Friday, January 18, 2019

The shape of a counciliar church. . .

On October 11, 1962, when Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II into session, something like 2,200 bishops walked in the procession (out of a total of perhaps 3,000) and perhaps 2,600 attended the some of the sessions.  This was huge comparison to Vatican I when some 744 were at some point in attendance but votes on various issues number in the 500s.  Attendance was about 25-30% less than the total due to illness, circumstance, death, and a host of other reasons.  Still and all, Vatican II was a behemoth of a gathering.

There are those who wonder if there can ever be another universal council in the future?  To put things into perspective, a future Vatican III would be gigantic -- on a scale almost impossible to imagine.  If such a council were to be convened today, the number of bishops who could have a place and a voice would dwarf even Vatican II and could be as high as 5300!!  Compare this to 250-300 or so participated at Nicea in 318.  Even the USCCB held in November, one national conference, numbered about the same attendees as Nicea.

By now you are wondering why a Lutheran is spitting out attendance numbers at Roman Catholic councils.  First of all the point is to suggest that a deliberative council on such a scale is hardly possible and, if technologically possible, hardly workable.  The time in which a gathering of any church group on such a scale can actually debate and deliberate has come and gone.  Such large gatherings become the domain of the few who actually prepare for the meeting, control its agenda, and direct its outcome.  Rome or St. Louis, the address does not matter.  How does a room of 1,000 or more prayerfully consider and deliberate anything anywhere?

Some have suggested that such a form of synodality ought to be the shape of the new Rome.  I am not so sure that is even possible much less desirable.  Some have suggested the same thing for Lutheran gatherings even on a smaller scale.  Again, I am not at all sure that such a thing would be desirable even if it were possible.  The reality of the deal is that such large groups rarely are capable of doing the kind of theological reflection and discernment to make even routine decisions, much less the difficult choices in time of conflict.  Our own LCMS finds itself stymied by the clock or the short attention span of the delegates or the constant call of the question just when discussion begins to get good.  We have made far reaching decisions at such gatherings and then found ourselves struggling to put the pieces together after the delegates have gone home (think here of the LCMS restructuring that took place at the same convention in which the Rev. Matthew Harrison was elected Synod President).  One need only hearken back to a convention in which at the same time the Synod moved to adopt fellowship with a church body that was on the verge of ordaining women while unelecting the Synod President who had led them toward that end and electing one far more conservative (LCMS 1969).  Who can make sense of it all?

Is there something better?  I am not sure.  Perhaps we could conceive of a structure in which solid deliberation could take place and wise decisions carefully determined by majority vote.  I am not at all saying it could not happen.  But in place of it all, perhaps the Synod Convention ought to begin our conversation rather than end it and do this by providing solid Biblical and doctrinal essays to delegates summoned to hear the Word of the Lord.  Perhaps this could proceed from the Synod Convention into the Districts and winkels and forums of our church body and only then return to the level of the Synod Convention to resolve.  It often seems like these gatherings spend more time in PR moves and in voting on the obvious than they should.  How bad could it be if these celebratory moments took a backseat to honest, deliberate, and confessional studies on the subjects and doctrines in the news or being challenged (even outside the Church)?

Though I know it is a dangerous thing, I was just thinking. . .

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