08 June 2022, The Tablet

How St Gregory guided the Church along the path to synodality

St Gregory and the ‘time of reckoning’: if the goal of synodality is to keep the Church faithful to Christ, the feel-good factor is irrelevant.

How St Gregory guided the Church along the path to synodality

St Gregory Nazianzen: Kariye Mosque fresco
Photo: Alamy/ CPA Media


As the diocesan phase of the synodal pathway reaches its conclusion, a historian reflects that the transformation and renewal brought about by synodality requires patience and perseverance

St Gregory Nazianzen, in one of the lowest moments of his life, wrote some very harsh words about synods. “As for me, if I must write the truth, I flee all gatherings of bishops, because I have never seen a synod come to a good end, nor bring evils to a close rather than augmenting them” (Gregory Nazianzen, Letter 130.1).

Gregory’s judgement here was, we might feel, a little premature. He had just taken part in and partly presided over the council that was eventually to be recognised as the Second Ecumenical Council, the Council of Constantinople of 381. That council, against all the odds, effectively put an end to the Arian controversy in the East, and re-­established Nicene orthodoxy. It reinstated the word homoousios (“consubstantial”), which taught that equality rather than hierarchy was at the centre of reality, into the Eastern tradition, after a 21-year legal ban on using the term. It can be seen in retrospect that Gregory’s skilful if inelegant chairing, including his strategic resignation at a key moment, had been crucial to the council’s success. But when he wrote the letter from which these words are quoted, Gregory’s life looked to him from a human, theological and ecclesiological standpoint, like a shipwreck.


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