presbyterian Church in Canada) were invited to share their thoughts on how synodality is experienced in the life and mission of each of their churches. With apologies to the panellists, the limited space of this blog allows for only highlights from four very rich presentations.
Canadian Anglicans are familiar with the experience of synodality as each diocese is overseen by a “bishop-in-synod” model of governance familiar within the wider Anglican tradition. This model means that the diocesan bishop exercises his or her authority with the advice and consent of the clergy and laity of the diocese. It recognizes that the Holy Spirit is given to all the baptized who all share responsibility for the life of the church. All are called to seek the mind of Christ, to balance individual conscience with the good of the whole. Dioceses are organized regionally in four provinces, which in turn are joined nationally in the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada. Each of these structures meets periodically in synod for discussion, worship, and decision-making. Voting takes place by “houses” or “orders” (i.e., laity, clergy, bishops) with different kinds of legislation requiring different thresholds of support for approval. Episcopal concurrence is needed before any legislative change can be enacted.
Reflecting on the Anglican experience of synodality, Archbishop Nicholls identified gifts as well as challenges. Among the gifts, a key strength is the fact that all voices are represented. There is an equal opportunity for all to be heard, a balance of clergy and laity where each “house” is called upon to discern individually. All meet as one body, and relationship building is essential to discernment. Yet synodical structures assume a strong formation for all, and this can be a challenge as laity may be tempted to defer to clergy. Another challenge lies in the possible domination of juridical procedures and parliamentary debate, which may well impede careful discernment of current issues. In this context, the emergence of an Indigenous Anglican Church offers new opportunities to reflect on synodality for the benefit of the whole church.
For Canadian Mennonites, the primary manifestation of the church is the local congregation and the various groupings of congregations united in the Conference of Mennonites in Canada. As they share an Anabaptist heritage and a congregationalist polity, the topic of synodality is not widely discussed among their members. The autonomy of each individual congregation is strongly affirmed, and the Conference has no authority to interfere in the internal matters of a congregation unless called to do so. It is not a legislative but an advisory body, promoting unity in love, faith, and hope and in common work in the kingdom of God.
Dr. Fast Dueck sees herself as a practical theologian. In fact, she maintains, true theology must be practical. It is essential to pay attention to the embodied life of the church, to orient the church to the confusing body that it is. We need to reflect on how bridges will be built between theology and the life of the Christian community. How we live as communities will inform our understanding and practice of synodality. The Mennonite church is a peace church, called to witness to the transforming power of God’s Kingdom of peace, justice, and reconciliation. This commitment to Jesus’ way of peace will determine how we shape our common life. The church seeks social healing, restorative justice, and healing of memories. Without attention to past brokenness, it will not be possible to move beyond the isolation of the past and take concrete steps toward new relations. Healing of memories is integral to how synodality will be lived in our churches.
Among the Orthodox Churches, synodality is a familiar concept, central to maintaining the church in apostolic fidelity since the first millennium. It has, therefore, been an important topic in the international Orthodox–Roman Catholic dialogue, which in 2016 issued its statement Synodality and Primacy during the First Millennium: Towards a Common Understanding in Service to the Unity of the Church. And, for Pope Francis, this Orthodox experience of synodality is a good example of a potential ecumenical gift exchange.
Father Ready began his presentation by stating his basic agreement with the International Theological Commission’s text Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church. It speaks well of the Orthodox concept of synodality, showing the effect of the past century of dialogue on the topic. Further insight into the meaning of synodality, he suggests, may be found in the concept of sobornost as developed in the thought of Aleksey Khomyakov. The Slavonic equivalent of “catholicity” in the Nicene Creed, the term can be roughly translated as togetherness, a unity in multiplicity where all differences disappear. Viewed from within, the Church reflects the life of the Holy Trinity. It is an organic unity in love and freedom; it is not an institution and not an authority. Every member is part, and organic unity is maintained in spite of external conflict.
While Canadian Presbyterians are not familiar with the term “synodality”, they do make use of the term “synod” in relation to their church’s organizational structure. Rooted in the Reform tradition and the theology of John Calvin, Presbyterian church structure is based on elders, i.e., presbyters. Equal numbers of teaching elders (clergy) and ruling elders (laity) share in the care and oversight of the ministry at each of the four levels or “courts” of the church. This ensures that the full spectrum of voices is heard and enhances the possibility of all members of the church staying together on the journey
According to Rev. Kendall, Presbyterians specialize in committees. When faced with a difficult decision such as the ordination of women in the mid-20th century or current questions about sexual orientation, the tendency is to form a committee. In forming such committees, attention is given to providing for a variety of views from lay and ordained as well supporters and those who oppose the position. Committees may study a question for a number of years, reporting annually to the General Assembly until a decision can be made. The making of a formal decision does not, however, conclude the matter as the question will be returned to committee for further study. The process may appear meticulous but clearly gives priority to the importance of building consensus and journeying together.
This brief review of how synodality is lived in Anglican, Mennonite, Orthodox, and Presbyterian churches demonstrates not only the distinctiveness of each of the approaches taken but also the commitment that each places on fidelity to discerning the Gospel in today’s world. Synodality in action is not just about making decisions as a church. It’s also about the cumbersome, often messy, consultative process of seeking to reconcile divergent views and deeply held convictions in living faith communities. All our churches are facing challenges, and all have much to learn from one another.

Sr. Dr. Donna Geernaert, SC, served for 18 years in promoting ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. She has been a staff member, consultant, and member of numerous multilateral and bilateral theological dialogues in Canada as well as internationally.

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