Synodal virtues: New answers to old problems

shaping the assembly

As we embark on the path of seeking a synodal Church, can having a wider range of Christians engage in theological study help us?

I have argued that it can foster a more conscious discipleship and help us see new ways through our difficulties.

But can it bring us, with the Holy Spirit’s help, light for our path?

Theology is not a download

Theology is not just a body of information that one downloads.

In the past it was often confused with “the information needed by a priest” or some set of codes that could be used to explain everything, as if “theology” were the religious equivalent of basic geometry.

Theology does involve knowledge about how Christians live, how they worship, how they have presented their faith in doctrine, about how they read the texts they cherish, and what it is that makes them the community of followers of Jesus.

But most of this is already known to some degree to most Christians who take their discipleship seriously.

So what is special about theology? It is having a developed, trained skill in thinking about the Christian life, reflecting on what we are doing, why we are doing it this way, and asking if the great purposes of God could be better served by acting differently.

Let’s see this by looking at an old problem and some fresh answers.

Living with other Christians: Can we share a table?

Meet any group of Christians and the likelihood is that there will be individuals from more than one tradition: a few Catholics, a few Anglicans, maybe a Methodist or Baptist, and one or two others.

All claim to be followers of Jesus, all pray to the Father, all acknowledge the Spirit within them. All have been baptized and have set out of the Way of Life which makes them fellow disciples.

So far, so good – and we rejoice that we no longer call each other nasty names (or worse) and appreciate that God, and the divine love and mercy, is unlimited.

But then, someone notes that the community of disciples never becomes more visible than when we gather in the Christ to share the meal of the Christian blessing and thanking the Father; when we break and eat the common loaf and drink from the common cup.

This sharing of the loaf and cup, the Eucharist, is the center and summit of the whole Christian life – and we echo St. Paul when we say, “Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor 10:17).

The Eucharist has – too often and for too many – been an experience of exclusion and rejection. The sign pinned over this church door in Sterzing / Vipiteno (Italy) reads: “Here Jesus invites sinners and welcomes them to his table.”

We are a divided body

But we are also divided: we worship apart, we have different structures and customs, and we have different ways of expressing belief and different ways of explaining what we do believe (and a history of saying that anyone who is “not with us” is both wrong and needs corrective punishment).

So many Churches have rules which say that “if you are not completely united with us, you cannot share the Christian meal with us”. This causes bitterness, hurt, rejection.

It has also caused untold suffering when, for example, two Christians from different Churches marry and cannot share that which both may proclaim as most precious to them.

Faced with this problem it seems the only answer is to argue that the Eucharist is a manifestation of the union the Church in Christ (which it is), so if you are not in visible union with the Church it would be wrong to participate in that visible manifestation.

This logic is tight, and has been proclaimed by bishop after bishop, canonist after canonist, and so it would seem that it is as much a fact as “caution: hot surface” written on many machines. The rejection of “intercommunion” is hard, even sad, but there is nothing that can be done!

But one amazing difference between theology and engineering is that while the latter uses language factually – the bridge can either bear the weight or not –, theology uses language analogically.

It is aware that language is an approximation and that what appears a clear answer from one string of reasoning, emerges as a faulty answer from a different starting point, and both strings of argument can be true.

The pope in 2015

When Pope Francis visited a Lutheran church in Rome in November 2015, the wife of a Roman Catholic expressed her sorrow that they were “not being able to partake together in the Lord’s Supper”.

“What more can we do to reach communion on this point?” she asked the pope. His reply was very interesting. Here’s what he said.

Thank you, Ma’am. Regarding the question on sharing the Lord’s Supper. … I think the Lord gave us [the answer] when he gave us this command: “Do this in memory of me”.

And when we share in, remember and emulate the Lord’s Supper, we do the same thing that the Lord Jesus did. And the Lord’s Supper will be, the final banquet will there be in the New Jerusalem, but this will be the last.

Instead on the journey, I wonder – and I don’t know how to answer, but I am making your question my own – I ask myself: “Is sharing the Lord’s Supper the end of a journey or is it the viaticum for walking together? I leave the question to the theologians, to those who understand.

It is true that in a certain sense sharing is saying that there are no differences between us, that we have the same doctrine – I underline the word, a difficult word to understand – but I ask myself: don’t we have the same Baptism? And if we have the same Baptism, we have to walk together.

You are a witness to an even more profound journey because it is a conjugal journey, truly a family journey, of human love and of shared faith. We have the same Baptism. When you feel you are a sinner – I too feel I am quite a sinner– when your husband feels he is a sinner, you go before the Lord and ask forgiveness; your husband does the same and goes to the priest and requests absolution. They are ways of keeping Baptism alive.

When you pray together, that Baptism grows, it becomes strong; when you teach your children who Jesus is, why Jesus came, what Jesus did, you do the same, whether in Lutheran or Catholic terms, but it is the same. The question: and the Supper?

There are questions to which only if one is honest with oneself and with the few theological “lights” that I have, one must respond the same, you see.

“This is my Body, this is my Blood”, said the Lord, “do this in memory of me”, and this is a viaticum which helps us to journey. … … … I respond to your question only with a question: how can I participate with my husband, so that the Lord’s Supper may accompany me on my path? It is a problem to which each person must respond.

A pastor friend of mine said to me: “We believe that the Lord is present there. He is present. You believe that the Lord is present. So what is the difference?” — “Well, there are explanations, interpretations…”.

Life is greater than explanations and interpretations. Always refer to Baptism: “One faith, one baptism, one Lord”, as Paul tells us, and take the outcome from there.

I would never dare give permission to do this because I do not have the authority. One Baptism, one Lord, one faith. Speak with the Lord and go forward. I do not dare say more.

Francis notes that theology is not a matter of fixed answers. Instead, there is always a variety of explanations and interpretations, and it is the task of theology to find those answers which are most conducive to discipleship.

Another way of viewing the situation

So what would such an argument look like? We have one Lord, and this is the faith we share. At baptism each of us was joined, not only to the Christ, but to one another as forming the children of the Father.

This is the kernel, the basis, and cornerstone of our identity – and this is not limited to any one Church but is the basis of “the Church”. All who are in this great host of witnesses to God’s love are on the journey of faith and are sustained on this often difficult path by each other and “the food for the journey”.

This is an expression of God’s love, mercy and care. And if it is God’s mercy, are we not overstepping the mark to limit it?

A Lutheran church in Morschen, Germany. Can our common re-birth in the baptismal fond lead to our sharing sustenance at the Lord’s table?

Theology is a process in the midst of life

Theology is not only more than “an encyclopedia”; it is a creative process by which we seek out what is the way of faith amid an often-dark forest of clashing ideas.

It helps us to recall that because “God is always greater”, and we have to watch out for a bad habit of making God appear to be as narrow such as we have a tendency to become with our “possessions”.

  • Thomas O’Loughlin is a presbyter of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor-emeritus of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK). His latest book is Discipleship and Society in the Early Churches.

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