P ope Francis’ planned three-day visit to South Sudan starting on Friday will be focused primarily on restoring peace to that troubled land. He will be accompanied by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Dr Iain Greenshields, so there is a big ecumenical subtext to his visit. But not just as an example of peace between Christian denominations formerly in conflict.

Francis has embarked on a renewal of Catholic theory and practice concerning the role of the laity in church affairs, under the broad heading of “synodality”. And both Dr Welby and Dr Greenshields lead Churches that have long experience in this field. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, with substantial lay involvement, is the governing body of that Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury is ex officio one of the two presidents of the General Synod of the Church of England, whose lay members play a full part in decision-making over church policy.

The process the Pope has launched sees the concept of synodality in a different way to the Church of England, which was mainly seeking to free itself from parliamentary control. But some issues are similar, not least how to reconcile the authority of bishops regarding church discipline and teaching with the right of lay members to be listened to, including in the formation and application of those rules and teaching.

From the Catholic side it may seem there is a theological

ambivalence about the goal of the synodality process and what shape it might take, even what principles it ought to embody. It is accepted, at least outside very conservative Catholic circles, that the Holy Spirit “bloweth where it listeth”, which means the Spirit acts through all of the People of God. As John Henry Newman noted, once the laity even corrected heretical tendencies in bishops embracing Arianism.

There is one authoritative source that needs to be far better known beyond the English-speaking world – the final statement on authority in the Church issued by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) in 1989. The basic approach of The Gift of Authority: Authority in the Church III is that a well ordered Church should find the right balance between what it calls primacy, an obvious reference to the role of the Bishop of Rome, and the synodal principle, which it calls conciliarity – “a recognition that because of their baptism and their participation in the sensus fidelium the laity plays an integral part in decision-making in the Church”. Conciliarity is not aside from episcope, but contained within it as two complementary principles, including papal primacy.

This does not quite answer the pressing question of what structures the Catholic Church needs in order to make synodality a living reality rather than just a theory. But it sets the criteria for such structures. And the Pope’s synodal reform increasingly needs some meaningful idea of its final goals rather than just following the right process towards them.



T he difference between offensive and defensive warfare is at the heart of the German dilemma over supplying tanks to Ukraine. Germany is the principal manufacturer of heavy battle tanks for itself and its Nato allies, and an estimated 2,000 of the Leopard 2 models are stored in warehouses all over the continent. Ukraine has asked for 300 modern Western tanks to upgrade its fleet of Soviet-era Russian-made versions, and Britain is the only country so far to respond, offering 14 of its Challenger 2s. Challengers and Leopards, military experts say, would enable the Ukrainians to break through Russian defensive lines.

Nato, with German nervousness in mind, has so far equipped Ukrainian forces with modern weapons to help it defend itself, but has been wary of offering artillery and rockets that could potentially reach behind Russian frontlines in order to force a retreat. That suggests that Nato strategy is implicitly working towards a military stalemate, to persuade the Russian leadership that it is in an unwinnable war. But that is not what the Ukrainian government is seeking. It wants to drive Russia’s forces back across the border as it was 10 years ago, expelling them from Donbas and Crimea. For that it would need a substantial force of modern tanks.

Ukraine has international law on its side, as Russia is clearly the aggressor. But this solution does not address the original cause of the conflict. Vladimir Putin’s dream was to recreate the ancient land of Rus, with a subservient Ukraine free of

Western-leaning ideas such as democracy or membership of Nato and the European Union. As a first step he wished to exploit the presence of a large Russian-speaking population in Crimea and eastern Donbas, many of them loyal to Moscow rather than to Kyiv. This is the issue that the restoration of Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders would not address.

A lasting peace agreement would have to find a solution, even if Russian forces had been driven out. It may be impossible for Putin to accept any settlement, in which case constructive ideas to restore peace to the region may have to wait upon his replacement. But that possibility might be stronger if other Russian leaders could see a way out of the southern and eastern Ukrainian swamp into which he has dragged their army, where it is bleeding to death, waiting for modern tanks to decimate it further.

The behaviour of Russian forces in the land it has occupied has been so appallingly brutal that it will take generations for the bitterness to subside. Nevertheless, there may be parallels with other zones of conflict that are at the bottom a clash of identities, with religion a significant factor, such as Northern Ireland. Sovereignty clearly belongs to Ukraine, and the use of modern tanks to reclaim it cannot be condemned. But Russia-leaning communities and followers of the Moscow Orthodox patriarchate have a right to live in these territories and to be who they say they are. And the recognition of that would have to be part of any eventual peace deal.