Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Marks of Discernment

As recently announced, Blessed Sacrament is beginning a process of discernment regarding its place in the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion. Twenty-one people have volunteered to serve on the Discernment Committee, which will first gather on Monday, February 26, at 7:30 p.m. Before the Committee meets, I will share some reflections on what I think discernment means, the situation we face, and how our Committee will work.

The Nature of Discernment
Whenever you ask for discernment, it means you haven’t made up your mind first. It means genuinely asking for and earnestly seeking the will of God. Discernment requires setting human noise aside and listening for the will of God. In complex matters, discernment is not normally done by one person alone but in a community, even when discernment is about an individual’s direction. Going to a community requires humility and charity, and this is a pattern that God has set.

I do not think that God makes discernment a game, nor does he play hide and seek. At the same time, for complex questions he does not provide us with simple answers such as those a fortune teller might give. People must take the questioning process seriously, which includes making the commitment truly to seek the will of God without prejudice or fear of cost or consequences.

Even before we begin, we must realize that the will of God is already generally revealed in things we know and have at hand: Scripture, Tradition, the history of the Church in which the fruits of others’ choices are evident, and so forth. We must depend on these sources first. Because of clear teaching here, I’ve taught for years during the struggles in the Episcopal Church that one neither changes the faith nor breaks the Church—i.e., one must avoid both heresy and schism. Calling the parish into discernment does not mean that I’m not backing off from that teaching; rather, it means that figuring out what to do becomes more complicated when the Church itself is under threat of fragmenting beyond one’s control, and I believe it is time to involve others in the process.

The Liberal and Conservative Traditions
Most of us have described the sides involved in the issues as liberal/conservative or similar terms. I think these descriptions are basically true, but they fall short and do not do justice to the reality behind what they describe. I think that most folks understand this, so I’ll continue to use those terms, but advisedly.

Although many conservatives appear to believe that the big problems we face are because liberals are in charge of the Episcopal Church, I don’t think so. The liberal and conservative traditions are both vital for the well-being of the household of God and the proclamation and living of Gospel truth. They have existed from the earliest days of the people of God, when the Hebrew tribes first took possession of the Holy Land.

Liberals strive to uphold love as the primary focus of the Gospel. They value “inclusion”, “acceptance of all”, “justice”, “making a home for the outcast”, and “making the Church and the Gospel relevant and timely for all people”. These positions are definitely authentic to the Gospel. But the besetting sin of such a position is departure from discipline and failure to call people to change for the better. When these positions are taken at the cost of the Biblical and historic understanding of the Faith, then this viewpoint has become unbalanced. It leads to division, outrage among others in the Church, and controversy. Whenever someone emphasizes love at the expense of truth, then something is wrong.

Conservatives strive to uphold truth as the primary focus of the Gospel. They want to uphold the doctrines the Church has accepted as authoritative, traditional moral standards, and so forth. These positions are also definitely authentic to the Gospel. But the besetting sin of such a position is rigidity, judgmentalism, and threats of separation. When these positions are taken at the cost of the Biblical and historic understanding of love and charity, then this viewpoint has become unbalanced. It also leads to division, outrage among others in the Church, and controversy. Whenever someone emphasizes truth at the expense of love, then again, something is wrong.

These two traditions provide mutual correctives, but only when adherents of both traditions live in charity, honor truth, and seek the common good. Both sides, when they stop listening to one another, become arrogant and self-righteous, rigid and judgmental. This usually happens when the balance between the traditions is tipped, as we see in our own day and have seen many times in the past. Here, I think, one may put the finger on what the real problem in the Episcopal Church is. On both sides, there are those who are guilty of arrogance, divisiveness, and even viciousness. This is very sad, and most definitely not the Gospel.

The comments I made to Diocesan Convention on December 1 and subsequently posted here (see my blogpost “Winner Take Nothing” http://johnonefive.blogspot.com/2006/12/winner-take-nothing.html) garnered a lot of support from both liberals and conservatives. Everyone from a liberal point of view who has made any comment has done so constructively and generously. Most of those from a conservative or traditional point of view agreed with what I wrote whole-heartedly and added praise, but there were some who showed a decided hard-heartedness and willingness to criticize and lambaste.

Many conservatives are astounded at how liberals so easily set aside ancient truths come to by consensus, but after nearly thirty-three years in the priesthood I am still amazed at how many who come down firmly on the side of truth play so loose and fast with facts, attack those that are on “their side”, and are so deficient in love. Many highly-rated conservative blogs and similar news engines do not hold back much from name-calling and publicizing rumors. This slant does not serve God nor the Gospel, and I will not take such an approach.

History shows that an age when the liberal/conservative balance has been undone is usually an age in which prophecy becomes more influential. When consensus and charity are lost, a sole persuasive voice can be heard more clearly. The prophetic voice in the household of God has never been the majority voice—it has been the lone voice, or one of very few, in a time when the balance between liberal and conservative had been lost. Very often the prophets were ignored or persecuted in their own time, but their words were remembered and valued—and effective—later.

So when one doesn’t have the votes, there is still moral persuasion. There is the possibility of true prophecy, i.e. where one can say, “This is the Word of the Lord”, whether by inspiration or humble appeal. Even as many conservative voices, people and congregations, have departed from the Episcopal Church, the voice of Blessed Sacrament has become increasingly influential. I don’t know if we can be called “prophetic,” but many in the liberal camp of the Diocese of Los Angeles have made it a point to tell me how important my witness has been and is, and how they have been impacted by it. More than once my voice has been asked for. More and more our lay people likewise are finding the same experience as they participate in deanery or diocesan events.

Our Axioms
Our Discernment Committee will begin with a number of givens.

During the time of discernment, the Committee will be prayed for regularly in the parish and beyond.

We will assume that God is not pulling his hair out. We will assume that all is being worked into his plan. The question is not whether his will is going to be done, but what part we will have in achieving it. We will have no fear. No anger. No name-calling. No violation of the rules. No failure in charity. We will have the assurance that all shall be well.

We will not do our discernment secretly, i.e. without letting anybody know and not involving others, and then springing a big “surprise” on the authorities. This is not discernment. Shortly after our Annual Meeting when I called for the formation of a Discernment Committee, I wrote a thorough letter to Bishop Bruno about our course. He got in touch with me very quickly to express his support. Indeed, I first expressed to him my own and the parish’s concerns last August when the Vestry (church board) and I met with him for a frank exchange. He was entirely supportive then and suggested several workable options that we will take seriously.

The Committee will be charged to keep the bishop informed and invite him or his delegate to assist us in the discernment. We will invite noted liberals in our own area to assist us in the discernment. In short, we will do our best to set a model for true discernment by keeping lines of communication open, avoiding all rumors, etc. Discernment is nearly impossible if you only talk with people who agree with you.

We will be patient and confident. Jesus and the disciples were caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee, and the disciples were frightened that they were going to be lost. Jesus rightly rebuked them with the words, “have you no faith?” The committee will not be given a fixed timetable since we don’t yet know precisely what they will need to do. They will conclude their work when it is finished.

We will accept no secular answers. Whatever others may do or have done, both liberal and conservative, we believe that when Scripture forbids lawsuits among believers, we will take this as authoritative.

Should we conclude that there needs to be some kind of distancing from the Episcopal Church, we will minimize all degrees of separation to make reconciliation as easy as possible when the time comes. Indeed, Bishop Bruno has already offered us more than I would have asked for.

The Primates’ Meeting
The Primates of the Anglican Communion met in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania from February 14 to 19. Among other issues, they dealt with the problems caused within the Communion by the Episcopal Church’s recent controversial actions. Two important statements were issued, both of which are extremely significant for the deliberations of our parish’s Discernment Committee.

They were released less than 24 hours ago, and I have only skimmed both of them so far, but from what I have gleaned, I am cautiously optimistic. It appears that there is a lot of wisdom in them and even some direction for a fruitful way forward. Also, in spite of a lot of “Anglicanese” about nobody exercising authority over anyone else, etc., there is more than a hint of some teeth in the statements. This, plus the record of our own bishop who has repeatedly shown a willingness to work with us in a powerful spirit of cooperation, bodes well for our Committee’s task.

This is a time of testing. Will we hold the course? Will we hold to truth, to love, to patience, to the desire for holiness? I believe that we will.

At Blessed Sacrament we will not fall into heresy. We will not go into schism. We will not dilute the truth. We will not fail in love. These are our standards and holding to them over the years has borne abundant fruit. The discernment process will soon be formalized. We will follow it thoroughly, peacefully, charitably, patiently, Scripturally. There may be others who have done it the way we plan to do it, but I do not know of them. I know a good number who have done it in a very far from ideal method that has produced rancor, self-righteousness, and bitterness, and have caused great harm and hurt to many people, both liberal and conservative.

To summarize: a wonderful young lady at Blessed Sacrament named Joi wrote about these issues recently and expressed her thoughts concisely and poignantly: “Dilution of truth? Never. Absence of charity? God forbid.”

This about says everything that anyone needs to know and follow if we are to be faithful in these interesting times. Joi came to Blessed Sacrament half a dozen years ago and said then, “I came because I found truth and love there. I still do.” Come what may, may she never find otherwise.


Sarah said...

I can't help but wonder at your description of those you call "liberal" as exercising an overabundance of love. On the outside, they do seem to be for tolerance, inclusion, and loving the outcast. However, that doesn't seem to be how they act, particularly toward those you call "conservative." Their attitudes and actions (particularly over the past several years but not limited to that) seem to say that they do not want to tolerate (under any definition of the word!) or include the conservatives, nor do they love them any more when they are outcast. Blessed Sacrament, for instance, did not receive any special attention from them when it was basically an outcast church in the Diocese of LA. I wonder if their call to love is anything more than something that covers and facilitates their own greed and lust for power. Even if it is genuine from their perception, to be truly genuine it seems to need to include the conservatives in those loved.

Becoming Ourselves

Father David said...

Thanks for the comment, Sarah. I totally agree with you, and hope (and think) that that's what I said in a different way.

Jerry Olson said...

Father David...Yes I agree with you that scripture and tradition are basic to the discernment process, but as an Episcopalian I would like to add REASON.It's the old three legged stool approach but has always been one that has worked for a majority of serious Episcoplaians.....Jerry Olson, Calvary Episcopal Church, Columbia, Mo

Joi said...

I found a great quote today that made me think of this: "There are many ideals for which I would give my life.
There are no ideals for which I would give my soul,
strangling it through a lack of charity towards those who disagree."

Giving credit where credit is due: http://holywhapping.blogspot.com/2004_06_01_archive.html#108688583418418328