A synodal spring in the Celtic peripheries

‘Scotland went unmentioned in the Continental synthesis and there is a sense here that the big boys in Rome will have their say and we’ll deal with it when the time comes,’ writes Ian Dunn.

Since the submission of the national report, the Scottish Church has largely assumed a wait and see posture towards the Synod. Scotland went unmentioned in the Continental synthesis and there is a sense here that the big boys in Rome will have their say and we’ll deal with it when the time comes.


Those advocates of reform like the Scottish Laity Network continue on of course, some parishes are keeping at it and the occasional contretemps erupts online but there isn’t a huge amount to report. With one exception.

The Diocese of Argyll and the Isles is likely the smallest in Britain in terms of population. It covers the far flung Catholic communities of the Western Highlands and Islands, the descendants of those awkward Gaels who clung on to the Faith through reformation and suppression. It’s led by Bishop Brian McGee, a big amiable man from Greenock, who was a reluctant bishop but is an enthusiastic proponent of the Synod.

“For me the whole Synodal experience has been tremendous,” he reflected recently. “ My diocese lies on the Atlantic shores and consists of small, sometimes remote communities. It was great to see people coming together prayerfully reflecting and sharing. I know that this synodal journey for the Church has just begun”.

Synodal approach

Late last year he announced he would be applying a synodal approach to the many problems of the diocese, not limited to depopulation, financial pressures, declining Church attendance, a lack of priests including having none currently in seminary, scandals, and the Covid 19 and cost-of-living crises.

The bishop said that he has appointed a working group of six laity and four clergy to organise the discernment process and he would visit every parish in the diocese to discuss it with them. “We will journey together prayerfully in an open, listening and reflective manner,” the bishop said. “This approach has been recommended by Pope Francis and it is my personal conviction that it is the correct one.”

Bishop McGee said he will be ‘be open to all suggestions except any which would be contrary to Church teaching’ but while the discernment process may require a ‘change of structures it will certainly demand a change in mindset and behaviour.

The Bishop recently led the Scottish delegation to the Continental Synod Assembly in Prague and reflected on the need for radical discernment in every part of the Church, including our own lives.


 “We can often be at a loss to know which direction the Church should take,” he said. “Therefore authentic discernment must lie at the heart of the Synodal process. What we need to ask is – What is God saying? Where is God leading? This demands humility, a willingness to put aside preconceived ideas, no matter how sincere they may be. We are all shaped by our cultures. The Church is rooted in our societies which in turn influences us. Therefore, we must carefully discern today, in our concrete situation, what God is asking of us”.

The bishop mused ‘perhaps the Synod is an invitation for the Church to help people to pray in a way which allows for deeper personal discernment. If we are serious that the Synodal path, which involves communal discernment, is the way forward then we must also be serious about personal discernment of God’s will too.”


Argyll and the Isles process of discernment continues, and the challenges faced by the Church there are huge yet it could offer a path forward to tackle the equally huge challenges the Church faces elsewhere in the west.

The spiritual heart of the diocese is the beautiful isle of Iona, the site of St Columba’s famous monastery, from where the Faith spread across Scotland. It would be fitting, if 1500 years later, the Faith again found renewal from its Hebridean Fringe.

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