The dioceses have now submitted their synodal reports to the Catholic bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. The bishops will consider the views expressed and try to reach some consensus. In the coming months, some broad synthesis will be produced which will contribute to a European perspective before the bishops meet in Rome in October 2023.
It might seem premature to make any pronouncement on the synodal process at this stage, and yet, with the ink hardly dry from episcopal signatures we are entitled to wonder what we have learnt about ourselves, our Church, and its place in the society in which we live. The first, and most obvious point, is that the process was a success, at least in being held at all. A conversation across all the dioceses of England and Wales was and is an achievement. That it was conducted against a tight timeframe adds somewhat to that sense of achievement. We were reminded frequently of the unique position that we occupied – the first time the people of God have been consulted since the Council of Jerusalem.
This is both a cause for joy and concern: joy that it has happened, and concern that it has taken so long. Synodality has joined the lexicon of the Catholic Church; a concept that was at the heart of religious organisations, in terms of discerning their way forward, has been extended so as to enfranchise all the baptised. With it have come many of the misconceptions that accompany any sudden cultural change. It was presented as an opportunity for the bishops to listen to the people of God, but with the proviso that there were limits to what might be discussed. It was intended to be a period of reflection and maturation but frequently ended in hasty re-writes of a synthesis to meet a deadline. It should have been an opportunity to reach out to the many who no longer wish to journey with us.
Many reports reflect on the valiant attempt to hear the voices of those on the margins, but the reality is that many who chose to leave the Church have no interest in telling us why. They have moved on and leave it to others to articulate possible reasons on their behalf. And yet, I am cautiously optimistic. The process that Pope Francis has started is intended to change the way that the Church operates.
The synod in Rome in October 2023 is a synod on synodality. The medium is the message. We become a synodal Church by being synodal. We have been invited to engage, not in producing a synthesis that contributes to a synthesis that contributes to a synthesis …but in becoming part of a processing Church. A Church constantly alert to its call, its mission.
A number of diocesan synod reports reflect on the positive effect that the synodal process has had on parishes, giving them an opportunity to reassess their work, their contribution to the wider society. This is not an accidental by-product of the synod but is a sign of the authenticity of the process. If we believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in the Church, it would be remarkable if there were not a sense of the presence of the spirit in the discussion, in the process of drafting and of the synthesising.
The Archdiocese of Birmingham report spoke for many dioceses when it made reference to the enthusiasm of people for the call to synodality and a sense that this was the start of a new way of participating. “There is a sense that we are at the beginning of a new expression of Diocesan life, which will be aided by the visible and practical implementation of our Diocesan Vision.” [ Birmingham p.2]
This is matched by the expression of reservations that nothing fundamental might change as a result. The sense of cynicism was evident from Hexham and Newcastle in the north: “There is a clear tension expressed with concepts of hierarchy, and often a lack of trust; a lack that can be in both directions between clergy and laity. This was often expressed in terms such as ‘we won’t be heard’ or ‘the clergy will suppress unwelcome comments’. ‘We’ll write directly to the Bishop (or Pope)’ was not an unusual comment. This needs to be explored and worked upon with some urgency as it directly affects any sense of working together, and hence the core of our synodal purpose.” [ Hexham and Newcastle p.3]
From the Diocese of Nottingham: “There is a genuine fear that the prophetic voice will be ignored or silenced in favour of an intense ‘moving of deck chairs’ while many of us make for the lifeboats! [ Nottingham p.11].
And from the Diocese of Plymouth in the south: “There was a lack of confidence in the process among those who suggested that when issues are raised, change does not happen. There were concerns that the diocesan synthesis would be sanitised; not include challenging issues or the feelings of anger that were expressed alongside positive voices, and at worst there was cynicism about the likely outcome of this journey.” [ Plymouth p. 7]
The synod reports – robust and challenging in places – stand as witness to the courage and fortitude of the contributors and the integrity of the synodal teams.
From a first reading of the reports that are available there is a sense of the unity of voice with which the Catholic laity have spoken. The emergent themes might have been penned even before the synod was called: the role of women, poor communications, insufficient effort to engage the youth. In that sense, at least, the synod has confirmed what we already knew. And that, paradoxically, is not what the synod was about. It was not a popular vote for changing the Church or an opportunity to beat those who occupy a different part of the bandwidth that is modern Catholicism. It is a prayerful, reflection on what God is calling us to be. What has been produced is the first iteration, the first utterance of a plea for a Church closer to the Gospel, more in tune with the Sermon on the Mount.
A second and subsequent reading shows that the singularity of voice has the appearance of an authentic call from the laity to the episcopate. A call so clear that it echoes from diocesan report to diocesan report. There is a symmetry and coherence that is striking and immediate.
It is this singularity, this unity of voice that persuades me that these synod reports have been shaped by a discernment that is prophetic and authentic. On what matters do the diocesan reports tend to agree? Let us consider some of the key issues. Almost all the reports focused on the need for the Church to be less judgemental, more inclusive in its embrace of the People of God.
The Archdiocese of Birmingham expressed it well. “In a large number of synod responses there was a strong sense that the Church must be there for all.” [ Birmingham p 7]
While the Diocese of Leeds reported: “Many responses expressed the view that the Church appears to be judgemental and condemning and that there should be more focus on commonalities with others (denominations, religions, backgrounds etc.) rather than differences.” [ Leeds p 5]
Too often, the Catholic Church was seen to be judgemental and censorious. The laity called for a more tolerant attitude towards those deemed to be in irregular relationships, and members of the LGBTQ+ communities [ Plymouth / Cardiff / Southwark/ Hallam amongst others]. It seems that the laity are providing the lead for the bishops in shaping the Church towards the model of the field hospital envisioned by Pope Francis.
The issue of transparency, of accountability resonated through a number of reports. The people of God expressed, through the synodal process, a need for, and an expectation of visible leadership by the bishops. The Church was still too hierarchical in its structures and in its thinking.
“However, the structure of the Church remains hierarchical, paternalistic and almost exclusively male and seminaries are not perceived to be preparing priests for the realities of parish life.” [Plymouth p.8]
“The need for an effective means for the bishop to listen to the lay faithful is needed.” [Arundel & Brighton p.6]
“However, it was felt that the Church generally does not react well to change, with authority and decision-making held centrally. There were examples of this at all levels, from the institution of the new translation of the Mass and banning the Extraordinary Rite to individual pastoral decisions by priests.” [ Northampton p. 8]
“Contact with the Bishop raised some issues.” [ Shrewsbury p.3]
“There were generally two points of consensus in this area: 1) that authority and governance in our local Church is almost exclusively exercised by the parish priest, and 2) that it is necessary and desirable for the laity to be significantly more involved in the running of our local Church.” [ Menevia p.6]
A number of synod reports called for greater clarity in the leadership of the diocese and a stronger voice from the bishops’ conference on issues of social equity and justice.
“One report spoke for many in suggesting that the Catholic Church did not speak out with the conviction that people now associate with Premier League footballers.” [Cardiff p.5]
“There is a general sense that the Church has lost her voice in the public square.” [Southwark p.13]
“…greater lay involvement in decision making should be encouraged.” [Portsmouth p.6]
An issue that appeared in almost every diocesan report was that of the development and formation of the laity. The laity and clergy of England and Wales were ill-prepared for this synodal process, and the last few months have demonstrated a lack of knowledge and understanding of some basic elements of ecclesiology. The more that people were invited to discuss their perception of Church, the more apparent were the areas of uncertainty.
“The subject which arose most frequently throughout almost every submission was the question of formation. Participants enjoyed ‘talking about their faith’ found the parish to be a ‘safe place’ to begin discussing difficult and contested conversations, or hoped that there might be greater opportunities for formation in the future.” [ Birmingham p.9]
“Discernment seemed to be a potentially fruitful stumbling block, because when people became aware of the challenge of discernment, they wanted to learn more about it, recognised it needed more time, and it has become one of the strands to take forward into the next phase of the synodal process.” [Hallam p.2]
“Better training offered for lay roles and ministries.” [Portsmouth p.8].
“There were requests for more retreats and parish missions; some felt that the fall in Church attendance was due to a lack of education. Many spoke of wanting more formation and training.” [Brentwood p.3]
The place of women in the Church and particularly in terms of leadership roles and ministry was evident in the vast majority of reports. In a western European society that has had equality legislation for a half century, the Church’s position on women was seen as anachronistic and damaging. The vast majority of the laity that contributed to synodal discussions felt that the Church rather than leading society in terms of justice was actually undermining its own moral legitimacy. Most reports were unstinting in the condemnation of the Church’s stance and displayed a growing divergence between the position of the hierarchy and that of a majority of Catholics who participated.
“People want less power for the clergy, and more power for women as priests.” [Shrewsbury p.6]
“There was widespread support for women to play a co-equal part in decision-making and ministry in the Church, which included positive statements in many reports regarding the ordination of women as clergy.” [Cardiff p.7]
“It is extraordinary that no woman gets to vote in who leads our Church.” [ Brentwood p.7]
“This was a particularly popular theme, one of the dominating themes (along with Youth). Every respondent, female, and male felt strongly that the Church is not hearing adequately the voices of women.” [Salford p.6]
In almost all the reports there was a recognition that the issue of priestly ordination of women is a matter for the Universal Church rather than a national synod. The fact that it is recorded reflects both the strength and currency of feeling and the awareness of a disconnection with other models of equality. Several reports recognised the developments, instituted by Pope Francis, in opening subdiaconate orders [ Lector and Acolyte] to men and women, married and unmarried. The other issue on which all dioceses were agreed was the concern for children and young people. Most synodal reflections focused on the growing absence of young people from church communities. Many dioceses endeavoured to capture the views of young people – through Catholic schools and colleges, through youth ministers. Parishes were aware of the loss of many young people post-confirmation, but few had planned how to address the matter.
The Archdiocese of Southwark recognised the issue and felt it required to be dealt with as a deanery rather than a parish issue.
“There was clear and deep concern for the youth and young people. Concern regarding the departure of young people, after confirmation, was aired by a number of parishes.” [ Birmingham p.9]
“In parishes it varied but young people often felt they were not as much part of the parish as older people.” [ East Anglia p. 12]
“Support young people by appointing Youth Ministers to engage with them at parish and deanery level and prepare them for a meaningful role in society.” [Nottingham p 8].
The Diocese of Plymouth had captured the views of young people as an appendix to the full report. In the Archdiocese of Cardiff, the schools report had been incorporated into the diocesan report. Several reports, including that from the Diocese of Shrewsbury, recognised that young people are more likely to be influenced by the issues of social justice than liturgy, and that parishes need to focus their efforts accordingly.
The clerical sexual abuse scandal was referred to in the vast majority of reports. The impact of it on the Church was still being felt and many regarded it as having caused incalculable damage. In almost every case, the issue was set out as a separate statement within the report. It was often represented both as a cause for many leaving the Church and for difficulty in executing the Church’s primary role in evangelisation. It was felt that the bishops needed to be more active in addressing the issue.
“Victims of abuse still don’t feel listened to and want a proper dialogue between the Church and survivors of abuse, not a one-way listening service that is anonymous and open to being filtered or disregarded.” [ Plymouth p 10]
There were other common themes, across the majority of the reports. The need for improved communication was one such issue. Most expressed some frustration with a lack of information or a lack of transparency. In some of the best analysis, reports reflected on the issue in terms of the power gap that exists between those with access and those without. This was often, but not always, related to the diocese’s experience with technology and its use during the pandemic. In a society that is informed, guided, and moved by technology, much more was to be expected of the Church. The Archdiocese of Cardiff report commented: “There was a need expressed for engaging more with people through the social media platforms with which they conducted other parts of their life.” [ Cardiff p.8]
We live in a multicultural world and the laity spend most of their time with people of other faiths and none. It was not surprising that there were frequent calls for greater efforts to work with other parts of the Christian family. A number of reports reflected the view that the Catholic Church has much to learn from others, and much to contribute, in terms of working with those on the margins of society. If we are to become the Church that we aspire to be, then collaboration with others of faith is a clear message to the bishops in a number of reports. As the author of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis has emphasised our stewardship of creation. Some reports, but not all, reflected on how well we understand and exercise this stewardship. Hallam and Salford as well as the Archdiocese of Southwark alluded to the issue of the environment and climate change but only in terms of how little was said on the issue in their areas. Southwark’s report suggested that the issue is so large that it merits a synod in its own right.
I spoke earlier of my optimism. I need to explain why my reading of the reports that are publicly available gives me hope. When Pope Francis announced the synod there were many who felt that this was an opportune moment for the Church, but just as many were sceptical and unsure whether there would ever be an opportunity to be listened to. Every diocese in England and Wales put a process in place. Every diocese has produced a report and every report includes messages that are hard-hitting and challenging.
In that sense, the Church has demonstrated its willingness to listen and record the views of the laity and present them to the bishops for their discernment. If each of the reports had spoken of different issues, with a variety of focus and a range of emphases, there would have been room for a final synthesis that met no-one’s expectations. I am heartened that from north to south, from east to west the laity have spoken with a single voice. They want and expect a Church that is open and inclusive, they want to know more about their Faith, they want young people to be encouraged and supported, they expect a Church to be welcoming to those who have fallen away.
They look for clear and visible leadership from their pastors. They want to belong to a Church that does not discriminate between people on the basis of gender. It is not difficult to see why the laity have spoken with such singularity. They are calling for a Church that is closer in style and method to that established by Jesus Christ. It is an appeal for a more authentic representation of the Gospel. In their deliberations, the bishops can demonstrate the confidence that they have in the voice of all the baptised. They can recognise the authenticity of the voice to which they are called to listen, and, in so doing demonstrate that the synodal process is a meaningful and permanent feature of the Church of which we are all part.