unity or uniformity?

The Archdiocese of Winnipeg has announced it’s first diocesan synod. One of the purposes of the synod is to build a “strong sense of diocesan unity”. It’s hard to argue against unity. After all, we are One Body in Christ. Sometimes “unity” becomes a thinly veiled attempt at uniformity, ignoring the reality that we are many and diverse members of One Body.

collegiality and subsidiarity

Promoting diocesan unity challenges us to go beyond a parochial mind-set, interested only in what directly involves us. After all, the root of the term “parochial” is found in the word “parish”. Vatican II has given us the the wonderful concept of “collegiality”. While initially referring to the bishops working together nationally and globally, it also describes the need to set our sights beyond our home base and embrace our baptismal vocation into the universal church.

The partner to collegiality is subsidiarity. Unity does not mean uniformity. Subsidiarity demands that, depending on the situation, decisions should not be imposed from above if they can be made more effectively at the local level. When uniformity is enforced, subsidiarity suffers.

enforced uniformity

An example of enforced uniformity is the New Roman Missal. Despite protests and verbalized frustrations at the clumsy and arcane language, the Vatican pronounced that the Missal was to be mandatory in all English language liturgies. The voices of pastors and the faithful were ignored and the Missal was steam-rollered into existence.

Our archdiocese was already in the midst of a “liturgical renewal” before the new missal appeared. The focus of the renewal was not on spirituality or prayer but on rubrics. Each week a new directive came from the diocesan offices on what to sing, when to sit and stand, when to bow and how to bow. We were even told how to pass the offertory basket! (Apparently the previous method of ushers holding the basket was not “liturgical”.) Watching people strain to pass the basket over several empty pews was comical, but also a good analogy of how out of touch the diocesan liturgists were with local realities. Rubrics and rules will not fill empty pews.

You do not build a church of communion by enforcing uniformity. A spirit of communion is not about superficial appearances but about seeking unity amid diversity; about respecting the unique needs, culture, and worship style of each community.


synod for the archdiocese of winnipeg

The Archdiocese of Winnipeg is embarking on a synod journey. Archbishop Richard Gagnon made the formal announcement in a letter read from all pulpits and available online.

Pope Francis has called for a more synodal church,

“a listening church, aware that listening is more than hearing. It is a reciprocal listening in which each one has something to learn.”

Synodality, according to Francis, is

“walking together — laity, pastors, the bishop of Rome.” It is “an easy concept to express in words, but is not so easy to put into practice.”

synods a step towards a more inclusive church

For those of us who yearn for more inclusive leadership in our church, synods could offer a concrete strategy for allowing all voices to be heard. The recent Synods on the Family made an attempt to open the dialogue to the greater church, albeit a clumsy attempt at times. Surveys were sent, but difficulties were understandable considering the work required to accommodate the sheer numbers, languages and cultures inherent in the world wide church.

Local synods can provide the necessary foundation for future world synods. When  dialogue is organically present in local churches, bishops will be better equipped  to represent those they serve at national and international meetings and synods

Diocesan synods can also provide a concrete response to the lack of personal involvement in our church today.  Much needed personal investment in the future of our church, not just obligatory attendance, can be achieved when those in the grass roots participate actively in ideas and decision making.

But, true and active participation must come with a sense of empowerment and this is often missing in the official language and tone of the church concerning the role of lay persons in councils and synods.

role of laity – consultants or active participants?

Canon law, which is clearly referenced in the Archbishop’s letter, stresses the consultative-only role of lay women and men. The bishop, in his “ministry of governance of the local church”, calls the synod, oversees the synod, and decides the eventual outcome of the synod.

This is the first diocesan synod in Winnipeg, and a learning curve is inevitable. On the other hand, parish or pastoral councils have been around for decades and can offer some valuable lessons.

Parish or pastoral councils, according to Canon Law, are also consultative bodies. But, the line between consultation only and effective, collaborative decision making can move drastically depending on the priest.

Some priests know that the parish community is not there to serve them. These priests seek to build community together with the people they are called to serve. Dialogue and collaborative decision making ensure that leadership is shared.

Other priests are quick to remind the faithful that the priest is in charge.  Parish councils, in these circumstances, often consist of a core group of parish faithful who are more than willing to rubber stamp anything that Father requests. In some cases, pastors have even disbanded parish councils. A consultative body, after all, exists only at the pleasure of the those in charge.

If we are to be truly “walking together” in the synodal process, than it is time to let go of our hierarchical thinking. It is time for women and men to be given an active role in the governance of the church, not merely as consultants. A diocesan synod can do this, despite Canon law directives, if it is truly inclusive, listens deeply, ponders prayerfully, and responds effectively to the dialogues that will take place.

who will participate?

Which brings us to the question of who will participate in this diocesan synod. The first step of the synod will be to encourage as broad a dialogue as possible on the local level. The onus will be on us all to attend and actively participate in any discussions that take place close to home.

The next stage will be the formal synod process. Who will participate in this stage? Will there be a diversity of voices, representing not only the many interests in our church but also those on the fringes? What will be the balance between ordained and lay among the synod members? Will lay women and men be given the right to vote on any decisions made, or will they have only observer status as in the Synods in Rome?

The simple call for a synod brings hope for a more inclusive church, a hope for greater dialogue. Yes, it is easy to express in words, but much harder to put into practice. But, the first step has been taken. And, this is a good thing.

Next post…..diocesan unity or uniformity?