It’s been an interesting process, over the last few weeks, for me to have been involved in a number of conversations where the focus has been on discernment … conversations with colleagues in different roles, in different places, with different responsibilities, about different issues and regarding different possibilities.
Sexuality and marriage in the Uniting Church is one such topic. The proposal which was accepted by a strong majority decision of the Assembly back in July affirmed that “within the Uniting Church there is a diversity of religious beliefs and ethical understandings, developed through continuing faithful discernment and held with integrity on matters relating to sexuality and marriage”.
This decision set a new pathway for those members of the Uniting Church who are committed to marrying couples of the same gender, whilst at the same time providing a strongly supportive appreciation of the traditional view advocated by members of the Uniting Church across the country. And I think the use of language by the Assembly is quite significant: an earlier reference to convictions was replaced with a statement about discernment. For it is with the ongoing process of discernment that we have all been called to engage.
The decision by the Assembly demonstrates how the process of discernment can lead us, collectively, to a new place of understanding and relationship with one another. What we have done is discern that there is a range of perspectives, a spectrum of theological positions, within our midst.
However, there are other matters besides marriage and sexuality which have been in focus for me in a range of conversations over recent weeks. And discernment has been required in each of them.
So I have been thinking of late, about what is involved in the process of discernment.
Discernment means figuring out the best course of action and identifying the wisest way ahead; it means clarifying the most sensible thing to do. Discernment means working out the clearest way of responding to an opportunity that arises or an invitation that someone else offers or a sense of “I’ve got to …” that burbles up from the inside.
Discernment takes place through talking sensitively and debating vigorously, as well as through listening carefully and praying intentionally. It means stepping up to meet a challenge, as well as sitting back to listen carefully to the possibilities. It means asking the right questions as well as considering carefully the answers that are provided.
Discernment takes place by collecting data from a wide range of sources and exploring strategies with a number of variables factored in. It means being prepared to test options, to review and redevelop scenarios, to identify the key markers and sketch out the best and most suited plans. It entails a willingness to be stretched as well as a desire to consolidate.
Discernment requires that we connect honestly with our emotions and know “how we are feeling” about the possibilities; it means engaging seriously with our minds, so that we carefully think through the pathway ahead; and when it is done well and robustly, it means making commitments which, although informed by data and planning, are commitments which are undertaken in faith and with hope.
Discernment. It’s a strange word and can be an unsettling process. It’s a necessity of life, however—especially in the church, where we say we want to be open to the leading of God’s spirit and sensitive to the call of God on our lives. It can be scary, but also envigorating. It can feel exhausting, but can also be energising. Discernment.