Rev Dr Tim Macquiban, Director of the Methodist Ecumenical Office Rome, was asked to represent the World Methodist Council at the recent meeting of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, considering with the Pope matters relating to the Family. He wrote this report
The Pope convened a General Synod of Bishops on the theme of The vocation and mission of the family in the church and the contemporary world. It met in the Vatican City from 5th to 24th October. 270 cardinals, bishops, and a few theologians, religious superiors and parish priests (all men as Synod Father) gathered each day in the Paul VI Hall 50 years after the calling of the first Synod as one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council. Unlike then, the conversations were extended to include the presence not only of Fraternal Delegates (6 Orthodox and 6 Protestant of which I was one) but also of about 30 lay people (mostly married couples with one baby and some religious sisters and experts in the area of family matters).
This was indicative of the wish of Pope Francis to do things differently and to listen more widely across the Universal Church. He spoke at the 50th anniversary celebration of his desire for more intent listening, he to his fellow bishops, they of each other, and the Synod to the Church and Society. He spoke on a new synodical spirit (sinodalita) in an enhanced Synod at the convergence of a listening and learning Church reflecting with pastoral concern on the difficulties facing many families in today`s world. In case people worried about the divisions within the Synod (widely reported before the event) he assured the Church that its unity around him and the Church’s teaching was not at risk.
The voice of those who were not Synod Fathers was strongly heard as each gave a three minute address as well as their contribution, also well heard, in the small groups in different languages where much of the work of scrutinizing the Instrumentum Laboris (the working document produced as a result of last year’s Synod and the sifting of questionnaires from dioceses around the world) was done.
So what were my impressions as a first timer in this exhausting process stretching over three weeks? Well, in general I detected some misgivings amongst the more conservative cardinals and bishops about the process. Less time and influence for them maybe. More risk that the Church would appear divided in trying to maintain its unity in the face of increased diversity because of the disparities of context, North and South. The Pope’s personal authority was unquestioned but the ability of the new synodical way of advising the Holy Father in important matters was the cause of nervousness.
The principle of the place of listening and discernment – ascoltare – was hard to accept by those whose life blood was the media of the world waiting at the porch for the latest sound bite, especially if it was a note of dissent or a cry of caution in the face of the reforms being aired. Conferencing as a means of grace comes easily to Methodists but for Catholics it is a concept to be rediscovered and developed even 50 years after the Second Vatican Council.
At times there seemed to be a divide opening up between those intent on defending the (absolute) Truth and Magisterium/Teaching of the Church against those who were more open to change in respect of the pastoral implications of the subject of the place of the family in Church and Society. This could crudely be contrasted as an emphasis on maintaining the (Canon) Law and Teachings of the Church over against a Church characterized by Tenderness and Mercy, stressing the need for forgiveness and grace, themes very evident in the homilies and addresses of the Pope – a legalistic interpretation of the Law over an open discipline trusting the individual decisions of Bishops in their diocese supported by the Church teaching.
There were particular challenges that were aired on the floor of the hall and in our small groups. Principally, the focus was on the nature of Marriage – as a sacrament in the Catholic Church – a life long indissoluble union of man and woman. The purpose of marriage was unitive and procreative, a natural marriage owing its origins to that of Adam and Eve; could it accommodate the range of different models of family we encountered around us in society today? Where did this leave the separated and divorced/remarried who chose not to go down the route of annulment – could they be admission to Communion through a Penitential Path? And then there was the question of mixed marriages and marriages of disparity of cult – could these be seen as more open in a dialogical spirit in the new evangelisation? Might baptised Christians in such a marriage be admitted to communion?
The more contentious issues were things some might have preferred not to speak of – same sex relationships/unions, the single and childless. And what some asked about the bigger challenges to Family? The issues of Domestic Violence, Physical and Sexual Abuse, Poverty, Migration, Human Trafficking, War and all the other evils which were destroying family relationships?
The 13 language groups were the place where such issues were freely and openly discussed, often with passion on both sides, some calling for a rigid adhesion to the traditional teachings of the Church, other calling for relaxation and pastoral sensitivity to those in difficulties. Out of their work came over 1,000 suggested amendments to the working document which the Commission of 10 then tried to harmonise in a new draft for the Synod. This provoked a lively response from the floor of the Synod, with some desire to amend further the text especially in regard to the clauses on conscience (to do with Responsible Parenthood) and Mixed Marriages and those on the question of admitting the separated and divorced to communion after due process of penitence.
The final text, all 94 paragraphs, passed with varying enthusiasm, were presented to the Pope for him to reflect upon and take appropriate action, reaffirming traditional teaching on marriage and the family (the opposition to same sex unions as marriages and the pro-life stance of Humanae Vitae were clearly spelt out) while strengthening the Church’s wish to enhance marriage preparation and support for families in difficulty. It skilfully balanced the desire to stick to existing rules while allowing some possibility for further development in the pastoral response of the Church as it sought to open doors and welcome all, caring for a range of needs. The elderly and widowed, young people reluctant to marry, those with children with special needs and those unable to have children (a subject I included in my intervention as a Fraternal Delegate) as well as those whose lives were ravaged by forced migration and persecution, street children and child soldiers, and the victims of poverty and abuse of various kinds.
The Pope`s final address to the Synod brought us back to the two themes he wanted the Church to address. The first was Synodality, as a way of helping him and the Church to move forward in the new evangelisation. This had been demonstrated as the better way of operating for the Church of the 21st century. The second was a demonstration of the Gospel of Mercy, of displaying Tenderness and Forgiveness, like the Father welcoming home the errant son, to those who had strayed and grown apart. He spoke of the “Church of the poor in spirit, of sinners seeking forgiveness, not simply of the righteous and the holy, but rather those who are righteous and holy precisely when they feel themselves poor sinners”. In that sense we are to be less judgemental and more open in both our language and our actions.
Bishops learning to live with the variety of views and practices from their different cultural and geographic contexts has provided a model for the whole Church working together in unity and diversity to present the Gospel of the Family to a world crying out for compassion. The person of Pope Francis leading by example and words gives great hope for the future development of the Catholic Church in its proclamation of the gospel.
Text of the Intervention I made on 17th October:
Holy Father, sisters and brothers in Christ:
Methodists, with the Catholic Church, have shared two emphases within their own understanding of faith. The primary calling of Christians is to holiness in response to God’s grace, calling us to be disciples of Jesus Christ, the Living Word who challenges us to participate in new evangelisation. Like you in this Synod, Methodists are exploring the tradition and experience of the Christian Church in living in contexts where its values, teaching and practice relating to marriage and the family have not been shared with those of the surrounding society. The ideal of family as a place of mutual care and concern, compassion, growth, and flourishing, needs to be true also of the family of faith, the Church. It needs to be a safe place, a place of care and compassion, of flourishing for all kinds of disciples, who seek to follow God’s call in a variety of ways, and, by doing so, a home for those whose lives are holy.
Sometimes in this Synod we seem to have concentrated on one form of family, of parents and children, as defined through sacramental marriage and its vocation. For some this fails to take account of the different ways many people experience different forms of family in our various contexts and cultures. Perhaps we understate how we all belong to the family of faith, constituted by the call of God, comprising local church communities connected to the ecumene as part of the worldwide “household of faith” which is familial in character. And we need to respond to the many challenges but also opportunities we have together for pastoral care and evangelisation.
While we rightly celebrate the joy of new life and the centrality of marriage and family life (as traditionally defined), those who are single, with or without children, or in civil partnerships or co-habiting relationships, and even those within marriages conducted in church and childless can easily feel excluded.
The Church is challenged to accept that it can (even if unintentionally) add to these difficulties with such a stress on “the Gospel of the Family” and a theology which all too often talks of children as “gifts” without taking into account the nature of the gift or the significance this might have for those who are denied such a “gift”. For some the alternative of adoption may be an opportunity to express the love of God for those who desire a stable family unit in which to grow up. For others, through circumstance, childlessness may be embraced as a vocation which needs to be recognised, supported and affirmed by the Church by appropriate pastoral strategies. But it should not be side-lined or marginalised.
The family, however defined, is the place of mutual care and concern, compassion and helpfulness, giving and receiving, sharing and discipline, forgiving and being forgiven, whether in the traditional family or the family of faithful disciples who constitute local ecclesial communities. The Kingdom of God into which we are called is one of mercy and grace. God`s love is wide enough to encompass all. The Church which witnesses to God`s love revealed supremely in Jesus Christ should reflect this with appropriate teaching and pastoral support of those who embrace a single state or relationships without the blessing of the “gift” of children so that they may feel included and welcomed within the “household of faith”, the Church.