James Wells finds much that is helpful in Pope Benedict’s views on democratic synods in the context of the General Synod and its role and power within the Church of England

In Our Times, his recently published history of the UK since 1953, A.N. Wilson argues that Archbishop Michael Ramsey was the man who destroyed the Church of England. And Ramsey’s chosen weapon of ecclesial destruction was the General Synod.

Pope Benedict XVI does not refer to the Church of England, let alone its synodical government, in his 1990 addresses, recently reprinted under the title Called to Communion. Nevertheless, his prophecy of what happens when a Church is democratically governed makes an uncanny fit with Wilsons analysis of the collapse of the Church of England.

The context for the then cardinals remarks is the low status of the Church as an institution within Roman Catholicism. It is sobering to think this goes for a Church where some Anglicans think the grass grows greener, though they will probably comfort themselves with the thought that Rome is a Church which will continue to offer its sheep genuine green grass.

Nature of reform

It is also sobering to think that Benedict needed to give his brother bishops what he calls a ‘primer of Catholic ecclesiology’ But it is a useful little primer which gets straight down to basics. One of these basics is that the Church should be holy if she is to give glory to God. Reform is needed if the Church is not holy, and this side of heaven the Church is never perfect. But for any reform to succeed, the Church needs to understand herself so she can approach reform in the right way. Benedict will go on to say that this reform will be both institutional – perhaps surprisingly he is no lover of Church bureaucracy and careerist com-mitteemen – and individual – we must all become better Christians.

Before he gets to that good reform Benedict first targets ‘futile reformers.’ He characterizes these as people convinced that previous generations did not get it right or else that they were too fearful or unilluminated. By contrast the futile reformers think themselves both brave and understanding, even in the face of reactionaries and fundamentalists.

Fortified by this impenetrable self-confidence, the first step for the futile reformer is to bring democracy to the Church. The futile reformer argues that from the Enlightenment democracy has been the way for humankind to organize itself politically to reflect its basic rights and freedoms. The paternalistic Church must be changed to catch up with this so that we are no longer passive receivers of the gift of Christian life but instead we should make church ourselves in ever more and new ways. In this way the Church will become ‘ours’ and through discussion and compromise and resolution we can bring about what can be asked of the people of today.

Party politics

But, asks Benedict, if our reforms replace hierarchical leadership with democratic self-determination – and which is more important in the Church of England, episcopal leadership or synodical government? – who has the right to make decisions? And what is the basis for making decisions? He replies to himself that in political democracies this is done by the system of representation. Individuals elect representatives for a fixed time who make decisions on their behalf, and whose main lines of policy are clearly defined by the party system.

That, of course, is what the Church of England’s General Synod does. And it’s hardly going too far to say that for Benedict this is anathema. He argues repeatedly that the import of party politics into the structures of the Church is contrary to the nature of Christian conversion because when we belong to a political party it is my party, but when we belong to the Church it is not my Church but the Church of Jesus Christ. A party by definition is a thing which divides mankind, but the Church is united in Jesus and her task is not to divide but to unite; not to crush opposition but to embrace all in love.

And Benedict’s critique of democratic synods continues. What, he asks, if the minority which must submit to the majority is a large minority? What guarantee is there that the representatives of the local churches are representative? How can the victorious majority deal with the fact that its decisions will have to be modified by the minority to ensure the system doesn’t break down?

Opinion versus faith

Benedict’s final theological critique raises the question that because everything men can make they can unmake, does it follow that democratic synods inevitably transform even those Churches which maintain traditional Catholic or Protestant teaching into liberal Protestantism? Benedict is surely right to argue that a ‘church based on [reversible] human resolutions becomes a merely human church. It is reduced to the level of the makeable, the obvious, of opinion. Opinion replaces faith… ‘I believe’ never signifies beyond ‘we opine’…the self-made church savours of the self which always has a bitter taste to the other self and just as soon reveals its petty insignificance.’ Does any of this sound familiar? Has the public face of the Church of England become crass and dull, nasty and bitter? A number of commentators in the national press seemed to think so after last year’s York Synod.

And this argument fits all too well the argument that General Synod was Michael Ramsey’s death wish for the Church of England. Synod can repeal all past legislation, including Acts of Synod and Codes of Conduct. Surely it is symptomatic of such a set-up that Watch and its supporters have expressed surprise that anyone should think that the 1993 Act of Synod was never meant to last.

According to Benedict, democratic synods are a futile reform for a Church founded on Jesus Christ. They are unrepresentative. By their very nature they create factions, oppressed minorities and discontented majorities – anything but the one Body united in Christ the Head. And they make a faith which can be repealed. Still, it is an urgent question for the Church of England: can she prove Benedict wrong, or was she really done for by Michael Ramsey?