In January 2020 the Catholic journalist Joanna Moorhead called for a synod that began with women rather than one that ended with them — or excluded them altogether.
In retrospect she was just one in a growing chorus of voices calling for a new understanding of synodality. As we now know, Pope Francis would be another.
It seems that the Spirit has moved with exceptional agility. The pandemic led rapidly to new Catholic communities popping up on Zoom. They connected prayer and thinking, not just between parishes but across continents.
This made it possible for a movement to grow out of Moorhead’s call – progressing quickly beyond the question of women’s role in the Church to a much more profound consideration of ministry and authority, diversity and moral theology within the Catholic Church.
“Root and branch reform is necessary,” states its website.
The Root & Branch Inclusive Synod
And, in fact, the plain simplicity of the call has given the movement its name — the Root & Branch Inclusive Synod.
It began with three friends, grew quickly to a dedicated core team of ten and has now reached many hundreds throughout the world. For all its mood of lay-led innovation, Root & Branch has operated in a carefully biblical mode, setting out on a year-long “journey of discernment”. It combines Zoom seminars – with Irish academic Tom O’Loughlin, American novelist James Carroll, Sr Mary Jo McElroy who spent over 30 years in an inclusive diocese in Brazil, and many others – as well as an “inner room” of prayer.
Very quietly the R&B team – themselves scattered in parishes across England and Wales – have sent out feelers to theologians, canon lawyers, women and men religious and bishops.
One or two have so far rebuffed them. Others have remained off-the-record but have advised and been heard: this is a movement that has stuck impressively to its credo of inclusivity.And an extraordinary number, including a growing cadre of the bishops, have been open to Root & Branch’s challenge to be the Church in a refreshed and evolving way.September 5-12 gathering in Bristol, EnglandJust how many will become clear as the movement reaches its first climax in September.A week of Zoom workshops draws together thinkers who include the barrister Helena Kennedy and the LGBT+ theologian James Alison; academic and Poor Clare, Patricia Rumsey; co-founder of We Are Church Austria, Martha Heizer and many others.With the active contribution of many ordinary churchgoers, they are already forging an extended text that promises to be a call for a step change in reform.This phase of the movement culminates with a weekend of prayer, worship and presentations – both live in Bristol and on-line.It begins with former Irish president Mary McAleese, who is devoting her retirement to reform within the Church. She is joined by Virginia Saldanha from India, Nontando Hadebe from South Africa and a humbling, international roster of others.It promises to be both exhilarating and profoundly challenging.Had the bishops fully embraced the intelligence, skills, experience and inspiration of the laity, such a movement might never have come about. But it has and its momentum is perhaps unstoppable.Lay-led synodal movements in other parts of the world are linking arms with Root & Branch, exchanging their own texts, learning quickly from each other.If Francis needs hands to hold as he scales the mountain of Vatican resistance, this is where he will find them. He may find they are already ahead on his path.Jon Rosebank was an accredited Methodist lay preacher before becoming a Catholic. For a number of years he wrote homilies for the American Catholic homily magazine Good News. A former fellow of New College (Oxford) and a BBC executive producer, his book, Partisan Politics, Looking for Consensus in 18th Century Towns, was recently published by the University of Exeter Press.
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