Reflections on ‘Exploring the Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission’ Conference Birmingham 

 - 17/04/2022

Theology student Emily Nelson attended ‘Exploring the Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission’, which took place in Birmingham over two days in March 2022.

The event opened with comments from Fr. Michael Dolman reflecting on listening to our neighbours as an act of love, a defining message for the process of synodality.

Professor Stephen Bullivant provided a realistic and insightful picture of Catholic practice and religiosity in England in Wales using current sociological data. He gave an overview of the decline in religiosity and Mass attendance which characterises the culture in which synodality aims to bear fruit. Subsequently, Dr Jacob Phillips reflected on the emerging theology of synodality, offering enhanced understanding of synods as the mode of the Church through which all members walk together on the same journey. He emphasised, in particular, how consensus is reached, the link between decision-making and decision-taking and the inclusion of those whose opinions are difficult to capture.

Day two opened with a celebration of the Eucharist. Archbishop Bernard Longley opened the proceedings by discussing the purpose of a synod which he identified as embracing every member of the body of Christ to bind wounds, create a bright resourcefulness and walk together. Fr Jan Nowotnik followed with a talk on ecclesiological and missiological perspectives on synodality. He discussed its Biblical foundations, the early Church and important Church documents addressing the subject, providing the basis for synodality as the path for the Church’s 3rdmillennium. Following this, Professor Eamonn Conway discussed the continuing need to define synodality, the vision of Pope Francis who aims to “listen well” and the crucial nature of the initial consultation phase. The opportunity to learn from other synodal Churches was highlighted, as well as the need to consider how current governance structures can be adapted to continuously enable this process.

Breakout rooms provided three options for further inquiry. Fr. Ray Corbett discussed the need for Canon Law underpinning the process. Professor Judith Champ shared on the tradition of Synodality in England and Dr Lizzy Emerson considered conciliarity and the papacy in the late medieval Church.

Subsequently, theological insights on synodality were provided by Dr Mary McCaughey. She used the analogy of a doctor and patients to explain the laity’s role to assert problems (symptoms) and the bishops’ responsibility to employ their knowledge to diagnose and determine treatments. Prayer, sensitive listening and evangelisation through parish evangelisation teams were emphasised as core elements of the process. Potential difficulties considered were universal inclusion, ecumenical opportunities, the place of schools and the contribution of disaffiliated Catholics. Another breakout session provided opportunities to learn from Fr. Simon Bishop on the value of listening and the need to approach the process by focusing on God’s will. Dr Jordan Pullicino provided insights on synodality from charismatic renewal and discerning parish faith, and Dr Sue Price discussed pastoral theology as a means of finding grace within communities. The conference ended with a Q&A panel, reflections then evening prayer and adoration.

Through this event participants were presented with a realistic presentation of the scale of the challenges we face in seeking to embed synodality across all areas of church life, but also a hopeful vision of what synodality could contribute to the life and mission of the Church.