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.

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Love – an Orientation

This past week the 38 Primates of the Anglican Communion met in Canterbury to engage in some controversial conversations. As a result of these painful deliberations some disciplinary “consequences” were meted out to The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the USA over its practice of sanctioning same-sex marriage without adequate consultation with the worldwide Anglican family.  This decision, along with a warning to other Anglican provinces considering a similar move (which includes the Anglican Church of Canada), is making blood boil on all sides.

When we feel chastised over something that is deeply woven into our personal and collective identities and lived reality, emotional fallout can easily blind us to Christ’s command of discipleship of love, mercy and compassion. In the midst of emotional storms it takes enormous willpower to resist our hurting heart’s desire to slide down the slopes of anger and frustration, to vilify enemies and to succumb to despair. Equally, if the stormy winds blow in our favour, making for our own smooth sailing, it takes enormous willpower to resist wallowing in smug self-righteousness and judgment, inadvertently dismissing the need for respect and dignity amidst conflict, thus blatantly betraying the need for compassion and solidarity with hurting sisters and brothers.

In the western world, we live in a socio-political cultural climate that now considers same-sex relationships as normal. Those who struggle to accept this are often considered homophobic and judgmental, deficient and grossly outdated. Such labeling can easily result in a reverse discrimination of sorts, as if relieved that the shoe’s on the other foot now. Is it still possible to engage in compassionate and respectful conversation on same-sex attraction and relationships without sliding into emotional mud-slinging or risking glib but unhelpful labels and judgments no matter what perspective is voiced?

The Anglican instinct of inclusiveness and embracing diversity is being tested severely at this time. Every denominational strength comes with its accompanying weakness. Yet it is that particular Anglican expression of discipleship that constitutes one of the Anglican gifts to the Christian family. As recently as a couple of months ago, Father Raneiro Cantalemessa, the Vatican’s papal preacher, pointed this out in his homily at the Church of England’s General Synod: The Anglican Church has a special role … . It has often defined itself as a “via media” (a Middle Way) between Roman Catholicism and Reformed Christianity. From being a “via media” in a static sense, it must now become more and more a via media in a dynamic sense, exercising an active function as a bridge between the Churches.

In the case of same-sex attraction and same-sex marriage discussions, the difference, for example, between Roman Catholic and Anglican conversations is that, while these discussions are taking place in both traditions, they occur of necessity below the radar in RC circles while they occur in the open in Anglican circles. However messy and chaotic, painful and challenging, I’d like to think there is something healthy about the open nature of such discussions.

There’s a popular quote that says, when the student is ready the teacher appears. I am in a season of spiritual learning that makes me open and deeply receptive to this Anglican inclusive and “middle” way. And so my new Anglican spirit prays fervently: can we in the Anglican expression of Christian discipleship, do better than parting ways, tolerating underground and unhealthy ecclesial discussions, or debasing ourselves by mutual mudslinging? Can we keep walking and talking together in love or will we succumb to society’s favourite sport of dismissing and labeling those who disagree with us, shutting them out of our lives? Can we foster together a spirit of mutual learning and correcting as part of our common call to holiness?

Just as none of us are innocent of sin, so none of us are outside of God’s mercy: I think we are people who, on the one hand, want to listen to Jesus, but on the other hand, at times, like to find a stick to beat others with, to condemn others. And Jesus has this message for us: mercy. I think — and I say it with humility — that this is the Lord’s most powerful message: mercy. ~ Pope Francis, March 17, 2013

Loving as Christ loves us is demanding and painful and sometimes distasteful. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, used to echo St. Teresa of Avila when she’d tell Jesus: “No wonder you have so few friends!” Yet Jesus loves each of us, sinful creatures who, by God’s crazy design, nevertheless walk around with God’s dream imprinted on our souls. Loving in Jesus’ name involves deep listening — why else do we have two ears and only one mouth? Divine loving requires living humbly and open-mindedly, patiently and graciously with everyone, but especially with those whose lives are most different from our own, never forgetting that “there for the grace of God go I.”

Back in August I wrote with great affection about my dear friend Jordan who became the new Moderator for the United Church of Canada (Holding Tension). I expressed my desire to be a bridge of reconciliation and healing, striving to grow my capacity to love. I am copying here some of those August words as we, in the Anglican Church of Canada, continue a most difficult conversation at General Synod this coming summer.

As a new Anglican, still green, I desire to take part however difficult that might be. I appreciate the weariness by many on both sides of the question and who feel that they have been discussing this “ad naseum.” Yet in a tradition that discerns over and moves in centuries, the conversation has barely begun. And it deserves the very best we can be for and with one another for the sake of the entire Christian family and for the sake of our beautiful yet broken world:

Love is an orientation, the foundational orientation: God is love, and those who live in love, live in God (1 John 4:16). Such is truth — a relationship of love: “Truth is a relationship. As such, each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life.” ~ Pope Francis

Whether we are right or wrong on the question of same-sex marriage, can we entrust this to our loving Creator and to the future? Each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life. Falling and rising, we can only do our best with what we have been given. And as far as being right or wrong: “Naming anything as prophetic is dangerous and fraught with the potential for hubris. The Spirit of God and time determine whether our acts are prophetic or corporate ego run awry.” (~ Sr. Janet Mock, LCWR 2015 Assembly)

Thanksgiving Collect for Primates 2016
January 17, 2016

Gracious God:
Your people found wisdom in the wilderness
and faced challenge in the promised land.
We give thanks for the many signs of your presence
with the leaders of your church
as they sought to discern your spirit
amid tension and conflict, humility and grace.
Sustain them as they return to their people;
renew them in mission and ministry;
comfort and encourage any who find themselves
hurt, disappointed or dismayed;
and restore the unity of your Spirit
in the bonds of our peace.
Through Christ our Lord.
Amen

Update February 8: Numerous commentaries can be found on the Primates’ Meeting by now, each revealing their ideological bent in how they perceived what happened. Among these I’ve selected one for my readers: Perspectives on the Primates Meeting

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Holding Tension

It’s not every day that I can say I know someone in the “higher ups.” But now it has happened. As coordinator for an ecumenical network of women in ministry, I have the great pleasure of knowing a wide array of incredible, faith-filled and gifted women serving Christ and his Gospel in various churches and ministries. Often I feel like sitting at their feet learning, soaking in their wisdom and beauty. One of these women, a pastor in rural Saskatchewan, has just been elected (on August 13) as the new Moderator of the United Church of Canada. I’ve had the privilege of working with Rev. Jordan Cantwell on a few ecumenical projects and have been impressed with her personality, her integrity and her giftedness.

I dare say that Jordan and I take a mutual liking to one another as women of faith and colleagues in ministry. There is, however, one area of Jordan’s life which I genuinely struggle with, and that is her sexual orientation and her marriage to another woman (sharing this fact is not violating any confidentiality, as it is fairly public). It is not that I outright condemn homosexuality, but I sincerely struggle to understand the concept of same-sex marriage from its theological, anthropological and biblical perspectives. I truly do not know what I seem unable to grasp; moreover, I find very few circles in which respectful discourse on the subject is possible without the smugness of the Christian right or me being labeled homophobic by the same-sex left, both sides lacking humility and respect.

Various parts of the world are clearly choosing to move same-sex marriage into the cultural and social mainstream. However, the Christian churches remain divided over the questions this rising tide is raising, or even resist wading into the questions, which in turn creates an insidious kind of dishonesty and shadow-world. What gives me hope that we can engage in honest and respectful conversations, however, are people like Jordan.

In a media interview a couple of days ago Jordan is quoted as saying: One of the things I bring that has been affirmed in me is an ability to hear diverse voices and hold them together and hold them with respect. There is a lot of diversity in our church and there’s a lot of diversity in our world. And I try to bring curiosity before judgment, into situations where there’s deep disagreement … I actually find that often, underneath what looks like really disparate views are some shared concerns. ~ Rev. Jordan Cantwell in The Star Phoenix, Aug. 14, 2015

Sometimes we speak of someone as being “generative.” Such a person constantly generates life and energy as opposed to draining it. When applying this to the spiritual and ecclesial realms, we can ask what makes someone mature in the areas of faith and church.  It is precisely this kind of generativity that I see in Jordan’s personality and ministry. A mature believer creates spiritual energy rather than diminishes it, even in situations of disagreement and conflict.

Living generatively, of course, is not always easy to do, especially in painful or conflictual situations. We do not live in the best of all possible universes. This is true in families, communities, and churches. We are forever caught in situations less than ideal, full of tension, and fraught with potential for every kind of strife and conflict, self-pity and bitterness.

What are we to do when this happens? Spontaneously we are tempted in one of two directions: fight or flight. To run away and distance ourselves from the tension — “This isn’t worth it!” Or, to stay, but grow bitter and resentful and become, ourselves, a centre of anger and tension while regarding anyone disagreeing with us as the enemy. Neither of these is particularly generative.

There is, however, a “third” way, and that is to help carry that situation and transform it, or as Jordan put it in the above quote “to hear diverse voices and hold them together and hold them with respect.” In this third way we neither flee nor grow bitter, nor turn those who disagree with us into enemies of the worst kind.

Would that we could learn to stand together in the tension and hold it, just like Mary did under the cross of Jesus — neither fleeing, nor bitter, nor weak. The Gospels tell us that, as Jesus was being crucified, Mary stood under the cross. What was she doing there? Overtly, it would seem, very little. She was not trying to stop the crucifixion, protest it, or even defend her son’s innocence. She did not, it appears, say anything at all;  she just remained standing. That was significant. Standing, for the Hebrews, was a position of strength. Mary did not collapse under the cross in weakness; neither, it would seem, was she bitter.

So what was she doing? I’d like to think that under the cross, Mary was helping to hold, carry, and transform the tension, bitterness, anger, and darkness of that moment. Unlike the crowd, caught up in spontaneous emotion, she did not give back in kind — anger for anger, hatred for hatred, bitterness for bitterness, an eye for an eye, unfairness for unfairness. Rather, like a water-filter that purifies bad water by taking out and holding within itself the impurities, and then giving back only the pure water, she held the anger and hatred and gave back only graciousness and love. Real transformation in any relationship — friendship, marriage, family, church, community — takes place only when we remain standing in the situation, holding within ourselves the injustice and bitterness, the misunderstanding and condemnation, not giving back in kind, but instead giving back  graciousness, blessing, and love. That, by the way, is exactly what Jesus did on the cross: return mercy for murder, forgiveness for violence.

Would that we all, for and against same-sex marriage, learn this posture in our dealings with one another. I have a long ways to go, but I sure want to be such a person, esp. with those whose life choices challenge me. I want to foster a posture of curiosity and inquiry long before resorting to judgement and condemnation. Love too is an orientation, the foundational orientation: God is love, and those who live in love, live in God (1 John 4:16). Such is truth — a relationship of love: “Truth is a relationship. As such, each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life.” ~ Pope Francis

And whether we are right or wrong on the question of same-sex marriage, let us entrust this to our loving Creator and to the future. Each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life. Falling and rising, we can only do our best with what we have been given. And as far as being right or wrong, as Sr. Janet Mock said recently, Naming anything as prophetic is dangerous and fraught with the potential for hubris. The Spirit of God and time determine whether our acts are prophetic or corporate ego run awry. (~ Sr. Janet Mock, LCWR 2015 Assembly)

The most important ambition is to foster a curious mind, a welcoming spirit and a loving heart while  asking the following questions:
• Where do we see the Holy Spirit?
• How does this action reflect God’s justice, God’s economy, God’s grace?
• Does this direction embody the truth of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture?
• How does this strengthen our relationships with one another in the church, in this country, to the land, to all our relations?
• Who is being left out/silenced? Who needs to be heard/included?
(inspired by the nomination Profile of Rev. Jordan Cantwell)

So Jordan, my friend now in the “higher ups,” welcome to the new ministry our gracious and loving God has entrusted to you. May that lovely Divine Spirit continue to stir your passion, and may you, like Solomon (who I preached on today to the Anglicans) be granted “an understanding mind, the ability to discern good from evil, and wisdom to see God in the face of your enemies.” (cf 1 Kings 3:3—14)

(A special thanks to Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI, for his thoughts on generativity, Mary and holding tension, as written in the Preface of my first book Finding the Treasure Within.)

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