Others will be familiar with Synods of Bishops on particular topics that have been held in Rome periodically since the Second Vatican Council, or with the meetings of the Synod of the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle. These various ‘synods’ are different animals that do different things. ‘Synod’ is simply derived from the Greek word for ‘a meeting’. So, although the rules and procedures of the Anglican Synod or the Synod of Bishops might be very precisely defined, to talk about the church being more ‘synodal’ simply means that its decision-making processes should be based around consultation, coming together to talk things through, and confidence in the collective wisdom that arises from the Holy Spirit’s presence in a group of believers.
The instinct to go into synod is very ancient. The first great church issue was whether pagans had to be circumcised to be baptised. The question was whether Christianity was a movement within Judaism or a new faith that was equally open to gentiles. The good folks in Antioch decided to send a delegation (“Paul and Barnabas and others of the church”) to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with the apostles and elders. “After the discussion had gone on for a long time”, Peter swayed the discussion with a speech, James proposed a resolution, the apostles and elders decided to send out a ruling, “and the whole church concurred”. “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves”, the apostles and elders in Jerusalem wrote to the “brothers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia”. ‘Synodality’ was born.
Synods or councils became a prominent feature of early church life. A bishop would call together the clergy and leaders to settle problems. Bishops within a region would gather with their best theologians to sort out differences in teaching or practice. Eventually great councils would assemble from across the Roman Empire and beyond, the first in Nicaea in 325. Its decisions about the true divinity of Christ were expressed in the Nicene Creed, which we still profess at Mass. Anyway, synods and councils, local, regional and general, remained common until the sixteenth century. Ironically it was probably the Council of Trent’s reforms to church discipline that created a more centralised, chain-of-command church with no further general councils until Vatican I in 1870 and then Vatican II eighty years later.
Now we have synods to the right and synods to the left! Some 600 young Maitland-Newcastle Catholics have recently completed the online consultation for the next Synod of Bishops on ‘Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment’. Their input will be collated with that of thousands of others across the country and sent as the Australian view to inform the agenda of the 2018 synod. Secondly, the Australian Bishops have proposed a national Plenary Council for 2020 and are awaiting confirmation and approval from the pope, though the preparations continue. This development was seriously discussed by the bishops in about 2009, but the decision was to proceed with the ‘Year of Grace’ first. Then the pope’s ‘Year of Mercy’ and the church’s engagement with the Royal Commission led to further deferrals. But a gathering of the bishops and the modern equivalents of ‘the elders of the church’ in Australia is in the offing. This will require massive consultations with the Catholic people at all levels. And that fact fell neatly into place with discussions that had been going on in the Diocesan Pastoral Council about the appropriate time for our next diocesan synod, already overdue according to the thinking of the synod of 1991. So we are now initiating the broad consultations that will help set the agenda for a diocesan synod, for the good of the mission and the people of our diocese, but also to enable us to take our discernment of the signs of the times into the National Plenary Council. These next few years promise to be full of consequence. I hope that very many of you will share in the talking and the praying, that we might get to the point of saying as a Catholic community, “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by us that….”