Excitement, intrigue and a touch of nervousness fill me as I prepare to attend the extraordinary synod of bishops on the theme of “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelisation”. I am attending, at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s request, as the Fraternal Delegate from the Anglican Communion. It is a deep honour both that Pope Francis has asked for fraternal delegates to be present for this important assembly, and that I have been asked to be the Anglican representative.
The nervousness I hope will be easily understood. I have visited Rome as a tourist (and loved it), but never in a formal way as a bishop. Colleagues who have been before have assured me of a warm welcome, an openness of conversation, and a life- and faith-enhancing experience. I am sure they are right, but the personal nerves are bound to be there. Then it is a whole two weeks away from my wife, my home and my own diocese. I have brilliant colleagues who will oversee things, and phone and emails mean contact is easy. My wife is used to me being away often, but two weeks is longer than usual.
The intrigue is varied. These synods run in a very different way from how we run them in the Church of England. The long listening to many relatively brief “interventions” would appear to be much less of a debating style than we use either in the House or College of Bishops, or in our General Synod. The latter is, of course, also bishops, clergy and laity, whereas there is the voice of bishops will predominate at this one. So operating in a very different style intrigues me; and I hope to learn from it. I am intrigued, too, to see how the responses which have been collated in the instrumentum laboris, or working document, are actually used by and through the synod. Then I am intrigued to discover what happens away from the congregational and group times. In our gatherings, side conversations often play an important part in helping us understand each other’s views more deeply. Will these happen in Rome or does it all simply get left “in the room”?
I am intrigued also by my fellow fraternal delegates. They come from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Patriarchate of Moscow and all Russia, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Baptist World Alliance. I believe we are all residing in the same place. So what will they be like? What relationships will we build together in our time together? Here is a further massive learning opportunity to discover more about my brothers and sisters in very different ways of expressing our common commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ.
Then there is the intrigue of what will finally emerge from the conversations. It is very clear that Pope Francis is committed to a Church that reflects the mercy of God. In advance I have sought to follow some of the pieces being written around the theme of mercy, and the different stances that there appear to be from different leading figures within the Church. The instrumentum laboris makes it clear that there have been a wide range of responses to the questions posed to the People of God around the world. Just what will emerge will be fascinating. It will also influence all churches around the world since we are all exploring the same pastoral challenges in the light of our common commitment to evangelisation.
Finally, there is the excitement. I would not be truthful if I did not admit to a high level of excitement at what lies ahead. Pope Francis has made an enormous impact since his elevation. The opportunity to be involved with him on such a vital issue is humbling and exciting.
For my entire Christian life (I became a Christian as a teenager) I have been engaged in a wide variety of ways in ministry to, with, for and by children and young people. I have sought to promote and enable healthy family life in church and society. I remain deeply committed to believing that Scripture teaches that marriage and family life are at the core of healthy societies. I also believe that this is endorsed by our traditions, by reason and by experience across the world and in the vast array of cultures that enrich us all. Yet we are faced, in different ways in our varied settings, with some very deep challenges to how we express this in a rapidly changing world. So many of the responses in the instrumentum laboris ring true from my experience here in Britain and also from my regular visits to Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, and contact with church leaders in many other parts of the world.
The challenges also offer exciting possibilities. I am not convinced that we can simply reiterate and roll out old answers. We have to be merciful and creative in our responses. So I am excited to be part of conversations where some new thinking and new ideas might emerge. These will be faithful to Scripture and tradition I am sure, but what might mercy look like in fresh ways?
Understandably, there is a commitment to confidentiality in the proceedings of the synod. Everyone present needs to be able to express themselves openly so that the full range of ideas and possibilities is explored. But I hope to be able to write some reflections on my experience as the two weeks unfolds. I will do so through my blog Through the Eyes of a Bishop (Bishoppaulbutler.wordpress.com).
I approach the synod, above all, with prayerfulness. May the Holy Spirit grant to the synod deep wisdom which honours the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and brings glory to our Father God. May its outcomes truly be a blessing to the families of our world, in all their diversity. And may it aid the evangelisation task which has been committed to us all by our Lord.
Article written for Catholic Herald 2-10-14