The closing service of the 52nd General Synod of the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church (Spanish abbreviation: IERE) at the Catedral del Redentor in Madrid on 2 June marked the end of several days of hard work for the delegates. It was plain to see that they were happy about the successful conclusion of the meeting despite the long agenda, a number of heated debates and some major differences of opinion.
“Looking ahead”, the motto of this year’s meeting, raised some interesting questions: Where does the church stand today? What problems does it face in Spain? How can past experience help it to move forwards? How should it develop in the future? And in what direction?
These and other similar questions were discussed by the delegates from independent missions and congregations from all over Spain, who gather for the General Synod every two years. I was impressed by their openness in all discussions, even conflicts. Whether clergy or laity, their love for the church and their keenness to achieve a positive future was clear to see. There were some heated disputes about problem-solving approaches, and differences in opinion about which members of an episcopal-synodical church (bishops, clergy, laity) should decide on which issues. I was struck, however, by how amicably the decisions were made and by how the results were acceptable to everyone because they had all been included in the debate.
A difficult situation for the church
The individual parishes of the IERE find themselves in very different situations today. Spain is a huge country with a diverse political landscape and many economic problems that affect religious life, too. There is no church tax, so a church that relies on donations from its members soon reaches its financial limits when those members lose their income or receive only a small amount of unemployment benefit. Some parishes have lost active members who have gone abroad to find work. The lack of people and financial resources makes life difficult for the congregations scattered around the country. And yet the synod atmosphere was by no means resigned or fatalistic, and there was no call for more money from the diocese. In fact, the IERE is growing slowly but steadily, which in my opinion is thanks to the religiously devoted people who represent it. This was illustrated by the delighted response to the synod’s vote on the former Santa Olalla mission in Toledo, which will now be promoted to the status of a parish. It was clear that scarce financial and personnel resources are not a cause for resignation; it is the joy in being a witness to Christ and his church that is most important. The emphasis was not on the difficulties ahead, but on the joy of being a living community of which the whole church can be proud. I was moved by the realisation that the IERE sees problems and tries to solve them, but refuses to be daunted by them.
A question of identity
One of the items on the synod’s agenda was a discussion and vote on a new plan diocesano. In the next five years, the diocese plans to focus on developing its pastoral care, catechesis and congregational life in five main areas: community, worship, discipleship, evangelisation and social welfare. Targets will be set at the parish and diocesan levels, and progress will be monitored by local bodies and the synod. This serves two purposes: to increase the responsibilities of church members at all levels, and to offer them greater support in fulfilling them. The diocesan plan addresses the question of the identity of the church and its members – an identity that not only encourages internal solidarity and discipleship, but is also visible outside the church and raises its profile. Occasionally complaints are heard that the church is in a weak state in these secular, economically difficult times. Bishop Carlos responded with a clear message in his opening sermon: “No, the church isn’t doing badly by any means. Perhaps it is actually doing too well,” he said, referring in particular to Spain under Franco in the 1940s. “When our clergy were persecuted, imprisoned and shot, when many had to flee into exile abroad to survive, when the Roman Catholic Church was making deals with the political powers – that’s when our church suffered, because its existence was threatened by the politicians who wanted to extinguish it with violence.” It is God himself, continued Bishop Carlos, who holds and unifies the church by steering it in stormy waters and having the power to command the storm to cease so that the boat can safely reach the other side. The bishop’s clear words were in response to those naysayers who state the church is too small and too powerless to achieve anything. No matter what size it is, the church is the church of God. It is the boat in which God is with his disciples. This is the message that gives us the courage we need to look further than our own challenging horizons, the bishop said. The place where we are fortified is liturgical worship, where people’s prayers are united and we hear the word of God together.
As an expression of this, the synod delegates attended Lauds (morning prayer), Vespers (evening prayer) and services of Holy Communion. Worship in the IERE is according to the Mozarabic Rite, which flourished throughout Spain in the 7th century. Following the Arab conquest of Spain in 711, the Spanish church decided to hold fast to its liturgy. In the 11th century Pope Gregory VII forbade the Mozarabic Rite and replaced it with the Roman liturgy. But the Mozarabic Rite lived on in Toledo and was not forgotten – thanks to Cardinal Cisnéros, who in about 1500 had a missal and a book of offices printed which were used daily in a chapel at the Cathedral of Toledo.
Catholic and Anglican?
Still on the question of identity, I was particularly interested in how the IERE maintains its own, Catholic identity while belonging to the Protestant reformed tradition of the Anglican Communion. Both aspects were clearly important to the synod delegates. It seems, however, that the IERE’s Anglican affiliation often gives rise to confusion or ambiguity. After all, the IERE is both reformed and Catholic. A relative large number of Anglican clergy (from the UK, the USA, Canada and Australia) live in Spain and minister in the IERE. This topic was also discussed from an ecumenical perspective. The delegates agreed that ecumenism is not truly possible until each church knows where its partner churches stand and how it fits in. The IERE belongs to the Anglican Communion and cooperates with the Federation of Evangelical Religious Entities of Spain (FEREDE). But it also attaches great importance to its Catholicism and its independence as a Catholic, episcopal-synodical church. The question of a recognisable identity was referred to in many of the comprehensive reports given by the IERE’s parishes and missions.
Relations with other churches
One of the expressions of the IERE’s close links with other churches was its invitation to official church representatives to attend the synod as guests. Among them were Dom Jorge Pina Cabral, the recently ordained bishop of the Lusitanian Church (Anglican Communion, Portugal), and Dr. Anthony Ball, representing Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury. Dr. Ball also presented a new book by the Anglican bishop N.T. Wright called After You Believe. I represented the International Bishops’ Conference of the Union of Utrecht on behalf of Archbishop Dr. Joris Vercammen, who highlighted in his words of greeting that the Old Catholic churches and the IERE have much in common, even though we differ in our historical development and some points of formality. We are true sister churches walking together, which is why it is both important and pleasing that Bishop Carlos regularly attends the conferences of bishops from the Old Catholic churches and the Anglican Communion.
Elections and decisions
The synod elected a new standing committee, which will, with the bishop, lead the diocese and conduct the necessary business between synod meetings. Its members are Don Francisco Javier Alonso from Vigo; Don Rafael Arencón from Reus, Tarragona; and Don Ian Batey from Seville. Don Rafael Arencón, who chaired the synod discussions, was elected as Vicar General.
Elections were also held for the leadership of the Department of Evangelisation. In addition, a number of amendments to church law were passed, and it was decided to set up a diocesan cultural foundation to give financial support to projects at the diocese or parish level.
A clear ‘no’ vote was given to a motion to involve homosexual people more closely in church life and respond pastorally to their situation. The diocesan representative for women appealed for more support, especially with encouraging priests’ wives to take part in diocese activities and motivate others to do the same.
Following lengthy discussions, breaks not taken, overrunning sessions, heated debates, calming worship, differences of opinion and important decisions, the last plenary session ended shortly before midnight on 1 June. Everyone was very tired but satisfied with what had been achieved – and, in true Spanish style, then went out for dinner at a restaurant.
I look back with thanks and wish the synod a hearty ‘Prosit’ – may it benefit! Many thanks for the kind and welcoming hospitality.
Revd. Christian Edringer