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Synthesising the synodal process through listening to the laity and the Holy Spirit

Austen Ivereigh - The Tablet - Thu, Aug 11th 2022

“Chief scribe ” Austen Ivereigh gives an insight from within the synodal process in England and Wales.

Synthesising the synodal process through listening to the laity and the Holy Spirit

The National Synthesis Team, with the author, second from right - Photo:Bishops’ conference of England and Wales

At the centre of the great listening exercise, the universal Church is engaged in a highly charged new ministry: the faithful capture of the voice of the People of God as they respond to the Holy Spirit

The People of God of England and Wales have spoken: at least, those – perhaps 30,000 – who have taken part in the “synod on synodality”. But what, exactly, have they said? And, more deeply, what has the Holy Spirit prompted in them? 
It was to answer those questions that nine members of the National Synod Synthesis Team met at the end of April for an overnight session in an Anglican retreat house in London. By the time we had had Mass, Adoration, eaten and spent time getting to know one another, there was little time to reflect on some 900 pages of synod reports from the 22 dioceses of the Catholic Church in England and Wales that we had spent the previous fortnight reading. (I envy the French team, who disappeared for a week to a chateau to write their collecte des synthèses synodales.) But it was enough to agree a general methodology and a thematic structure, divide up the workload, and agree a schedule to prepare the first draft for feedback from the bishops and synod leads on 1 June. 

The bishops appointed us but were not involved in the drafting. Nor did we have any direction from them. The team was convened and coordinated with a light touch by Fr Chris Thomas, the bishops’ conference general secretary. We were “free”, and felt the weight of it: our responsibility was to be faithful to what we had read, yet creative enough to order it all “in a way that is understandable even to those who did not participate, indicating how the Holy Spirit’s call to the Church has been understood in the local context”, as the guidance of the synod office in Rome put it. 

Although we felt inadequate to the task, we all brought gifts to the table. Three of the team (Sarah Adams, Mark Nash and Dominic Belli) had been synod leads in their own dioceses, with experience synthesising reports from parishes and schools. Kate Wilkinson, a school chaplain involved in Young Christian Workers, had been active in Liverpool Archdiocese’s groundbreaking Synod 2020. We had a communications expert in Sr Elaine Penrice, a Daughter of St Paul and director for the National Office for Vocation. Mary McCaughey from St Mary’s, Oscott, was steeped in the theology of synodality, while Fr Jan Nowotnik had just written a PhD on the ecclesiology of synodality in the different Christian traditions. My own contribution was as chief scribe: creating a text from disparate drafts against an impossible deadline was not outside my experience. 

Rome suggested our synthesis be divided into three: a short section “rereading the ­synodal journey”, a main section containing a “discernment of the collected contributions” relating to the key question of this synod and the themes discussed, and a final short section indicating “the steps to be taken in response to that which was recognised as the call (or the calls) of the Holy Spirit”. We followed this scheme, but further subdivided, so that the synthesis has an opening two sections reflecting on the impact of the pandemic on the Church as well as an overview of the experience of the synod process, while the main body has long two sections under the titles: “A wounded Church called to conversion” and “Truth, mercy and welcome”. The final part is called: “Towards a synodal Church in England and Wales”.

How to do it? Conscious that this is a global process with many cultural variants, the synod secretariat gave fairly general guidance. But within the group we had our own experiences, and I had notes from presentations by experi­enced synthesisers at the opening of the synod in Rome. “We have sought to capture common notes struck across the reports as well as minority or marginal views that occur often enough to be worthy of mention,” we noted in the synthesis introduction, adding that we had paid attention to “surprising or striking elements in the reports, often where views are especially heartfelt; and where possible have used attributed quotes from the reports to capture the ‘jewels’ that the Spirit may be offering our Church through the voice of God’s faithful in these islands.” 

The idea was to summarise without making theological judgements, while filtering out enough content to allow a focus on what fell within the core synod theme of synodality itself, expressed in participation, communion and mission. The art of synthesising – a vital new ministry in the Church – is, on the one hand, to receive faithfully: never to impose your own view, but to facilitate the expression of what is being articulated; not “redigesting” the material, but keeping it raw, so that people can be heard directly. On the other, it is to be creative and bold in identifying “the new horizons we see the Spirit opening for our Church”, as we put it. This might come from a truth nailed, an original insight that opens a door, or perhaps a glimpse of the future that brings hope and peace. Anyone who has had experi­­ence of spiritual conversation will recognise that these pin-drop moments are common in group discernment processes. Our task was to truffle them out from the diocesan reports.

Those reports differed wildly, ranging from the deeply suspicious to the joyfully enthusiastic. Most provided wonderful raw material, while others were far less useful, above all those that relied on questionnaires and individual online surveys, despite Pope Francis and the secretariat stressing that the synod is not a survey of individuals but a structured meeting of people. In some cases dioceses used the pandemic as an excuse for outsourcing to companies offering data-crunching services. The undigested results (51 per cent thought the Church unwelcoming) were all but pointless for our purpose. 

Most dioceses, however, recognised that the Church’s future is synodal and put people and resources into enabling it to happen, training leaders in the art of spiritual conversation, holding talks and workshops to get people behind the idea and giving guidance on how to lead small-group gatherings and harvest their fruit. The most engaged dioceses reported 80-90 per cent participation by parishes (as opposed to 10-20 per cent in the reluctant ones) and their reports were a goldmine. They capture both the experience of the synod, its paradoxes and revelations, the shift in consciousness that resulted from it, as well as a discerned synthesis of the views and insights the Spirit had prompted.

The contrast between these two sets of reports – of course, many fell in between the two – showed the power of the synodal method itself. A synodal assembly is not an exchange of opinions, a place to vent, a political venue to advance agendas, but a prayerful exercise in humble listening, where – just like the synodal gatherings described in the Acts of the Apostles – all get to speak, experience matters more than opinion, and people feel safe to speak honestly and directly.  

The reports showed how liberating and transforming is the experience of that listening and being heard in an attentive atmosphere of prayer. As our synthesis report puts it: “The process and practice of synodality have already opened the Church to the graces of the conversion that through the synod the faithful have called for.” A shift is happening. People want to be heard, and it is no longer possible to expect them to remain silent. But they also want to listen to each other, having discovered that the Spirit can speak even through – especially through – the least and unlikeliest of people. The command-and-control model the modern Church came to rely on must give way to a synodal model that allows ordinary faithful to take part in decision-making and discernment. Hence the call in the reports for parish pastoral councils, diocesan councils that regularly consult, and regular assemblies at every level to hear the cries and anguish of the community, and how the Spirit urges us to respond. 

This became the main theme of our synthesis: synodal experiences allowed people to imagine “the way of being Church”, as one person put it, one that belongs to the faith tradition itself. People saw this not just in terms of a change in the modus operandi et vivendi of the Church, one that depends more on grace than power, but also in a changed understanding of their relationship to the Church: no longer the institution out there, but the body I belong to, whose mission I share. An LGBT member of Farm Street parish in London in a long-term stable same-sex relationship told me that she knew God loved her but assumed the Church didn’t. In telling her story and being heard and recognised, she realised that wasn’t true – that she really was part of the Church. Her joy on relaying this (on a short video for a symposium on synodality) was palpable; as this process has proved, synodality gives birth to missionary disciples. 

All of this showed how vital it is to enter into synods in humility, open to hearing surprises and to having our categories upended. Of course, not everyone had that spirit. Within the reports but mostly outside the synod there was no shortage of the opposite spirit of sufficiency, in groups of Catholics who disdained the process either as a stitch-up by the hierarchy to forestall precooked menus of reform or as a liberal conspiracy to modernise church teaching by surrendering to the Zeitgeist. Some scepticism was natural, especially as the process is new; but the cynicism and scorn from both right and left were as surprising in their intensity as in their distorted picture of this process. 

Many traditionalists, for example, see in synodality a conspiracy to overturn everything they are attached to, while some former Anglicans are convinced that synodal conversion will lead to the Church of England’s parliamentary model of governance, with its lobbies and parties and differences that deepen even when “settled” by democratic votes. When I asked him what he thought of the first draft of our synthesis, a leading member of the Ordinariate told me it had realised their “worst fears” because it was “all about gays and women” and that progressive lobbies would “force the Pope” to make changes.  When I explained that the Catholic tradition of synodality allows for total freedom in discussion but entrusts apostolic authority (bishops, and finally the Pope) with the responsibility and freedom of discerning what is of the Spirit – even in the face of majority votes – he seemed unconvinced: the idea of a process that submits to the discerning authority of the Church was foreign to him.

Among some progressives, the disdain is reversed. It is precisely because the process is ultimately subject to church authority that they do not trust it. At the culmination of the Root & Branch “lay-led inclusive synodal journey” in Bristol last September, Mary McAleese said that “pointless does not even get close” to describing the synod, because discussion of contentious issues would be suppressed or filtered out and the process controlled at every step by bishops. On an RTÉ show later this month, McAleese says that Francis has tried to make the synod “all about evangelisation”, despite the Pope insisting repeatedly that a synodal Church demands structural reform to enable participation in decision-making and discernment. At the opening of the synod last year, for example, he said “we need content, means and structures that can facilitate dialogue and interaction within the People of God, especially between priests and laity” and made clear “this will require changing certain overly vertical, distorted and partial visions of the Church, the priestly ministry, the role of the laity, ecclesial responsibilities, roles of governance and so forth.” Those are precisely the changes that the People of God in England and Wales called for in our syntheses, and they are matched in others I have read so far, from Spain, France and Belgium.

For McAleese, the German “Synodal Path” provides the parliamentary-type model she holds up as ideal (“a model of free speech, co-responsibility and discussion”) and which former Anglicans so fear. But unlike the Australian plenary council or the Liverpool diocesan process, the Synodaler Weg is not, canonically, a synod (nor claims to be). It is sui generis: a self-appointed deliberative assembly of 230 delegates selected by bishops and lay leaders to wrestle with a pre-determined agenda of issues raised by an academic report into the causes of abuse. It debates, produces papers and votes; it does not involve the ordinary faithful, or spiritual conversation and discernment; and it passes resolutions it claims are binding, with an air of fait accompli. But as a recent Holy See communiqué (unsigned, but issued by the Secretariat of State at the Pope’s behest) has reminded them, “Germany does not have the power to compel bishops and the faithful to assume new modes of governance and new approaches to doctrine and morals” without “an agreed understanding at the level of the universal Church”. The Church is Catholic, not Congregationalist.

Exercises such as the Germans’ lack the openness and humility that authentic synodality requires. The issues they are discussing are important, and the proposals they make worthwhile, but the process is not “indifferent” in the Ignatian sense: there is no point in seeking God’s will if we already know what is to be done. It becomes a talking shop, much like the Vatican-controlled synods of yore, with “the usual people saying the usual things, without great depth or spiritual insight … far removed from the reality of the holy People of God and the concrete life of communities around the world”, as Francis put it at the opening of the synod when he listed “intellectualism” as one of the temptations against authentic synodality

A true synod that begins with ordinary faithful in parishes and schools speaking honestly and humbly listening, looks and feels very different from the German, progressive-reform model. To be clear, there is no shortage of criticism in the national synthesis: the people are highly critical when the Church is distant, aloof and clerical. They are passionate about what they believe the Church is called to be, and frustrated when it falls well short. They feel strongly that the gifts and ministry of women are not valued, and call for formation as missionary disciples and involvement in decision-making. But they are cautious in offering prescriptions. They suggest that women should be able to preach, for example, but focus far more on training and formation for ministry than call for ordination. Rather than demand church teaching on sexuality to be overhauled, they call for LGBT people to be listened to and valued. Instead of rejecting Catholic teaching on divorce, they say a pastoral approach is needed to bring the experience of divorce into dialogue with that teaching. 
The diocesan synod reports highlight areas for the Church to wrestle with and focus on – sometimes urgently, often emphatically – but there is a humility in the voices and a confidence in the Church that says: “We don’t have the answers to this yet, but we trust you to come up with them.” I personally found this faith in the Church – critical of the failing human institution, but confident in the Spirit to lead the body into the truth – deeply moving, and for once understood what Pope Francis says of the People of God in Evangelii Gaudium, that they are “infallible in their believing”, endowed with an “instinct of faith … that helps them to discern what is truly of God”.

The synod secretariat asks that national syntheses go back to the dioceses for approval and suggestions for improvement. The dioceses sent delegations (generally bishops, auxiliaries and synod leads) as did organisations such as the National Board of Catholic Women to the meeting in Southwark Cathedral’s Amigo Hall on 1 June. The “National Synod Day” was facilitated by Sr Bernadette Reis FSP, an American Religious who works in the Vatican’s communications dicastery. Delegates signed off on our first draft as generally reflective of the synod reports while giving helpful feedback that modified the final document considerably.

The delegations were divided into tables of about eight people – mixing laypeople, bishops, clergy and Religious – and each table proposed changes that were then voted on. A lot of the discussion, inevitably, was about relative weight: some felt we had given too much space to traditionalists’ objections, for example, and were wrong to include them as a marginalised minority; others thought we had not given enough of a platform space to those happy with the Church as it is, who see no need for change.

We took the proposals, reviewed them, and chose to incorporate them or not in discussions over Zoom, making cheerful compromises and concessions in the process, in order to produce a final draft of – sorry, synod secretariat – a bit more than 10 pages. At no point were we under any pressure to take out anything vital that the diocesan reports had articulated, or to suppress anything in them. We had freedom, as true synods must have, to be faithful to what the people said. 

And now our synthesis report, with the bishops’ reflections on it – they’ve shown they’ve listened, but their response contains no commitments, as you’d expect at this stage – are with the synod secretariat in Rome. In September, a 24-strong “working group” drawn from all continents (mostly laypeople, but also bishops, clergy and Religious) will meet for 10 days in a retreat centre outside Rome, to reflect on the syntheses from 115 bishops’ conferences and other networks: religious congregations, Roman dicasteries etc. The working group will draw up what is being called the “Document for the Continental Stage”. Each of the seven continents will then reflect on that document in their regional “ecclesial assembly” made up of laypeople, clergy, Religious and bishops: Europe’s is planned for February in Prague. The continental reports will then be synthesised for the final synod assembly in Rome in October, where the ­bishops will gather with and under the Pope, to make decisions in the light of what has seemed “to the Spirit and to us”. 

After seeing this historic process of ecclesial discernment – the biggest in Christian history – from the inside, I’d say: watch this space in hope. 

Both the synod synthesis for England and Wales and the bishops’ reflection ­document can be downloaded at 

These are Austen Ivereigh’s personal reflections and should not be ascribed to the National Synthesis Team. 

Austen Ivereigh is a fellow in contemporary church history at Campion Hall, University of Oxford. He is the author of Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and his Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church (Henry Holt) and, with Pope Francis, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future (Simon & Schuster).

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