Around the world there are many synods and England is no different. There is the official Synod, a shambling bureaucratic sort of beast, camouflaged and hard to recognise at times. Slow as a sloth in some places, fast as a racehorse in others.
There is a Synod of fear, as painted by the more lurid Catholic conservatives. A monstrous creature, designed by fanatical Jesuit scientists to rip the Church limb from limb. Then there is the Synod of hope, of those hanging on the Faith by fingernails and desperate to see the Church change, an overburdened animal, weighed down by expectation.
Bishop Nicholas Hudson was at the Continental Assembly in Prague last month, and his intervention gives a sense of the tensions in the official approach. He spoke about the importance of inclusion, of LGBT+ people; and remarried divorcees but also of ‘the tension to be found in the Church needing boldly to “(proclaim) its authentic teaching while at the same time offering a witness of radical inclusion and acceptance”.
Role of women
He noted that the role of women had ‘been a headline finding of the Synod in our countries’ yet ‘we heard fewer calls for women’s ordination than for their inclusion in the Church’s governance. However, we noted that few lay-men exercise governance roles either’.
He said a key concern about young people in the Church or lack thereof and about the ‘the joy expressed by the young people who took part (in the synodal process) contrasted with the pain of those concerned about young people’s involvement’. He also recognised the tension between young people who seek to adhere to the 1962 Missal and those who prefer more contemporary celebrations.
“As in most countries, many English and Welsh priests were unclear as to how they were supposed to engage with the Synodal process,” he said. “As in most countries, there was frequent expression of appreciation for our priests, along with concern that too much is asked of them”.
This cover all bases, reasonable approach suggests incremental change, that the institutional Church is happy to move a little but not a lot. It is, of course, a far cry from the vision of the Synod painted by certain high profile English Catholic commentators online. They constantly bemoan what they see as a pitiful attendance (have you seen the state of the pews lately?), and fear it may birth a mewling form of Catholicism they cannot abide.
Loss of conflict
There is a sense here that what some of these critics truly fear is a loss of conflict. In recent years, for a type of online media Catholic, angrily remonstrating online has become their primary demonstration of Faith. Not that such failings can be limited to any one persuasion or tendency, of course.
But it underlines one of the great challenges begs for dialogue, in an age when dialogue has never been less fashionable. We should also not forget that the vast majority of Catholics in the UK, haven’t engaged with the synod process because the vast majority of Catholics in the UK barely set foot inside a Church. Worthy attempts to reach out to the lapsed though there were, the great residual mass of Catholicism continues to slumber.
Certainly among those who have been most enthused by the Synod process there is a certain fatalism these days. Penelope Middleboe of Root and Branch reform, one of the leading voices for reform in the English and Welsh Church, feels the official Synod has not lived up to its promise.
“If you look at our analysis of Synodal reports, the National Syntheses was an over-filtered version of the various synodal reports on women’s ordination, action on clerical abuse and co-responsibility for Church governance,” she said. “We’re not seeing signs that’s changing at the Continental stage. It does feel like the Church might be stuck and can’t make the reforms the laity are asking for. It’s all just too slow, which has always been the way, I mean the Vatican was one of the last countries to ban slavery.”
Despite that she believes things have been set free in the synodal process. “One of the most surprising things has been elderly parishioners who had always taken what they were given so to speak, coming to some of these talks and feeling free to think for themselves,” she recalls.
“I count my mum as one of those, she led synodality in her parish after her priest was sick. And she said why don’t we write what keeps us in the Church and makes us want to leave and something quite beautiful came out of that. She and others were devout, but wouldn’t have engaged that part of her brain in a Church setting before, she wasn’t fully using the charisms she’d be given.”
She believes these forces of reform will not be easily banished whatever happens next. “We’ve now set up Spirit Unbounded, which is an attempt to join up all reform organisations around the world so they can support each other and in Rome and Online there’s an event in October called ‘Discipleship of Equals’ which will showcase that these ideas will not be shut down.”
For Penelope and others there’s a hunger ‘to create a space for those who want to make a safer, more inclusive Church not just throw up their hands in horror and leave’. We want freedom to practise Catholicism without feeling we have to be fearful of getting it wrong.”
Though we are still far from knowing the fruits of the English Synod, they are likely to be stranger than we expect. For all the triangulation of the official Church, the institution is weaker than many imagine, its ability and authority to enforce its will has declined sharply.
Instead in the cracks and gaps new ideas have sprung up. These have taken different forms in different places, but have all been accelerated by the Synod. It may well be the case that Church historians in this period will find what was happening at the margins of the Church to be ultimately the most significant.