8 February 2022

Ecumenism, Learning from one another to be a Synodal Church


Una versione italiana è disponibile qui: https://www.osservatoreromano.va/it/news/2022-01/quo-017/imparare-gli-uni-dagli-altri.html

Osservatore Romano 2022
Learning from one another to be a Synodal Church

Officially sponsored dialogue with the Anglican Communion began in 1967 with three meetings of
what was called the Anglican-Roman Catholic Joint Preparatory Commission. During the second of
these four papers were presented on authority in the Church by the Catholics Fr. Louis Bouyer and
Bishop Johannes Willebrands and the Anglicans Canon Eric Kemp and Professor Howard Root. The
notes of the discussion that followed these scholarly papers begin by recording, “There was
agreement that the sensus fidei of the whole body of the faithful is the ultimate authority.” It is a
significant agreement. The Join Preparatory Commission knew that there was no easy solution to
differences regarding the ministry of the Bishop of Rome but this lapidary statement offered a
foundation upon which to build and indeed an approach which would enable both Anglicans and
Catholics to reframe the decisions of the first Vatican Council. With the synodal process which
began in October of last year and which gives expression to “the sensus fidei of the whole body of
the faithful,” the Catholic Church continues to deepen its understanding of authority through the
lens of synodality. It seems an opportune moment, then, to look at the contribution of the
ecumenical dialogues with the Anglican and Methodist communions on this theme .

Synodality in the ARCIC Statements

As with the discussions of the Joint Preparatory Commission, Authority in the Church I, which
ARCIC published 1976, sought to lay out a consensus in basic principles. It did not yet address
specific thorny issues but did, it claimed, provide “a solid basis for confronting them” (§24).
First among these basic agreed principles was the Church’s mission: to lead all “to accept God’s
saving work in Christ” (§14). To do this, the document continues, “it is not enough for the Church
simply to repeat the original apostolic words” but rather it is necessary “prophetically to translate
them” so that people in the different cultures of our contemporary world could receive them (§15).
This task is one that belongs to the whole people of God: “The perception of God’s will for his
Church does not belong only to the ordained ministry but is shared by all its members. All who live
faithfully within the koinonia may become sensitive to the leading of the Spirit and be brought
towards a deeper understanding of the gospel and of its implications in diverse cultures and
changing situations” (§6). ARCIC describes a continuing reflexive process whereby the whole
people of God prayerfully discerns what the gospel is calling us to today, the ordained give
authoritative expression to this discernment, and then the community assesses and responds to the teaching given.

The authority that is at work in this continuing process of discernment and response is, first and
foremost, the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit which allows the Church to come to a
common mind in order to proclaim the Gospel for the salvation of all. Authority is given to
individuals or bodies in the Church to serve the koinonia, that is to strengthen the communion
between churches and individual Christians which it does in a particular way by giving expressing
the faith of the communion. Therefor primacy, whether exercised in a diocese by a bishop in a
diocese, a Metropolitan, or by the Bishop of Rome, has the task of “helping the churches to listen to
one another, to grow in love and unity, and to strive together towards the fullness of Christian life
and witness” (§21).

In their preface to Authority in the Church I ARCIC’s co-chairs note that if its vision of authority
were to be accepted and adopted it would have significant implications for the life of both
communions. The co-chairs write that the commission’s vision demands humility, charity and a
readiness to learn and go on to state specifically that, “The Roman Catholic Church has much to
learn from the Anglican synodical tradition of involving the laity in the life and mission of the
Church” (Co-chairmen’s Preface to Authority in the Church I). This proposal anticipates Pope
Francis’s remarks in Evangelii Gaudium where he comments on our need to reap what the Spirit has
sown in other Christians which is also a gift for us and continues, “To give but one example, in the
dialogue with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, we Catholics have the opportunity to learn more
about the meaning of episcopal collegiality and their experience of synodality” (§246). If Pope
Francis gives just one example of the exchange of gifts by which “we are led more fully into truth
and goodness,” ARCIC has already given another- indeed we can learn synodality from both our
Orthodox and our Anglican brothers and sisters.

ARCIC’s next agreed statement, Authority in the Church II (1981), focussed more tightly on four
aspects related to Papal primacy: the New Testament Petrine texts; Vatican I’s teaching that the
Papacy is established by Ius Divinum; Universal Jurisdiction and Infallibility. The statement
addressed these issues on the basis of the principles established in Authority I. Thus in considering
the authority given to bishops the document recognises the purpose of such “jurisdiction” is “for the sake of the koinonia” (§17) and that the universal primacy of the Bishop of Rome is to be exercised “not in isolation but in collegial association with his brother bishops” (§19). Turning to infallibility the Commission agreed that the Church can and has come to decisive judgements on matters of essential doctrine which summon the whole Church to “a renewed unity in the truth” (§24). Such decisions involve all members of the Church and their “active reflection” on resulting definitions clarifies their significance. Reflecting on how such judgements are reached the Commission writes, “The Church’s judgement is normally given through synodal decision, but at times a primate acting in communion with his fellow bishops may articulate the decision even apart from a synod. Although responsibility for preserving the Church from fundamental error belongs to the whole Church, it may be exercised on its behalf by a universal primate” (Authority II §28). The document marks agreement between Anglicans and Catholics “that the Church needs both a multiple, dispersed authority, with which all God’s people are actively involved, and also a universal primate as servant and focus of visible unity in truth and love” (33).

The Commission’s second phase (1983-2005) also continued reflection on the exercise of authority in its 1999 agreed statement, The Gift of Authority. It echoed many of the principles set out in Authority I and II regarding the purpose of authority: “Authority is exercised within the Church [firstly] for the sake of those outside it, that the Gospel may be proclaimed ‘in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction’ (1 Thess 1.5)” (§32) and, secondly, “for the sake of the
koinonia” (§36). However, this document gave extended attention to synodality: “In each local
church all the faithful are called to walk together in Christ. The term synodality (derived from synhodos meaning ‘common way’) indicates the manner in which believers and churches are held
together in communion as they do this. It expresses their vocation as people of the Way” (§34).

Recognising the necessary “mutual interdependence of all the churches” the document asserts that “Forms of synodality, then, are needed to manifest the communion of the local churches and to sustain each of them in fidelity to the Gospel” (§37). The bishop is crucial to these synodal forms
because “Each bishop is both a voice for the local church and one through whom the local church
learns from other churches” (§38). The task of bishops meeting in synod is “to articulate the sensus fidelium as it is present in the local church and in the wider communion of churches” (§38). The document acknowledges that though there is fundamental agreement about synodality it has been exercised differently in the two communions and briefly comments on these different expressions.

Significantly, rather than seeing primacy and synodality as two principles to be held in balance The
Gift of Authority sees primacy as a constituent part of synodality: “In the course of history the
synodality of the Church has been served through conciliar, collegial and primatial authority” (§45).
This anticipates the International Theological Commission’s 2018 statement, Synodality In The Life
And Mission Of The Church, which states, “The dynamic of synodality thus joins the communitarian aspect which includes the whole People of God, the collegial dimension that is part of the exercise of episcopal ministry, and the primatial ministry of the Bishop of Rome” (ITC 2018, 64).

In its closing paragraphs The Gift of Authority asked some challenging questions of each
communion. Among the issues facing Catholics it asked: “Is there at all levels effective
participation of clergy as well as lay people in emerging synodal bodies?”; “Has the teaching of the
Second Vatican Council regarding the collegiality of bishops been implemented sufficiently?”; “Has
enough provision been made to ensure consultation between the Bishop of Rome and the local
churches prior to the making of important decisions affecting either a local church or the whole
Church?” and “How is the variety of theological opinion taken into account when such decisions
are made?” (§57). The reform of the Curia and particularly the current synodal process certainly
address these questions.

Most recently the Commission, now in its third phase, ARCIC III, has returned to this theme in its
agreed statement, Walking Together on the Way: Learning to be Church – Local, Regional,
Universal. The document adopts the method of Receptive Ecumenism, in a sense, returning to the
challenge in the co-chairs’ preface to Authority I by asking what each communion can learn, with
integrity, from the other. To do this, it sets out, more programmatically than in earlier documents,
the structures and “instruments of communion” that operate at the local, regional and worldwide
level in each of the two traditions.

The basis on which all these structures rest is what the document describes as the “instinct for the
faith (sensus fidei fidelium)” received at baptism. While previous ARCIC documents had made
reference to the sensus fidelium/ sensus fidei (Elucidation on Authority I, 1981 and The Gift of
Authority 1999) both did so mostly in the reflexive role of assessing and receiving authoritative
teaching. Walking Together on the Way has a broader understanding of this concept: “the sense of
the faith means that the authentic transmission of the faith is not only the preserve of the
magisterium and theologians, but also of saintly parents and holy men, women and children who
know God ‘from within’ and have a sense of what conforms to God’s designs for human beatitude.”
The text goes on, “The further implication, then, is that the Church’s indefectibility, as well as the
experience of disagreement in the Church, demands structures which will facilitate the fullest
possible sharing of the experience of Christ and of the gifts of the Spirit among all the baptized.
Through prayer, debate, discussion, and study, the Church at every level seeks consensus with the
assistance of the Spirit” (§54). The emphasis here is on listening to the sensus fidei fidelium and
processes of consultation.

Walking Together on the Way proposes that each communion can learn from the other. There is not
space here to comment on all the receptive learning proposed in the document and so I will offer
only two examples of Catholic learning from Anglican processes. The report asks if Catholics can
learn from the ministry of the Archbishop of Canterbury whose task is to “to summarize discussions of instruments of communion with a view to articulating consensus, and so to a great extent he is bound by the processes of communal discernment” (§145). Reflecting on the Anglican approach the process of discernment and teaching the text notes that “it takes time before the Church comes to a final judgement” and asks whether Catholics should learn to live with more provisionality “and give latitude to those instruments which cannot give judgements of the highest authority.” The text continues, “By learning to live with teaching that is improvable, space would be given to the testing and discernment of a proposed teaching” (§148). ARCIC III continues to consider how the Church discerns the mind of Christ through synodality in the document currently under discussion which considers how we come to right ethical teaching.

Synodality in the Methodist-Catholic Dialogue

To date only one document of the Methodist-Catholic Dialogue has touched on the exercise of
authority and discernment in the Church. The 1986 Nairobi report, Towards a Statement on the
Church, focused mainly on Papal Primacy and the same four areas tackled by ARCIC’s Authority II.
However, the document did make reference to Methodist conceptions of the exercise of episcope. In some branches of Methodism, particularly those who take their origin from the British Methodist
Church, episcope is exercised corporately through what is called “conferencing”. Indeed, even in
those Methodist churches that have bishops, structures of authority are “flatter” giving more
authority to laity and clergy than to any single figure.

The most recent document of the dialogue commission, expected to be published later this year and entitled, God in Christ Reconciling: On the Way to Full Communion in Faith, Sacraments, and
Mission, looks at “ecclesial structures of communion in service of reconciliation” (§45). It too bases
its reflection on the sense of the faith given to all the baptised and asks how effectively our practices of synodality engage the sense of the faith of the whole community of believers. Like Walking Together on the Way the document asks how Methodists and Catholics can learn from each other’s synodal practices at the local, regional and worldwide levels. The report considers how the sexual abuse crisis, and failures in listening to victims and reporting abuse has revealed a “deeply ingrained culture of clericalism” and asks what we can learn from each other to restore “a proper balance between the personal exercise of episkope and the shared responsibility of all the baptised in discerning the ways of the Gospel” (§51).

In conclusion to this section the document makes a number of proposals: “In the light of much
recent ecumenical study and calls for a conversion and renewal of the papacy, Methodists and
Catholics alike would benefit from a new formulation of the doctrine concerning the exercise of
authoritative discernment by the Bishop of Rome within the communion of the local churches. They would welcome a much clearer articulation of the relationship between the Bishop of Rome and the bishops of the particular churches, and of the responsibility of the Bishop of Rome to consult the local churches in an open and transparent manner in the process of discernment leading to an authoritative judgment. At the same time, they would urge that every act of teaching show more clearly how its judgments are grounded in the scriptures, which teach all that is necessary and sufficient for salvation” (§67).


There is an understandable fear among Catholics that learning the ways of synodality from
ecumenical partners could lead to some of the painful divisions which these worldwide
communions have experienced. It should firstly be said that the ecumenical documents make it clear that receptive ecumenical learning is a two way process and that our partners recognise their own need to learn means of discernment that are less divisive and faction driven. This often means
giving a greater emphasis to processes of listening (exemplified by the Anglican process of indaba).
Reflecting on some of their more painful experiences, ecumenical partners often come to a greater
appreciation of the ministry of the bishop of Rome serving the koinonia. In the coming year, even as the Catholic Church moves through its own synodal process with the participation of ecumenical partners, the worldwide Anglican Communion will hold two important synodal meetings. In March the Primates’ Meeting, which brings together the heads of the forty Anglican Provinces usually every two years in Canterbury, will meet for the first time in Rome. The meeting hopes to learn from and follow the pattern of bishops’ ad limina visits, making pilgrimages to the tombs of the apostles and meeting with some curial offices and Pope Francis. Then in July/August all the serving bishops of the Anglican Communion will meet in Canterbury for the 15th Lambeth Conference. A delegation of seven Catholics will attend and other Catholics are expected to be invited to address the conference as personal guests of the Archbishop of Canterbury. These promise to be moments in which Anglicans and Catholics walk together, learning from what the Spirit has sown in the other.

By Anthony Currer,
Official at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity