Anglicans have an indispensable role to play as Roman Catholics start a two-year conversation on how to become a more “synodal” church, Pope Francis said at his first meeting with Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.
Nicholls met the pope at the latest meeting of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), which took place in May at the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace in Rome. Due to the absence of Philip Freier, archbishop of Melbourne and Anglican co-chair of ARCIC who was attending the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia, the primate spoke on behalf of the Anglican side of the dialogue. Nicholls presented a formal statement on ARCIC from the Anglican perspective. ARCIC’s other co-chair, Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham, England, spoke on behalf of Roman Catholics.
“It was really very lovely,” the primate said of her meeting with Francis. “The pope is a very warm and gracious man who really pays attention to the people he’s with and gives you his full attention while you’re there.”
On May 13, Francis spoke to ARCIC and expressed his hope that Anglicans would contribute to a two-year process of preparation the Catholic Church is undertaking, leading up to a 2023 “Synod on Synodality” in Rome. While the Synod on Synodality itself is a conference that will include only bishops, the church hopes to have solicited input from all levels of the church during the preparation period, known as Synod 2021-2023.
The Synod 2021-2023 website describes a synod as “a gathering of the faithful in order to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church and asking her to be and to do.” Francis in September 2021 described synod as “an exercise of mutual listening.” Nicholas Jesson, ecumenical and interfaith officer for the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Regina, likens synodality to “walking together” or being on a shared journey.
In the case of Anglicans and Roman Catholics, Jesson says, “We can speak of our two churches walking together. But we’re also synodically in the church talking about what does it mean… for the local church to be walking together with Indigenous people? What does it mean to be walking together with people on the margins or the peripheries, as Pope Francis speaks about it?”
“It’s more of a living and relational understanding of walking together and being together as Christians,” he adds. “To speak about synodal life is not to say what kind of structures [we have] or how do we vote on matters… It’s about how do we maintain that sense of relationship with one another— that we listen carefully to the different voices in our community, that we try to promote inclusivity, those sorts of things.”
As reported by the Catholic News Agency, Francis told ARCIC regarding the synodal process, “for this common journey to be truly such, the contribution of the Anglican Communion cannot be lacking. We look upon you as valued travelling companions.”
Nicholls told the Anglican Journal that in recent months, Roman Catholics have been asking many Anglicans—including herself; Faith, Worship, and Ministry director the Rev. Eileen Scully; and ecumenical and interfaith relations animator Canon Scott Sharman—to participate in seminars and webinars discussing their experience of synodality.
“I know that Roman Catholics at ARCIC are very excited about the potential this [synod] has for change in their church,” Nicholls said.
Discussions that have taken place, she said, suggest how Anglicans might contribute to a discussion on synodality.
Anglicans in dialogue with Roman Catholics have talked about “our experience of having laity and clergy and bishops in consultation together—and [about] the valued voice of laity in particular in those consultations, because the Holy Spirit is not the gift of just the bishops,” Nicholls said. “It is a gift by baptism to all Christians. They need to be part of the discernment, and that’s been true in Anglican circles for a couple of centuries.”
Nicholls was a participant in ARCIC discussions that led to the document Walking Together on the Way, published in 2018. The international study compared how authority was structured in the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions, particularly in expressions of synodal governance, discernment and decision-making.
At the national level, the Roman Catholic Church and Anglican Church of Canada last November marked the 50th anniversary of formalized ecumenical dialogue between the two denominations. In May, the Anglican-Roman Catholic (ARC) dialogue in Canada held its first in-person meeting since the start of the pandemic in Châteauguay, Que.
Having spent the last few years reviewing Walking Together on the Way, participants in the Canadian ARC dialogue recently completed their own document, Walking Together in Canada, which examines the question of synodality from a specifically Canadian context.
“I think Catholics have identified through the several decades of close ecumenical relationship with Anglicans that our church explicitly understands itself as a church which is episcopally led and synodically governed,” Sharman said.
He noted that Anglicans hold regular synods at the local, regional and national levels and that these synods include lay, ordained and episcopal levels of ministry—whose role is not merely consultative, but who each contribute actively to making decisions.
“In light of all the other things that we do share in terms of some similar understandings of ministry and authority and church, [Roman Catholics] I think see us as a natural conversation partner to help them refocus this interest in synodality, and so have often been approaching Anglicans over the last number of years and asking to receive our gifts and our wisdom and our experience,” Sharman said.
Nicholas Jesson, ecumenical and interfaith officer for the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Regina, said the Roman Catholic Church has been reaching out to ecumenical partners, “particularly to the Anglican community,” to learn more about how other churches live out their synodal lives.
“How do you get the voices of those who are in the minority to be truly heard?” Jesson asked. “Anglicans have spent time reflecting on those sorts of things.” And whereas the Anglican Communion’s provinces are autonomous, the Catholic Church has “a very clear sense of identity as an international church.” Here again, he added, Roman Catholics are pondering what they might learn from Anglican models.
“We’re trying to explore more how can we decentralize and give more diversity at the local level.”
In sharing their experience of synodality with Roman Catholics, Sharman said, Anglicans have been discovering both what is “good about the way we do synods,” but also “things that we’ve allowed to atrophy and [that] are not healthy.” He referred to feelings of frustration and tension among Anglicans following the 2019 General Synod, which prompted a review of the church’s governance structures.
“As Catholics are beginning to revisit the invitation to think about the church as a synodal body where every member walks together and everyone shares in leadership and in direction, I think Anglicans are discovering… perhaps we’ve allowed synods to become a little bit too focused on things like debate and parliamentary procedure and voting—that sometimes they can be divisive and challenging things for us to live,” Sharman said.
The governance review now underway in the Anglican Church of Canada involves issues like these, he added, and so the church’s synodality discussions with Roman Catholics could potentially help it in this process.
Nicholls also highlighted how ecumenical partners can learn from each other.
“One of the great gifts of ecumenical dialogue is that you see yourself more clearly when you are in conversation with a church of a different tradition,” the primate said. “You see both your strengths and weaknesses, and you see the gifts that you can receive from others. That is a real value of ecumenical dialogue that I hope we never lose.”