Discernment Challenges

Slowly, though reluctantly, it seems that the Anglican Communion is choosing ecclesial unity rather than division over the question of same-sex marriage, at least for now. The Anglican Church in New Zealand recently postponed their decision on the question, citing too much painful division on the horizon should it sanction same-sex unions as a marriage. The Church of Scotland has opened the door cautiously to studying the question. Both the Church of England and the Anglican Church of Canada will engage the same question next month but report deep divisions in their ranks. This seems to leave The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the USA as the only Anglican body having definitively changed the Marriage Canon to eliminate the one-man, one-woman clause.

What to make of this? Having only recently moved into the Anglican family, I am a new participant in this highly charged conversation. I confess my own struggle, not necessarily with same-sex partnerships, but with calling such partnerships marriage. And in light of the Orlando massacre which deliberately targeted LGBTQ women and men, I run the risk of being perceived as unsupportive of this vulnerable group suffering grave injustice and discrimination.

But nothing could be further from the truth. As a lover and disciple of Jesus committed to living my life in his footsteps,  I desire fullness of life (John 10:10) not just for myself but for all God’s people. And so I struggle ever more deeply, between authentic compassion and care in Jesus’ name (which Scott Sauls articulates so poignantly in his blog), vital in this time of profound grief in the LGBTQ community, and long-standing cherished understandings of marriage and sexuality.

Along the way I’ve become all too familiar with painful discernment challenges. When faced with difficult decisions and moral dilemmas in my personal life, I often have to take several big steps back from the situation in order to re-frame, rethink and reorient so as to discover a new angle or two. St. Ignatius’ recommendation to foster healthy detachment is an arduous task yet in the long run one well-worth pursuing.

When caught in a discernment dilemma, I make every effort to root my spirit in prayer and meditation, while engaging a trusted and seasoned mentor in my quest, all with the purpose of seeking Christ’s wisdom and light through the lens of Holy Scripture and the tradition of the Church. That wisdom and light requires ruthless self-examination through piercing, painful, questions such as:
1. What am I not seeing? What are my blind spots? Odd question, because as soon as I can see the blind spot, it’s no longer a blind spot.  🙂
2. What assumptions or emotional baggage prevent me from seeing in a new light?
3. Why does the direction/decision remain so unclear or conflicted or resistant?
4. What motivates the unclarity and resistance: negative energy arising from fear or ignorance, unresolved baggage or false attachments; or positive energy arising from genuine concern and important caution, from a deeper hunger for justice than the presenting issue portrays, from the loving desire to do the right thing?
5. Why does the current framing of my dilemma create unfocused energy and struggle?
6. What in the opposite perspective do I need to hear, heed and honour?
7. What is the delay in clarity telling me?

I remember more than once, when I have desperately wanted to forge ahead in an important decision while trying hard to ignore the muddle in my own mind and heart, as well as the ambiguous rationale in Scripture. Each time a wise mentor would hear me out and finally, carefully and gently, would say: “When the road ahead is not clear, it’s not time to decide. In that case, wait for the clarity.” I would groan, hating the answer, but knew enough to admit, with great reluctance, that my friend and mentor was probably right.

The prophet Habakkuk experienced this very thing:
I will stand at my watch-post, and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision; make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay. (Hab. 2:1–4)

If it seems to tarry, wait for it. Given the collective Anglican foot dragging over the controversial question on same-sex marriage, I wonder if it might help to take a few similar big steps back. For those who have been part of this conversation for nearly an entire generation and whose lives are directly impacted in adverse ways by this delay, this will be an exasperating suggestion. For those who realize (with or without chagrin) the slow pace of change in a 2,000-year old ecclesial body, this stepping back again and again is simply part of the sorting and sifting in the Holy Spirit’s orbit.

For discernment is much more demanding and time-consuming than debating and voting. Good discernment presupposes goodwill in every participant, our commitment to let God heal our hurts, harness our ego, and free us from false attachments and fear. Discernment can require stepping back and waiting over and over again, until the mist begins to lift. Discernment requires deep listening and heeding of all voices in light of Scripture, Tradition and Reason/Experience — the much beloved three-legged Anglican stool.

A close companion to good discernment is dialogue.  I am learning much from Andrew Marin who says, I am more concerned with working towards dialogue that actually promotes a shift in social engagement and relations than standing on one side yelling at the other to change. This past January, Angus Ritchie said something similar in his article,  “The pursuit of truth and the pursuit of unity do not represent a zero-sum game, because of the importance of dialogue in discerning the truth. The debates which continue to rage on these issues remind us that we need one another’s perspectives. Each “side” in this dispute has something to say which the other needs to hear – a fact that is possible to recognize without hedging one’s bets.

Discernment presses counter-intuitive questions. In the current issue on same-sex marriage, such questions could include:
* Is it possible, heaven forbid, that those who resist defining same-sex partnerships as marriage have something worthwhile to speak into the question?
* Does such reluctance necessarily originate in ignorant, homophobic attitudes and motives, or in unacknowledged sexual hang-ups?
* Can the reluctance to ecclesial sanction of same-sex marriage arise from healthy, prayerful consideration, from genuine and justified caution and from a place of radical love?
* What is at stake in the proposed changes?
* What are we not seeing or hearing, because our own pain and desire clouds our ability to see and hear?
* Is the current ecclesial tension and division generative or problematic, i.e. a fruit of the Spirit or an obstacle to the Spirit?
* What in the experience and perspective of the other does each of us need to hear and grapple with?

The Scriptural grounding for the concept of a permanent same-sex relationship to be on par with marriage seems tenuous. Yet we cannot dismiss the experience, desire and witness of persons with same-sex orientation nor can we dismiss the possibility that something new is emerging in God’s economy of love through their presence in our Christian communities. More specifically, how can the unique potential blessing of a same-sex covenant be affirmed as an expression of God’s justice, love and mercy while at the same time honouring the integrity of the traditional and nearly universal understanding of marriage? Does the Marriage Commission Report This Holy Estate strive to open a space for another, third, way of considering the matter (par. 5.3.3)?

Are we willing, once again, to lay aside rhetoric and polarizing terms, own feelings of pain, fear and frustration, and increase efforts to listen deeply to one another yet again? Michael Coren recently wrote an article published by the United Church Observer, in which he admits that many who cannot in good conscience endorse same-sex unions as marriage are “loving followers of Christ who do enormous amounts of good work in numerous areas.” In New Zealand, a new Working Group on the subject is urged to  “constantly come back to the conservatives, to be sure that the recommendations are acceptable to them.”

In a few weeks, it is our turn as Anglicans in Canada to engage once again the painful questions. Spiritual maturity requires the questions and the deep listening in community in a safe space shielded from political pressure. It will not be easy. Yet we did not choose one another: God chose us to be Christ’s witnesses in the world, together.

The Anglican instinct to keep walking together in love is demanding, yet reflects poignantly the Gospel imperative to carry one another’s burdens and grow spiritual bonds of affection as the one Body of our Lord. I pray for the grace of charity and mercy in all conversation partners. And for the grace to remember: if the vision seems to tarry, do not lose heart. Wait for it.

Prairie Encounters

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