Five Examples of Synodality in Crisis

COMMENTARY: Considering this current context, can the Synod on Synodality provide a way forward?

In this file photo taken on May 25, 2010, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (l) and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill tour the Kremlin during a meeting in Moscow, Russia. The two Churches are now effectively in schism, as in 2018 the two Churches severed all ties.
In this file photo taken on May 25, 2010, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (l) and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill tour the Kremlin during a meeting in Moscow, Russia. The two Churches are now effectively in schism, as in 2018 the two Churches severed all ties. (photo: Dmitry Astakhov / Government Pool Photo via AP, file)

The synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church took a big step in Rome this week, as the instrumentum laboris (working document) for the October synod was released. Yet it may well be that the real significant news about the synodality project took place recently in Kigali, Rwanda; Alexandria, Egypt; Orlando, Florida; Kochi, India; and Berlin.

After an elephantine gestation of two years between the Holy Father’s announcement of the synodal process in May 2021, it may well be that the entire project is now headed for a stillbirth.

From the beginning the elephant in the Vatican, so to speak, has been that “communion, mission, participation” — the synod theme chosen by the Holy Father — are in crisis precisely where synodality is practiced. Indeed, the Christian world is in one of the greatest crises of synodality it has ever experienced. The synodal Churches are tearing themselves apart, shredding communion, stifling mission and discouraging participation.

Consider what happened in recent weeks.


Canterbury Falls in Kigali

The Most Rev Dr Laurent Mbanda GAFKON 2021
Anglican Bishop Laurent Mbanda, chairman of the Gafcon Primates Council, stated June 14, that the Aftican members of the Worldwide Anglican Communion "no longer recognize the Archbishop of Canterbury as the head, leader or spokesperson of the Anglican Communion," due to the acceptance of homosexuality.(Photo: Screen capture)

While synodal meetings have had Catholics busy talking to one another about themselves, they may have missed one of the most significant Protestant developments since the Reformation. 

 “This might be the most important gathering of Anglicans in 400 years,” declared Bishop Lee McMunn of Scarborough, England,  at the fourth Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON). GAFCON met in Kigali, Rwanda, in April, just weeks before Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury took the global stage to crown King Charles III.

GAFCON includes bishops who represent 85% of the world’s Anglicans, largely from the global south. In Kigali, they declared that they could no longer recognize the leadership of Canterbury after the Church of England decided to bless same-sex unions.

“We cannot ‘walk together’ in good disagreement with those who have deliberately chosen to walk away from the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’,” said Archbishop Henry Ndukuba, primate of the Anglican Church of Nigeria.

Catholics talk about synodal processes. Anglicans are actually governed by them. And the Anglican Communion as a global expression of Christianity, is no more. Synodality did not preserve communion.


Who’s Not in Alexandria?

How are things proceeding on other ecumenical fronts, principally with the Orthodox, the Catholic Church’s most important ecumenical brothers?

A joint Catholic-Orthodox meeting took place earlier this month in Alexandria  at which was published the first joint theological statement in seven years. The document, “Synodality and Primacy in the Second Millenium,” addressed the various experiences of synodal governance over the last 1,000 years. 

The statement, released in an atmosphere of maximum conviviality, quoted favorably Evangelii Gaudium, in which Pope Francis wrote that “in the dialogue with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, we Catholics have the opportunity to learn more about the meaning of episcopal collegiality and their experience of synodality.”

What can Catholics learn? Since the Holy Father wrote that in 2013, the Orthodox world has descended into a prolonged period of division and denunciation. The largest of the Orthodox Churches, the Patriarchate of Moscow, has excommunicated the titular head of Orthodoxy, the Patriarch of Constantinople. 

The Moscow Patriarchate was also conspicuously absent from the ecumenical gathering in Alexandria. At the Catholic-Orthodox meeting, it was considered polite not to note that Alexandria and Moscow are now in schism, with the former accusing the latter of an “immoral blow” and “brutally violating” the canonical territory of Alexandria.


It’s a Synodal World After All

Abp Pierre addresses the spring gathering USCCB
Archbishjop Christophe Pierre, papl nuncio to the United States. addresses the spring gathering of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops June 15 in Orlando, Florida.(Photo: Screen capture)

As synodality is approaching catastrophe abroad, how are things at home? In the shadow of Disney World, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, addressed the U.S. bishops last week. His charge was to get the prelates excited about the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church. 

Synodality is a “way of being Church” said Archbishop Pierre, using a formulation almost certainly guaranteed to generate dismay among most of his listeners. The nuncio is a loyal servant, but even he seemed to flag in his enthusiasm for this new way of “being Church.”

He began in Orlando by conceding that, two years in, “it may be that we are still struggling to understand synodality.” Indeed, by the time of his address Archbishop Pierre may have already seen the instrumentum laboris, which includes, for example, this about the synod theme of “communion, mission and participation”:

 “The words ‘communion’ and ‘mission’ can risk remaining somewhat abstract, unless we cultivate an ecclesial praxis that expresses the concreteness of synodality at every step of our journey and activity, encouraging real involvement on the part of each and all. … ‘Participation’ adds anthropological density to the concrete character of the procedural dimension. … It guards against falling into the abstractness of rights or reducing persons to subservient instruments for the organization’s performance” (56).

That would have left the esteemed nuncio as confused as any other reader. So what to do? Declare that synodality is to be found in what the Church already does. Synodality will be fine because it what is already being done.

Archbishop Pierre highlighted “some examples in which synodality is already at work in this country,” including “Catholic social service agencies,” “the Fifth National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino ministry,” “family formation, spiritual accompaniment, and social connections for people who are marginalized and misunderstood.”

Having declared that the ordinary daily life of the Church is already “synodal,” it was a short step for Archbishop Pierre to conclude that “the call to synodality need not strike us as something unfamiliar.” 

Certainly, if priests and parents training the altar boys to use incense is synodality, then no one would be alarmed at all. When synodality is crashing and burning in the Anglican and Orthodox worlds, making it seem absolutely routine has a certain appeal.


Clashing at the Altar in Kerala

Crashing and burning also marks synodality within the Catholic Church. The Syro-Malabar Church is soon to be the largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches (currently it is second in size to the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church). It is governed by a synod, and for the past year it has been wrestling with liturgical disputes that have even provoked violence at the altar. 

The head of the Church, Cardinal George Alencherry, has celebrated the Eucharist under police protection from his own people. A prominent basilica has been closed for more than 200 days due to the dispute and fear of violence. Far from walking together, the synodal structures of the Syro-Malabar Church have proved inadequate to even allow the faithful to worship together.

At their synod meeting last week, the Syro-Malabar bishops petitioned Rome to appoint a special delegate to provide a way forward. An actual synodal Catholic Church has, in this regard, given up on synodality and asked for a Roman intervention.


Synodal Path Blocked by a Wall in Berlin

No place on the planet has been as enthusiastic as Germany for synodality. Launching their own “Synodal Path” in 2019, the assembled delegates passed so many resolutions departing from Catholic teaching and practice that Pope Francis observed that Germany had “no need for another [Protestant] church.”

In any case, the Germans do have a clear idea of what synodality means, and it means adopting the way of being Church represented by the Archbishop of Canterbury. That way of being Church turns out to include a lot less walking together, as the Anglicans have discovered, with 85% having chosen not to walk the path. Yet the Germans are determined to keep walking, even if they walk alone.

A few German bishops have grave reservations about all this, and four of them blocked future funding of the Synodal Path at a meeting in Berlin this week, on the very same day as the instrumentum laboris was released. Even in Germany enthusiasm for synodality has its limits.

Synodality in Rome proceeds with soothing words and a deluge of documents, decorated with children’s drawings and dull graphic design. But beyond a Rome getting ready to intensely focus inwards for the rest of the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church, synodality is deep crisis — in Kigali, Alexandria, Orlando, Kochi and Berlin. It might be worth asking if the synodal way of being Church really is a good way to walk together.