Being a Pilgrim People - a Plea for a Synodal Church  
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Dr. Angela Berlis

In western society, the church is often not experienced as a living organism but as an institution—in other words, as ossified, rigid, and immobile. This assumption is partially due to the fact that many people consider church as something external to their inner being. Church is the pope, the bishops, the priests… but not themselves. There occurs a separation between the church as institution—represented by those who hold office—and the faithful, who do not experience themselves as a part of the church. This distinction is not only found among those on the margins of the church; even people who attend church regularly differentiate between the „official church“ and themselves. This is their way of expressing their sense of impotence—as tiny cogs in the machinery they have no power to make any changes. The feeling of powerlessness prevails, no one consults with them concerning crucial decisions; why should they experience the church as something they can affect?

Such an image of the church does not reflect my personal experience of church, because I live in the consciousness of being church together with many others. In this frame of mind of being church I feel myself confirmed by my forefathers and foremothers who as Catholics protested against the First Vatican Council in 1870 and subsequently collaborated to build the Old Catholic Church. These Old Catholic fathers and mothers considered the right to participate in decision making and church building as responsibility and calling of all members of the church. For them, all members together—the laity and the ordained, theologians and non-theologians—were the people of God.

The People of the Church and the People of God

This seems to me an important initial notion: Synodality and co-accountability are rooted in the experience of not merely being cogs in the machinery but of oneself being church. For this reason the movement „We Are Church“ poses an extraordinarily important demand, challenging not only the members of the movement but all members of the church to a transformation of consciousness.

A further condition of a synodical church concerns the question of the relationship of office and "laos", ordained ministry and laity. Is the office experienced as something separate ("kleros") with a special status and essentially different from the laity? Or is the office a „vis-a-vis“ to the laos, carried by the laos, and charged with the function of service to the church? Still today, the priestly office is given a status in the Roman Catholic Church that in fact elevates it from the mass of the faithful, makes it into something special, and therefore invests it with higher authority. The priestly office is in this manner placed on a much higher rung on the ladder of „sacred power“ (the meaning of the term „hierarchy“) than the ordinary faithful. Celibacy may add to this nimbus of the priestly office; at least, in the Old Catholic church where the ordained can be married they are not invested with this nimbus, while the office itself is no less respected.

A critical revision of the deeply embedded images and conceptions concerning the relationship of priestly office and the people of God is necessary. This revision can be facilitated by biblical and early Christian models. For example, the church might be envisioned as an organic being rather than a hierarchical structure, the kind of church in which many members collaborate, complement one another, and in this manner move the church forward and keep it alive. The scriptural image of the body of Christ comes to mind, or the image of a round table without "up" and "down". The Second Vatican Council redefined the role of the people of God and reintroduced the concept of the „pilgrim people of God“ and the „general priesthood of all the baptized.“ On the other hand, the potential of this dynamic understanding has not been fully realized, because next to these dynamic biblical images of church the remaining stock of traditional hierarchical understandings of church, as formulated especially by the First Vatican Council (1869-70), was neither removed nor cleaned up.

But by themselves, beautiful images or metaphors do not suffice. For such organic images can actually serve to conceal the issue of power. In order to avoid this danger, it is necessary to base the collaboration of the various member-components—co-accountability and collaboration of all concerning important decisions and life-processes of the church—on a foundation of canon law instead of the good will of church authority(authorities). For otherwise, when times change, collaboration and consultation can again be curtailed. By legally establishing the right of all members of the church to be discussion partners, an essential condition will be created for genuinely shared decision-making. In addition, the possibility will be opened up for acknowledging the spiritual dimension of lay participation.


While—at least in the western world—democratic values have established themselves since the 19th century and democratic rights are considered basic rights, the Roman Catholic Church has during that same period diverged ever farther from the „democratic“ principle of early Christianity. Instead, papacy was „modernized“ in the direction of the early modern model of an absolute papacy, a supreme sovereign, without continuing the further developments in the secular realm, for example, toward a constitutional monarchy that includes participatory governmental forms. The Second Vatican Council left behind a construction zone, as the German theologian Hermann J. Pottmeyer from Bochum pointed out. Weighted down by the ecclesiological rubble of the First Vatican Council—manifested especially in the primacy of jurisdiction and papal infallibility—it was unable to complete the church reform:

“Next to the old building of Roman centralism of the 19th and 20th centuries there rear high four mighty buttresses of a renewed church and ecclesiology: Church as people of God, as sacrament of the Kingdom of God in the world, as community of local churches with collegial leadership, and finally as ecumene.“(Pottmeyer, 95) (1)

In Lumen Gentium, the constitution of the Second Vatican Council, the doctrine of the primacy of the Pope is complemented by teachings about the office of the bishop and the College of Bishops. This is an important advance. However, the emphasis on the responsibility of the College of Bishops for the whole church could not counter Roman centralism. The College of Bishops is not understood as holding an authority equivalent to that of the Pope (in which case the Bishop of Rome would be one amongst many bishops); instead the primacy of the Pope retains its own authority (Pottmeyer, 99). The question of whether bishops hold their jurisdiction directly from Christ or whether it is mediated through the Pope is not answered in this document (more clarity gives canon 375, § 2, CIC 1983).

The opposition of Old Catholics to the First Vatican Council is ultimately rooted in this question. In the Old Catholic understanding (which seeks to reflect that of the early church), all bishops have equal status. That one bishop could legally prevail over the others is unthinkable. Collegiality is defined in terms of this fundamental equality. What is possible is a primacy of honour, that is, a primus inter pares (“first amongst equals”). The Old Catholics reject the Vatican dogmas on “infallibility and universal episcopate or the ecclesiastical omnipotence of the Pope,” while recognising the Pope’s “historic primacy” (Declaration of Utrecht, 1889, no 2).

The sovereignty of the Pope in questions of his Primacy of Jurisdiction is not questioned by the Second Vatican Council or by the teachings about the College of Bishops. Instead, the Pope’s freedom of action is clearly emphasised.

Recent developments have shown that the College of Bishops is scarcely involved in questions of legislation and the ordinary and immediate jurisdiction of the papal sovereign in “particular churches”. (The expression „particular-church“ ("Teilkirche" in German) is in fact a contradiction in terms. For every local church is a church in the full sense of the word; by the jurisdictional tether tying it to the Roman central authority such a local church is robbed of essential aspects or functions of its „being church,“ so that it can be no more than a „partial church.“ Furthermore, this notion mirrors the perspective from the centre).

This understanding of Roman centralism is ultimately also decisive for the way in which conciliarity is actualised in the church. The issue of conciliarity will be more closely discussed in the context of women’s ordination.

Conciliarity as illustrated by the Ordination of Women

Conciliarity can be understood as the readiness to engage in a shared learning process, to search for the common ground of the different churches in the light of their common source and for the ways tradition realizes itself in the light of the circumstances and demands of today. It means to deliberate with one another and to share with one another insights, anxieties, and experiences. In such an important issue as the ordination of women that currently concerns many churches to the same extent, it is inappropriate for one instance to know in advance the outcome of such a consultation process, or, even worse, to attempt to fix the result. Some time ago, an Orthodox theologian, the American Thomas Hopko strongly criticised the way in which Rome has sought to give a definitive response to the question of women’s ordination since 1994. He himself is not in favour of the inclusion of women in ecclesiastical offices; however, it is nevertheless clear to him that there must be a process of reaching an opinion which takes seriously the individual members of the people of God. What is important in this view, which is also held by others, is that it expresses a certain understanding of conciliarity: conciliarity means hearing the voices of the whole people of the church. It means that even the mute testimony of male and female theologians who have been silenced is heard, and that their voices are not forcefully silenced from the outset under the threat of sanctions. Of course, this kind of conciliarity would not have any legally binding authority. But does not precisely the discussion over women’s ordination demonstrate more than any other the bankruptcy of authoritatively imposed solutions?

Unless it results from a “conciliar process” every authoritative decision in this—and in other important questions—is implausible. On the other hand, the leadership of a church which sets in train a conciliar consultation gains great moral authority. The way in which the tension between conciliarity and authoritative decision-making is dealt with is decisive both for the further discussion of the „women’s issue“ within each church (in many churches women’s ordination is viewed as a litmus test on the way women are treated in the church), and for ecumenical relations among the churches.

To practice conciliarity and in this way to develop appropriate forms both for internal relationships within each individual church and for external, ecumenical exchange where all represented positions have an equal right to speak, is particularly important at a time when a true ecumenical council of all churches is not conceivable. For such a council all churches would come together for consultation. While theoretically the bishop of Rome could chair such a truly ecumenical council this does not mean that his preconditions should be accepted from the outset. This understanding of council is incompatible with the current claim to primacy by the pope insofar as this claim is understood solely as inner-directed.


In contrast to the development of papal primacy the church has consistently returned to synodality. Synodality should not be erroneously identified with democracy. Democracy is justified in the political sphere. Synodality does not mean that the interests of individuals or of groups are in the foreground. There is no parliamentary battle for majority. The opposition does not suspiciously observe the course of the ruling party. According to the Greek word from which it derives, synodality means to travel a road together. Synodos is a gathering, but also a group of travellers. In the Acts of the Apostles, those who proclaim Jesus, crucified and resurrected, are referred to as “the people of the (new) way” (Acts 9:2). These people of the way follow Christ together, who is “the Way” (John 14:6).

In the Old Catholic church, for example, synodality is expressed in the shared process of decision making in conversation and prayer together. Synodality is associated with certain actions, such as electing a bishop or other ecclesiastic bodies. But synodality is not only about action; it is an attitude, rooted in the knowledge that we are always on the way together.

The following are several general characteristics of synodality.

  • Synodality requires practice. It is a learned skill analogous to the necessity to acquire the basic principles of democracy for people who have lived under a dictatorship.
  • Synodality begins with the shared action of the whole people of God: of laity and clergy, of theologians and bishop(s). The church lives and grows as a result of the interplay between clergy and laity and their shared responsibility. Neither voice counts more. Gaining votes is a matter of convincing others, not a matter of impressing them with one’s status.
  • Synodality presupposes a critical awareness of power. It is therefore important that minorities and the views of minorities can be articulated and heard. For it is not a question of finding a majority, but of finding a consensus which is based on a common mind and which will thus be carried by many. This latter aspect is important if decisions made by synod are to be implemented in the life of the church. Opinion shaping processes involving the whole church are preconditions for synodal decisions. Such decisions requite time to mature.
  • Synodality presupposes maturity. At issue is not merely knowledge of one’s personal rights and duties, speaking up when dealing with one’s personal conscience, but taking responsibility when the result might turn out to be uncomfortable (because of time demands, excessive work, or possible conflicts).
  • Synodality assumes subsidiarity: This means that responsibilities on a particular level are accepted and exercised there, so that decisions are not simply passed on to a higher level (or taken over by a higher level).
  • Synodality means to differentiate between „power“ and „authority.“ Authority can’t be taken for granted but is always something conferred to by others who recognize the authority. Consequently, authority presumes an „other“ who acknowledges the authority. In synodal decisions, such as elections of a particular person as a bishop or as a member of a committee or other body in the church gives authority to this person. Without this authority, a person cannot fulfil what belongs to the duties of his/her office. This is not a question of absolute freedom of action, but of action and authority given by the church in a synodical way and likewise responsible. Authority and power are thus held in balance and are not exercised in an uncontrolled way, but in accountability.
  • Synodality assumes leadership structures which see leadership as service; in other words, to listen first, and secondly to act and speak based upon  what has been heard. Church leadership understood in this way will do its best to proclaim the faith in a language that takes seriously the experiences and the lives of people today.
  • Finally, synodality means to practice that „we are church.“ Of course, this also means that an understanding of church as something outside ourselves as described at the beginning of this essay has to be abandoned along with the tendency to complain constantly about the ones in charge.

The extent to which synodality is practiced in the church indicates the extent to which the laity is valued in the church. The term already says it: a synodal church is a church on the way. Such a church is more appropriately associated with the pilgrim people of God and the demands of that definition than a church in which shared deliberation and shared leadership are demonised or prohibited. A synodal church is not afraid to venture forth into the contemporary world, and in the process it utilizes the experiences and insights of its members. A church on the way is a church that is ready to confront whatever presents itself on the path and to connect it to its pre-existing insights. A church on the way knows how to treasure its traditions and is open to the new: it is conscious of tradition and ready for innovation.

Election of Bishops

The movement „We Are Church“ argues for the participation of local churches in the appointment of bishops by Rome. This demand is justified by a principle that was taken for granted by popes, such as Celestine I and Leo the Great: „Let him who must stand before all be elected by all.“

But this principle can be formulated even more clearly:

“For a thousand years and more, ... as late as the 12th century, in the western churches as well, the election of a bishop was considered canonically legitimate, that is according to the instructions given to the apostles by Jesus Christ, only when the votes were cast by the priests and the people.”(2)

We should not forget that until the 11th century the pope as well was elected by the priests and people of Rome. Only later did the college of cardinals take over the election. Initially, the cardinals were not required to be bishops. Would it not be a way of reflecting the contemporary emphasis on representative governance more closely if the college of cardinals were not limited to bishops but were to consist—as in the past—of priests, deacons, representatives of religious orders, and members of the laity?

A few years ago the renowned New Testament scholar and feminist Roman Catholic theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza demanded that women as well as men should be created cardinals:

"The appointment of women cardinals would exterminate the anti-feminist virus that has infected our church and leads to its paralysis. It would open up democratic ways for women to participate in decision-making concerning the future of the church by having a voice in electing the pope."(3)

Angela Berlis

 1 Hermann J. Pottmeyer, Die Rolle des Papsttums im Dritten Jahrtausend, (QD 179), Freiburg – Basel – Wien 1999, 95.

2 This was written by Joseph Hubert Reinkens, Catholic Bishop for the Old Catholics in Germany, in his first pastoral letter in 1873, in: Hirtenbriefe von Dr. Joseph Hubert Reinkens, katholischem Bischof der Altkatholiken des Deutschen Reichs. Nach dessen Tode herausgegeben von der Synodal-Repräsentanz, Bonn 1897, p.1.

3 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Der Kaiser hat ja nichts an, in: Concilium 35 (1999), 327-335, here p. 333.


Dr. Angela Berlis, Old-Catholic theologian and priest, is Extraordinary Professor for Ancient Catholic Church Structures at the Theological (sub)Faculty of the University of Utrecht. She is also Principal of the Old-Catholic Seminary Utrecht and is working on a research project at the Theology Faculty Tilburg (Netherlands) on the abolition of the compulsory celibacy in the Old-Catholic Church (Union of Utrecht). She is Chair of the Interuniversity Theology Network of Women (IWFT Vrouwennetwerk Theologie) in the Netherlands.

She has written this contribution for the international movement We Are Church (IMWAC) in 2002, in preparation for the Conclave which only took place after the decease of Pope John Paul II in April 2005.
Translated from German by Ingrid Shafer.

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