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Planting dreams, awakening hope

Plant dreams, awaken hope

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.  Pope Francis 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.

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 north east 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.

Receptive ecumenism

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.

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.

Slow wisdom

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.

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 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.

Plant dreams, awaken hope

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 www.ecumenicalstudies.org/events/

The text for this piece has been taken from the full article in The Tablet by Christopher Lamb (6 July 2023)Journeying together in synodality and ecumenism (thetablet.co.uk)

See https://www.schoolforsynodality.org.uk/synodality-explainers?

Also “Instrumentum laboris’ calls for welcoming Church that embraces diversity – Vatican News

And We journey together in communion


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