10 May 2022, The Tablet

Some of the people of God are already on the path to synodality. Will the bishops join them there?

Some of the people of God are already on the path to synodality. Will the bishops join them there?

Cardinals and bishops at the closing Mass of the 2018 Synod on Young People.
CNS photo/Claudio Peri, pool via Reuters

When I said in my last report on the Synod process that it was moving away from us and out of our hands, I had not realised that a brush with Covid was just around the corner. This meant that I couldn’t go to either of the meetings held in my parish on the diocesan synthesis (on two subsequent days at the beginning of my isolation period), but luckily they were both livestreamed. So I am already looking at the process now as an observer or an outsider, dependent on the information given by the parish.

Or, at this next stage, now dependent on the information given by the diocese, and this seems to be a problem. It is actually really difficult to track down any synod information on our diocesan website, and what there is dates from an earlier stage of the process. By delving quite deeply, I can (still) find out what I should be looking for in a parish delegate, what the time table is, what questions I should be addressing, and how to organise various parish-level meetings that all happened a while ago. 

I have our parish’s documents, from the parish website. I have the diocesan draft document, but only because our delegates put it on our parish website. It refers to the collection of documents from other parishes, neatly collated and numbered, but there is no link to any of this material easily available through the diocesan website, through the people who are meant to be co-ordinating the responses. It’s possible that I have missed it, but believe me, I have hunted. Looking at the document itself (thank you, parish), all the information quoted has been anonymised and randomised (parishes have been assigned numbers, but there is no key). Of course this makes sense and may even be essential to comply with data protection. I had assumed that the diocese would have a link to the material which had been submitted, but there is nothing. I thought the whole point was to find out what everyone else was thinking and saying. I don’t need to know specifically who is saying it; but I am interested in what they said.

Our diocesan draft synthesis is too long, and will be edited down. This was one of the main points made by our delegates when they presented the document to us, but we don’t know what the preferred length is. This is a risky part of the process, especially as the information is not in our hands. We are being eased towards a comfortable narrative where the process began last autumn, moved serenely through leisurely consultations and has been tidily summarised. I can only speak for my parish (one of the biggest in our diocese) : the process did not even start until January of this year, and has been accelerating breathlessly since March. Some people are still discussing what is meant by the synodal process, but we have almost missed our chance to contribute, if we have not done so already. 

Our diocesan synthesis is already critical of some people’s input, saying that ‘people fail to understand’ what is meant by certain aspects of the three headings at the heart of the process (communion/participation/mission), which might just possibly be down to the fact that no guidance was given except the motherhood and apple pie blurb accompanying the suggested questions. If you want a different discussion, it is up to you to define your terms. And it’s worth remembering that this parish stage has in fact already been extended once, when the people in charge realised that the original timetable was ludicrously unworkable. Someone, preferably at the diocesan level, could have taken responsibility for giving out information and maybe even more guidance at a much earlier stage. The diocese does not seem to want to give out any information;  I have no idea who is involved in the ‘Synod Listening Team’, and no way of finding out.

Some topics which were raised, certainly in our parish, and I deduce in several others, were ruled out as not being within the scope of the Synod, or available only ‘for further discernment’ (safely away from lay input?). Since the parishes are not to be part of that process, this feels like a cop-out, and I am very concerned that such matters will be just be omitted from the final document (purely for reasons of space, of course). The diocesan synthesis was published after the (second) Zoom meeting with delegates, which was described this time as ‘more business-like’ and ‘with lots of material’, with comments only possible via chat (which of course doesn’t carry through to anyone outside the meetings). So our delegates were being presented with a long, often slightly incoherent and not well-organised document, without any preparation or chance to see it beforehand, and the parish was expected to make any comments within a couple of days. This is not a proper consultation. It leaves far too much control in the hands of those who will edit what has been presented.

New information kept emerging from the document: apparently there are works of art and pieces of music which have been received as contributions to the synod consultations. No one had even suggested this as an option in our parish, and again there is no mention (and, more importantly, no links to any of what has been produced) on the diocesan website that I can find. But you can find links to the Archbishop’s letter introducing the Synod, and a video of the Mass opening the process. Like the lectio sessions included in the diocesan Zoom meetings, I could not help worrying that this was a tried and tested way of laying down a felt blanket of ‘how we usually deal with this sort of thing’ over the messy reality of people’s accounts of real life, so that it can be swept away neatly with no one noticing. 

One of our delegates said that the draft synthesis contained ‘everything we said’; someone else said ‘most, if not all’. It does not contain everything we said, and of course it doesn’t, because it takes submissions from the whole diocese and that would make it far too long. But I was worried by the fact that some of what was left out was (very gentle) criticism, and very worried by the change of tone. People’s pain over the Church’s failures has been fudged. The text has become blander, with a lot of passives and generalities; loose ends have been tucked in, but the immediacy has been lost.

There is one paragraph, almost at the end, which makes a single reference to the scandal of child abuse as a barrier to mission (like most parents, I think I might have put this more strongly). There was no mention of how the cover-up, as always, made the original failure much worse, and no discussion anywhere in the document of the part which clericalism might have played (indeed, the word does not appear).

There are two or three references to the standing of women in the Church, often as the third or fourth group in a list of excluded people or minorities. In fact the report is forced to admit that in several parishes, most if not all the Synod participants were female, so classing them as a small minority seems perverse. Parts of the Church remain resolutely tone-deaf in this area. One of the epigraphs in the diocesan synthesis refers to the ‘thorny problems that wait upon men’s solutions’ and what might happen if only ‘men anchor themselves’ on Christ and his Church (my italics). Is this the best we can do?  Women’s ordination as an issue, raised but dutifully not discussed, is kicked into touch and relegated to the section ‘for further discernment’. There is a rather offensive reference to ‘women’s desire to hold positions of power in the Church as a result of worldly influences’, whereas some other quotations from parish submissions at this point indicate precisely a desire to be allowed to serve rather than rule.

On LGBT issues, the diocesan synthesis finds itself forced to sit firmly on the fence, noting that ‘many’ would like to see the Church’s teaching shift while ‘many’ also would like the Church to ‘uphold strong values’ (a loaded and coded reference if ever I heard one), but I was relieved to see this section preceded by a general desire for the Church to be more inclusive and welcoming, to absolutely everybody. Sadly this does need restating and heavy emphasis, and it is an area where the universal Church can learn a lot from its members at parish level.

Some of the comments about perceived criticism of the Church indicate rather worrying assumptions from those responsible for the synthesis. Negative comments were described as arising ‘not out of malevolence or cynicism but a simple lack of knowledge’. This Synod is a first example of the Church as a whole even attempting to listen to ordinary parishioners. People have engaged in the process with uncertainty, with nervousness, even with fear and trembling, for some; I find it saddening that their attempts might be assumed to be motivated by malevolence or cynicism; maybe there is too much cynicism about the laity. 

Ordinary parishioners have been repeatedly told throughout the process and repeatedly in the synthesis that the objective is to listen. We listen every week; the novelty has been to listen to each other, and perhaps to have the authorities listen to us. Our own parish priest sat in on nearly all our sessions and did an excellent job of listening rather than telling, but the diocesan synthesis seems to me to be trying already to redraw the lines of ‘pray, pay and obey’, with prayer being used as a way to ensure not too much peer-to-peer listening or discussion takes place. I was touched and impressed by some of the things I heard from my fellow parishioners at our meetings;  I could not help being concerned by the tone and some emphases in the diocesan synthesis which is meant to represent our views to the wider Church.

Overall I am disturbed by the idea underlying the document that there were ‘right’ answers to the questions posed and the patronising tone indicating that these were not often given by those contributing. Surely a basic assumption of any sort of discernment is precisely not to know at the beginning the answer you might be heading towards, because otherwise why bother?  This humble openness to possibility was one of the most valuable aspects of the parish’s original meetings, and I feel it should be kept going for longer as the atmosphere of the whole Synod process. It will be very hard to do, as soon as those speaking are part of a strongly hierarchical structure, but it is surely crucial. A feeling of distance is reported in the diocesan synthesis between the Church as institution and the individual, but the Pope is asking for an accompanying Church, not just one waiting for people to repent and return to an unmoving and unmoved authority.

Where is the hope in all this? For me so far, the hope is at parish level, with those who found themselves ‘listening to the Holy Spirit in the person of our fellow parishioners’, a quotation from one parish submission which I hope will survive into the final document. The level ground has been that until the diocesan document stage, we were all equal fellow parishioners. I hope there will be good things coming out of the consultations as they move up and away in the synod process, where we have no chance to influence them further. I was paradoxically encouraged to hear that some parishes had held versions of the consultation without submitting anything to the diocese. My hope is that this happened because they had already found the process inspiring and creative at a local level. My own parish came up with various suggestions for things we could indeed be doing now, already, without any input from the diocese or further up. The people God has already given us as our fellow parishioners are going to be those with us who walk with us on the journey, and we are already on the road.

Kate Keefe composes musical settings for the Mass and writes about the psalms. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn

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