Synodal Approach: Some Pastoral Reflections from a Lutheran Perspective
Synod, as we know, is a Greek word denoting those going together the same way. In the New Testament, it is a couple of time used of a company of travelers (Luke 2:44; Acts 9:7). But when taking a synodal approach to the Church, we do not only mean journeying together from one place to another. More than that, we are following the same calling, striving for common ideals, living together, and sharing a common goal, aiming our life to the Kingdom of God.
According to the Book of Acts, one of the words the early Christians used to describe their vocation was “the Way”, the Greek HODOS (Acts 9:2; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22). Some modern translations seek to clarify the phrase by expanding it to “the Way of the Lord” or “the Way of God”, as it also occurs in a couple of other verses (18:25,26). As it is with the Greek word SYNOD, also HODOS seems to be a particularly Lukan expression in the New Testament. As a matter of fact, the whole Gospel story appears in Luke as a way of Jesus from Bethlehem to Egypt and then back to Nazareth, and later from Galilee to Jerusalem and at the end, in the form of ascension, Jesus’s way to Heaven. Luke makes his readers join Jesus on this long way and gathers the whole together in a miniature by letting us follow the two disciples walking with Jesus to Emmaus, listening him and then, after breaking bread with him, running back to Jerusalem (Luke 24:13-35).
A synodal approach to the Church opens a wide perspective to what it means to be a Christian in general. The concept of “synod” is often limited to describe church governance. But when understood as walking together the way of Christ, following Christ and listening to Christ, being a member in the living body of Christ, and called into witness and service in the name of Christ, it turns out to be a fundamental ecclesiological concept of unity in Christ.
In the following, I attempt to give some pastoral reflections on the synodal approach from two points of view. First, on participating in the decision-making of the church, and second, on the wider belonging to the same body and sharing in the mission of the Church of Christ. Although I am trying to distinguish between them, they nevertheless are closely related and intertwined with each other.
Some churches in the tradition of the Reformation describe themselves as “episcopally lead and democratically governed”. This is the ideal of at least certain Lutheran and Anglican churches, although they don’t always use the same phrase. It must be noted that not all Lutheran churches do have bishops although they do have ministries exercising oversight. On top of that, not all Lutheran churches emphasize the historical continuity of laying on of hands in the consecration of a bishop as it is done today in the Nordic Lutheran Churches subscribing to the Porvoo Declaration together with the Anglican Churches of Britain and Ireland. At the same time, Lutheran churches do also differ in how their members are made partakers of church governance, and how the laity in general are involved in leadership together with the ordained clergy. A combination of the both in responsibility is nevertheless a necessity in all Lutheran churches.
In the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, it is an overall policy to include the lay as well as ordained members together in decision making on all levels. The two dimensions, episcopal as well as synodal, are side by side made responsible for church governance from parish level through diocesan level and up to national synod level.
On the local level, the parish board is elected by church members in a public election. The board decides on the finances of the congregation, including the percentage of church tax. In Finland, the parishes finance themselves and pay their share in the church central fund. The dioceses, on their part, only receive their finances from the church central fund by an approval of the general synod. The diocese does not decide on how many clergy or other personnel a local parish should have, or whether they should build an assembly hall or sell their parsonage. The financial resources of a parish do not flow from above but from below, and we in the diocese are dependent on that money through the central fund. In that sense the local parish level can be considered more powerful than the diocesan level.
The parish board is chaired by a lay person. No employees of that parish can be members in the board. However, those employed by some other parish, are eligible to become members of board in the parish they belong to. In many local boards there are clergy of the neighboring parish, or even the retired vicar of the very same parish as full member. In most cases they can assist the incumbent priest and become “wonderful counselors” for the benefit of all, but one might expect the laity be given more seats.
The board appoints the parish council which decides on the activities of the congregation and prepares all items for the board. It is the priest in charge who is ex officio the chair of the parish council, and a lay person steps in as vice chair. Together the priest and the council are in the leadership of the spiritual activities in the parish, but it’s only the priest who is responsible for it.
In a diocese, the bishop chairs the chapter (domkapitel, or consistory) of seven members, including two lay delegates representing the parishes. There is also a diocesan synod, but in practice, it has not much to decide on. It kind of falls between the parish councils on local level and the general synod on the national level. There is more power invested in the chapter when it comes to the spiritual leadership in the diocese. In the general synod, one third of members are elected by clergy whereas two thirds are lay delegates elected by parish boards. All bishops who are in active ministry are full members in the synod and usually, they also chair the various commissions of the synod. There are no separate houses for lay and ordained. In any fundamental issues or matters of doctrine, a qualified majority of three quarters is required.
Some Lutheran churches do not possess such a strong and secured presence of priests or bishops in their governing bodies, but for us, it is an elementary outcome of the article VII in the Lutheran confessions. The Augsburg Confession from 1530 underlines the necessity of duly called and publicly ordained clergy for proclaiming the word and administering the sacraments in the church. Because of the centrality of public worship in the church, the ordained ministry occupies a seat or more in all governing bodies, without diminishing the importance of lay presence in planning and deciding on the work of the church.
It can be claimed that the emphasis on the priesthood of all baptized, so strongly defended by the Reformer Martin Luther in his early tract To the Christian Nobility of German Nation from 1520 (but somewhat less enthusiastically in his writings after the German Peasants’ war in 1525) paved way for a later development of secular ideals of democratic governance in European countries. Be it as it may, the common priesthood of all believers is often used as a motivation for involving laity in synodal participation of church governance among Lutherans. For example, the Church of Sweden has incorporated the principle of democracy in her constitution exactly on the basis that all baptized in Christ have been granted a right to take part in decision making and even a responsibility to do it.
To be clear, the priesthood of all believers is in my understanding a theological, not a juridical concept. Rather than a right to partake in governing the church, it grants a right to approach God in prayer as well as a vocation to witness on Christ. St Peter exhorts in his first epistle, “let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”. The apostle calls his readers “a holy nation, God’s own people” (1.Pt. 2:5,9). There is no necessary conclusion derived from the priesthood of all believers to an individual right to power in the church. As a matter of fact, it can be questioned whether the church is a democracy at all, since she is not a demos in the first place. She is not a people in a secular or political sense, she is a laos, a holy nation, a people of God. But let me use the word democracy without implying that the Church were only a temporal society, instituted by people and governed by human authority. No doubt she nevertheless also is a human community and an institution in the world.
There are similarities between the state and the church, rooted in the principle of democracy. If the people are expected to have responsibility on the economy of the church, they shall also have a right to be involved in the decision-making of it. In a democratic society of today, there can be no obligation to take part in financial support of a community without an opportunity to take part in its governance. This important principle cannot be neglected in any secular state and no less in the church, either.
However, there is a flip side in this reasoning. Walking the way of Christ can hardly be equated with power. Power struggles in the church are alienating to many, for various reasons. In a folk church where most citizens of a country are baptized members of the one and same church, the majority do unfortunately not practice their membership by attending regularly. The same applies to taking part in parish board elections or voting for a priest. In our latest parish elections last November, less than 13 % of those eligible to vote used their right. The members nevertheless finance the church by paying their church taxes, and thus express their willingness to be part of a religious community, albeit from a distance.
Another consequence of democracy in a folk church is, that anything that is under debate in the public arena will sooner or later be discussed in the church as well. Listening closely to her members, the church shall always be exposed to all currents of thought in the society, be they philosophical or ideological. The Church of Christ, aware of her own nature and mission, is invited to bring the Gospel into an ongoing dialogue and interaction with her context. This is a dialogue that gradually shapes the culture and behavior both in the Church as well as in the world.
It is pastorally inevitable for the shepherds to walk with their flock and to know what kind of necessities of life they face. The people of God have their everyday problems as any other people, and the clergy need to remain with them, listen to them and support them with counsel and prayer. In living out their faith, love, and hope, the baptized are in a constant dialogue and exchange with their own context. This shall inevitably have a bearing on the decision making in the church, too.
Moving in my presentation from decision-making to mission, I also shift the emphasis from democratic ideals to the nature of the church as a witness of Christ. According to St. Paul, all Christians have received spiritual gifts (1.Cor. 12:1-11). The Porvoo Common Statement (1992) reminds that there also needs to be a ministry of co-ordination to bring the diversity of gifts together. Following the phrase of the Faith and Order paper Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1981), Porvoo describes the ministry of oversight to be a ministry of co-ordination, exercised “personally, collegially and communally” (BEM Min. 26; Porvoo 38, 42, 44).
The communal or synodal exercise of oversight requires that the sensus fidei of the whole people of God is recognized through mutual listening and co-operation of the lay and ordained. The Faith and Order document on The Church: Towards a Common Vision (2013) situates Christ’s authority in the interaction of the two: “[The exercise of authority] includes the participation of the whole community, whose sense of the faith (sensus fidei) contributes to the overall understanding of God’s Word and whose reception of the guidance and teaching of the ordained ministers testifies to the authenticity of that leadership. A relation of mutual love and dialogue unites those who exercise authority and those who are subject to it.” (The Church, 51)
Synodal participation in mission also finds its expression when the local parish members give a vocation to a new priest, or when they take part in electing a bishop for their diocese. The number of lay electors in bishops’ elections in Finland was rather limited until the end of the 20th century. Today in the ELCF, all ordained priests in a diocese and an equal number of lay electors from local parishes are eligible to vote for their bishop. Interestingly enough, it is the lay electors who are more active in using their right than the clergy, both in voting for members in the synod as for a bishop. Not all clergy remember, or bother let their opinion be heard. Voting, however, is not just an individual right to power. The outcome of voting represents the gathered voice of the church. Will it also always express the sensus fidelium, is dependent at least to a sufficient mutual discussion and common prayer, not forgetting listening together to the Word of God.
Coming back to the notion of the “royal priesthood” of all believers in the First Epistle of St. Peter, I note that some commentators explain the Greek BASILEION HIERATEUMA as a “kingdom of priests” whereas others understand it as a “priestly kingdom” (1.Pt. 2:9). To me, the former implies a compilation of individuals, whereas the latter is more an integral body. I think the “priestly kingdom” better complies with the concept of God’s people in the Old Testament: Israel has a task peculiar to it, distinguished from all other peoples in the world. In the same manner, St. Peter calls his readers “a holy nation, God’s own people” who have a calling to “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”.
The People of God, the laos, has a priestly task to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. “No member lacks a part to play in the mission of the whole body”, claims the Lutheran-Catholic study document The Apostolicity of the Church (2006, § 273). The Church is a community representing the reign of God in Christ through the promises given in the Scriptures, made public in the proclamation of the Gospel, and expressed in loving service. To fill her vocation properly, the church needs to walk patiently together.
Most of the walking together takes place in normal everyday life of the church, not in the meetings of synods. Anything that might be heavily debated in the synod can be a minor issue in a parish. Controversial topics can be more of a pastoral nature on the local level, concerning merely living together and sharing the same faith, than agitating opinions. For example, the question of marrying same sex couples in church is constantly under debate in the general synod in Finland, and the bishops’ conference continues working on it. However, many couples have simply been legally married by our clergy, although without an authorized church formula. The priests act as civil servants, albeit with ecclesial framework and spiritual content. There are a few priests in same sex marriages in our dioceses, and there is no ban on ordination for someone living in a same sex relationship. In some of our local parishes, there are couples regularly attending worship together, and when I am on a visitation, I can see that these people are fully and lovingly included in the spiritual life of the church.
In general, synodality is more a challenge for our witness on Christ’s love than for our decision-making. How do we encourage and equip our members to a mission in their own context? I dare suggest that it only can take place through inviting and including the people into different responsibilities and granting them opportunities for a priesthood of prayer and good example.