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A synod historically is a council of a church, usually convened to decide an issue of doctrine, administration or application. In modern usage, the word often refers to the governing body of a particular church, whether its members are meeting or not. It is also sometimes used to refer to a church that is governed by a synod.
The word "synod" comes from the Greek "σύνοδος" (synodos) meaning "assembly" or "meeting", and it is synonymous with the Latin word "concilium" meaning "council". Originally, synods were meetings of bishops, and the word is still used in that sense in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
Sometimes the phrase "general synod" or "general council" refers to an ecumenical council. The word "synod" also refers to the standing council of high-ranking bishops governing some of the autocephalous Eastern Orthodox churches. Similarly, the day-to-day governance of patriarchal and major archiepiscopal Eastern Catholic Churches are entrusted to a permanent synod.
In Orthodox churches, synods of bishops are meetings of bishops within each autonomous Church and are the primary vehicle for the election of bishops and the establishment of inter-diocesan ecclesiastical laws.
In Roman Catholic usage, synod and council are theoretically synonymous as they are of Greek and Latin origins, respectively, both meaning an authoritative meeting of bishops for the purpose of church administration in the areas of teaching (faith and morals) or governance (church discipline or law). However in modern use, synod and council are applied to specific categories of such meetings and so do not really overlap. A synod generally meets every three years and is thus designated an "Ordinary General Assembly." However, "Extraordinary" synods can be called to deal with specific situations. There are also "Special" synods for the Church in a specific geographic area such as the one held November 16-December 12, 1997 for the Church in America.
While the words "synod" and "council" usually refer to a transitory meeting, the term "Synod of Bishops" or "Synod of the Bishops", is also applied to a permanent body established in 1965 as an advisory body of the Pope. It holds assemblies at which bishops and religious superiors, elected by bishops conferences or the Union of Superiors General or appointed by the Pope vote on proposals ("propositiones") to present for the Pope's consideration, and which in practice the Pope uses as the basis of "post-synodal apostolic exhortations" on the themes discussed. While an assembly of the Synod of Bishops thus expresses its collective wishes, it does not issue decrees, unless in certain cases the Pope authorizes it to do so, and even then an assembly's decision requires ratification by the Pope. The Pope serves as president of an assembly or appoints the president, determines the agenda, and summons, suspends, and dissolves the assembly.
Meetings of bishops in the Roman empire are known from the mid-third century and already numbered twenty by the time of the famous meeting at Nicaea (325). Thereafter they continued by the hundreds into the sixth century. Those authorized by an emperor and often attended by him came to be called ecumenical, meaning throughout the world (as the world was thought of in Western terms). Today, Council in Roman Catholic canon law typically refers to an irregular meeting of the entire episcopate of a nation, region, or the world for the purpose of legislation with binding force. Those contemplated in canon law are the following:
Plenary and provincial councils are categorized as particular councils. A particular council is composed of all the bishops of the territory (including coadjutors and auxiliaries) as well as other ecclesiastical ordinaries who head particular churches in the territory (such as territorial abbots and vicars apostolic). Each of these members has a vote on council legislation. Additionally, the following persons by law are part of particular councils but only participate in an advisory capacity: vicars general and episcopal, presidents of Catholic universities, deans of Catholic departments of theology and canon law, some major superiors elected by all the major superiors in the territory, some rectors of seminaries elected by the rectors of seminaries in the territory, and two members from each cathedral chapter, presbyterial council, or pastoral council in the territory (can. 443). The convoking authority can also select other members of the faithful (including the laity) to participate in the council in an advisory capacity.
Meetings of the entire episcopate of a supra-national region have historically been called councils as well, such as the various Councils of Carthage in which all the bishops of North Africa were to attend.
Synods in Eastern Rite Catholic Churches are similar to synods in Orthodox churches in that they are the primary vehicle for election of bishops and establishment of inter-diocesan ecclesiastical laws. The term synod in Latin Rite canon law, however, refers to meetings of a representative, thematic, non-legislative (advisory) or mixed nature or in some other way do not meet the qualifications of a "council." Examples include:
National episcopal conferences are another development of the Second Vatican Council. They are permanent bodies consisting of all the Latin rite bishops of a nation and those equivalent to diocesan bishops in law (i.e. territorial abbots). Bishops of other sui juris churches and papal nuncios are not members of episcopal conferences by law, though the conference itself may invite them in an advisory or voting capacity (can. 450).
While councils (can. 445) and diocesan synods (can. 391 & 466) have full legislative powers in their areas of competence, national episcopal conferences may only issue supplementary legislation when authorized to do so in canon law or by decree of the Holy See. Additionally, any such supplemental legislation requires a two-thirds vote of the conference and review by the Holy See (can. 455) to have the force of law. Without such authorization and review, episcopal conferences are deliberative only and exercise no authority over their member bishops or dioceses.
In the Anglican Communion, synods are elected by clergy and laity. In most Anglican churches, there is a geographical hierarchy of synods, with General Synod at the top; bishops, clergy and laity meet as "houses" within the synod.
Diocesan synods are convened by a bishop in his or her diocese, and consist of elected clergy and lay members.
In Lutheran traditions a synod can be on the one hand (e.g. in North America) an administrative region or entire church body or on the other hand (e.g. in Europe) a legislative body on different levels of the church administration.
A few Lutheran churches, such as the Church of Sweden or the Evangelical Regional Church in Württemberg, allow for the formation of political parties (also known as nominating groups (Swedish: Nomineringsgrupper, church party or colloquy circle (German: Kirchenpartei or Gesprächskreis)) to nominate candidates for the Synod as a legisaltion; it is an extension of the idea of multi-ideological democracy within the church. Also the former Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union, comprising besides mostly Lutheran also some Reformed and United Protestant congregations, had church parties in its presbyterial and synodal elections.
In the Presbyterian system of church governance the synod is a level of administration between the local presbytery and the national general assembly. Some denominations use the synod, such as the Presbyterian Church in Canada, Uniting Church in Australia, and the Presbyterian Church USA. However some other churches do not use the synod at all, and the Church of Scotland dissolved its synods in 1993, see List of Church of Scotland synods and presbyteries.
In Swiss and southern German Reformed churches, where the Reformed churches are organized as regionally defined independent churches (such as Evangelical Reformed Church of Zurich or Reformed Church of Berne), the synod corresponds to the general assembly of Presbyterian churches. In Reformed churches, the synod can denote a regional meeting of representatives of various classes (regional synod), or the general denominational meeting of representatives from the regional synods (general or national synod). Some churches, especially the smaller denominations, do not have the regional synod tier (for example, the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS)).
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the vast majority of Protestant denominations have regrouped under a religious institution named the Church of Christ in Congo or CCC, often referred to - within the Congo - simply as The Protestant Church. In the CCC structure, the national synod is the general assembly of the various churches that constitutes the CCC. From the Synod is drawn an Executive Committee, and a secretariat. There are also synods of the CCC in every province of the Congo, known appropriately as provincial synods. The CCC regroups 62 Protestant denominations.
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