There’s been some noise of late over the final document coming out of the Catholic bishops’ Synod on Youth. Anglicans like me find the reaction to the document intriguing. It seems that the final section, commending a new “synodality” for the Church, was a late addition, and took participants by surprise. Defenders of the document see the unexpected focus on synodality as a harbinger of a new openness in decision-making. Detractors—mostly conservative—worry that it indicates a movement towards subverting a centralized governance structure in the Church’s life. One cardinal, Vincent Nichols of Westminster, brought up the Anglican Communion in this regard: Just look at the Anglicans, he gestured—synodality “doesn’t work”!
Catholics should realize that presenting Anglicanism as an exemplar of ecclesial suicide is more a rhetorical ploy than an analytic argument, at least in this case. For one thing, many Catholics, especially in the West, already share the general beliefs and lifestyles of their Anglican neighbors. “Synodality” has little to do with this convergence, which is the result of a shared social context that is squeezing Christian faith out of the cultural landscape.
More than that, the appeal to “synodality” in the final document is itself a bit of boilerplate oratory (if church documents of this kind can ever rise to the level of oratory). The focus of the synod was on “youth,” after all; and the term “synodality” is tossed about in the document as a way to describe the need for youthful “participation” in the church’s discussions, for “listening,” “dialogue,” and attentiveness to the concerns of young people—about the environment, the poor, the new “digital” culture, and yes, “sexuality.” Ah, sexuality: There’s the rub. Anglicans are fighting about sex, and in areas like North America they have officially adopted local civil attitudes, for instance, in favor of same-sex marriage. “Synodality” then becomes a code-word for moral permissiveness and cultural accommodation.
But code-words don’t further reflection. Worries about North American Anglican attitudes, or about the Anglican Communion more broadly, are certainly legitimate. But an Anglican like me would argue that the problem with Anglicans in this regard is too little synodality, not too much.
“Synodality” is a vague term. People think they know what it means, but in fact it is a bit of a wax nose. Technically, it refers simply to gatherings of Christians who make decisions together—historically, bishops and other church representatives. Most churches operate “synodically” this way, by means of congregational councils or the Curia. Only those churches ordered by the singular direction of a designated leader or prophet—for instance, the old Worldwide Church of God led by Garner Ted Armstrong—are arguably non-synodical, and they rarely last long. By the late Middle Ages, synodality had been concretely defined by legal or canonical requirements, as in the so-called “conciliar movement,” with its councils at Constance (resolving a divided papacy) and Basle (eventually falling apart). Bishops, clergy, laity, and pope were viewed as having roles to play in regular councils.
Whose synodality are we talking about, anyway? Catholics and Anglicans take different approaches to the concept. As a theological concept, synodality is both potentially rich and potentially platitudinous. In the last few years, both Catholics and Anglicans have played off the Greek etymology of “synod” (“walking together”). But “walking together” can mean all kinds of things. For the final document of the Youth Synod, it entails a “style” as well as “method”—listening, mission, and so on. The image of the “walk to Emmaus” comes up, but more as a conversational figure. Maybe a little platitudinous? Anglicans have focused, instead, on the ordered gathering that informs that walk: Jesus’s “words” (Scripture), the shared “meal” (communion), and the common apostolic assembly and proclamation to which the walk gives rise. Evangelical, sacramental, ordered.
Thus, for Anglicans, “walking together” has been quite concrete. It means actually sitting down with one’s theological opponents from across the street and around the globe and submitting discernment about conflicted issues to a common and “definitive” decision, to which all will then defer for the sake of common teaching and mission. The process itself, for Anglicans, involves a spiritual discipline—patience, humility, charity, and obedience—that is meant to take shape in a certain political or ecclesiastical order, one with local, national, and international levels.
This vision is not so much a platitude as a phantom. At least the Catholic bishops showed up at their synod! (Not always the case with Anglicans.) The trick is to bring the theological, and potentially platitudinous, together with the more concretely political, and to do so in a way that is responsible. Perhaps there is something that Catholics and Anglicans can learn from each other about “synodality.” But we have to be serious about what and who we are talking about.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College. His most recent book is A Time to Keep: Theology, Morality, and the Shape of a Human Life.