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What the Catholic Church can learn from Orthodox synods

Pope Francis with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople (CNS)

Until quite recently, to most of us, the word “synod” probably meant the governing body of the Church of England. Catholics spoke of the councils, worldwide (“ecumenical”) or local, which have met irregularly to fix matters of Church doctrine and governance.

For the Orthodox, meanwhile, the notion of synod presents no novelty. The Greek word synodos means meeting or assembly (literally, a “journeying together”). It is the term used for the ecumenical councils that gave the Church her definitive doctrinal teaching and canonical structure between the 4th and the 8th centuries. Indeed, a well-known Orthodox theologian has described his Church as “the Church of the Seven Councils”.

In contemporary Orthodoxy, however, synods continue to exist as the main organ of Church governance. Authority is seen as vested in the Church as a whole, of which the synod is the normative form, and not in any individual. Each patriarch governs only in union with his brother bishops as “first among equals”. Despite the nominal primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople, he is not seen as having any authority over other patriarchs, or even bishops. There is no “Orthodox pope”.

Many theologians, in fact, think of the Russian word sobornost, which can be translated as “synodality” or “conciliarity”, as expressing the very soul of Orthodoxy. But it is important to note that the term, popularised by the theologian Alexei Khomiakov in the 19th century, in reality has a much broader sense of “spiritual community”. It emphasises that the Church is a living body animated by a common faith, rather than a mere institution.

In the Catholic Church since Vatican II, regular “synods” of representatives of the world’s bishops have met to advise the pope. These synods were meant as a practical application of collegiality, a word the council used for the joint responsibility of the pope and the bishops for safeguarding and transmitting the faith. Interestingly, Pope Francis has seemed to prefer the term “synodality” to “collegiality” and has explicitly pointed to the Orthodox experience of synods as a model the Catholic Church might adopt.

Pope Francis is undoubtedly concerned to dispel the notion that the Church is a human institution based on power structures, and so the attraction for him of the Eastern model should be self-evident. He hopes to favour the cause of unity with the East and at the same time help the Catholic Church to find pastoral solutions to its own, internal problems.

Decision-making in the Church concerns two levels of her life: the organisational or pastoral on the one hand, and the doctrinal on the other. Next month’s synod brings this distinction to the fore. Advocates of a liberalisation of pastoral practice have sought to allay conservative fears by stressing that doctrine will remain unchanged and any evolution will only concern its practical application on the ground.

Can the Orthodox experience shed any light on this distinction? It would be inconceivable to the Orthodox that a synod might have authority to change doctrine. One of the reasons for Orthodox rejection of papal authority is the perception that successive popes and the councils held in the West have added new doctrines. There have been important doctrinal developments in Orthodoxy since the 8th century, often enshrined in synodal decrees. But these were seen as necessary responses to theological developments threatening the ancient faith. To call a theologian an “innovator” was to condemn him. Doctrinally, the principle of synodality exists to preserve tradition, and never to add to it or subtract from it.

As for pastoral practice, the canonical principles laid down by the Seven Councils also remain normative. The much-vaunted principle of “economy” involves adapting to changed circumstance rules which were laid down in a world vastly different from our own. Often this has meant compromising on strict application of the canons, but always in order to preserve their purpose.

In reality, such changes were accepted only gradually. The weight of tradition means that the “standing synods” which govern each autocephalous Church rarely make far-reaching changes and are more concerned with day-to-day matters like choosing bishops. Orthodox bishops steer their churches along well established lines, and have a much more limited sphere of action than their Western colleagues.

This can be both an advantage and a problem. The lack of a strong, central authority creates difficulties in achieving consensus in favour of even necessary and limited adaptations – as next year’s “Great and Holy Pan-Orthodox Synod” is likely to demonstrate. But the authority of tradition means that there is rarely confusion over basic doctrine. The Orthodox are undoubtedly less united than we are in terms of structures, but more so in their witness to basic doctrine.

Perhaps we have much to learn from each other. The Catholic experience of strong, cen-tral authority could help Orthodoxy to overcome the jurisdictional quarrels and the im-mobilism which seem at times to undermine its capacity to adapt and thrive. The Orthodox insistence that the Church is a living org-anism animated by the faith as handed down, meanwhile, can help preserve us from temptations which have sometimes beset Catholicism: to make the institution an end in itself and to forget that Church authorities are the guardians and not the masters of that faith.

Benedict XVI promoted this vision with unrivalled clarity. Pope Francis is more a man of action who sees the synodal process and debate as necessary to transform and renew the Church’s everyday life. Next month’s synod may reveal whether the Catholic Church can successfully learn from the Orthodox ethos as well as their praxis. Perhaps their first lesson for us is that the truth received from Christ, rather than concrete organisational structures, is the essential basis of the unity of the Church and of its effective proclamation of the Gospel.

Fr Mark Drew holds a doctorate in ecumenical theology from the Institut Catholique in Paris. He is priest-in-charge of Sacred Heart, Hornsea, East Riding of Yorkshire

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (25/9/15)

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