Wednesday, 16 January 2019

The Sanctity of Discernment?

Photograph of a wooden bench in a Quaker meeting room. Other benches are visible in the background, and the sun shines through windows further in the background.
A bench in the Meeting House at Scattergood Friends School,
Iowa. Photo by David Morris, used under CC-BY 2.0 license.
Discernment, the process of making decisions or otherwise being guided by the Spirit (usually through the Quaker Business Method), is extremely important to Quakers. It is probably the most significant practical application of faith among liberal Friends – our faith that we will be guided, our faith that we have faithfully discerned that guidance. In both a practical and emotional sense, it is one of the most fundamental cornerstones of our faith tradition.
It is also, though we may hate to admit it, a source of difficulty. For if a decision or statement, a determination or a course of action, is based on divine guidance, who can gainsay it?
Yet is something, once discerned, settled for all time? Plainly not, or the history of our Religious Society could not be as it is. And indeed, two Meetings might be approaching the same question at the same time, be in very similar traditions, even be part of the same Yearly Meeting – or even some closer association, such as Local Meetings in the same Area Meeting, in the organisational structure of Britain Yearly Meeting, or Monthly Meetings in the same Quarter as some other Yearly Meetings arrange things. They might be close neighbours in close accord on many things, both faithfully follow our business method regarding the same question, and reach different conclusions. How can this not call into question our faith – our trust in this process, in the guidance of the Spirit – indeed, call it into question at its very foundations?
We may even find, within one Meeting, that some part of the Meeting, some committee, say, or one Local Meeting within an Area Meeting, has come to some decision by a process of discernment, and yet that discernment is not accepted as authoritative by the rest of the Meeting, or at least by some other part of it. It has been known for a Meeting to break fellowship with its Yearly Meeting due to collective disagreement, as determined through discernment via the Quaker business method, with some decision of the Yearly Meeting as a whole.
Yet we are also familiar with the idea that discernment will be checked by further discernment. The ideal process of a concern being taken up nationally in Britain Yearly Meeting happens in this way – a Friend brings their concern to their Local Meeting, who, should they recognise it, may pass it on the their Area Meeting if they feel it should be handled on a basis with wider remit than a Local Meeting. The Area Meeting may then pass it on to Meeting for Sufferings, but their discernment in so doing is rarely simply a matter of determining whether the concern can be most appropriately pursued at the Area level. They do not usually duplicate the testing of the Local Meeting, though it has been known to happen; rather, they ensure that the testing has happened, and try to understand it, so as to better understand the concern.
Similarly, a committee of a Meeting will, following discernment, often come up with a plan. They may lack the authority to enact the plan, and bring it to their appointing Meeting. They should not do so by saying “this is our discernment; it is God's will, so you must allow us to do it”; in most cases, say a premises committee with a plan for an extension to a Meeting House, or even to make significant rearrangements to a garden, Friends would react to this with negative responses ranging from discomfort to outright outrage. Where a committee has authority to take actions, of course, their discernment is simply reported to the appointing Meeting as a matter of good practice, rather than to propose action. Where they have the authority, but their discernment hasn't been entirely clear, they may bring the matter to the wider Meeting for consultation, but the decision may well still lie with the committee in question.
How is it, then, that we believe our discernment has benefited from divine guidance, that we have discerned “the will of God” (for those who think of it in that way), if we need to check, if we can be gainsaid by further discernment? With a simple understanding of the theology of discernment, it seems complex, even contradictory, but really it is not. However, like most areas of liberal Quaker theology, there are lots of different ways of thinking of it, depending on your particular theological bent. Here are a few ways to think about it – each presented in a way that will hopefully make sense in the context of a range of different theological bases.
The first, and most obvious explanation, is that whether or not we consider that the Divine is infallible, we are obviously fallible. It has long been our experience that our discernment is improved by having hearts and minds prepared, and the ‘minds’ part of that saying means, among other things, having all of the information we need, all the information available to us that will be useful. Discernment is not as miraculous as descriptions of it may seem; we are not starting cold and seeing what God tells us to do. We do all we can to be able to make the decision, and let the Spirit guide us as we do so. Sometimes we manage to make decisions on sparse information that turn out to be well-founded once we have more information, to be sure, but most of the time the information we have is vital. Therefore our own fallibility can be compounded by the fallibility of the information we are working on. Ultimately, this means that not only does our fallibility mean that it's perfectly plausible that a future discernment will differ from an earlier one – because try as we might, follow our methods as faithfully as we can, we can get things wrong – but another discernment may have better information. Where we have discerned a way forward, but get new information, it is in no way sacrilegious or disrespectful of the earlier discernment to revisit it. That applies equally if another group did the initial discernment.
There is also the question of authority. Our different Meetings, committees, and other groups and groupings, have authority to consider different matters. A committee will have some responsibility and authority delegated to it by the appointing Meeting(s), but for other things in its area of interest it will be expected to return to the appointing Meeting with a proposal that is the result of discernment, and submit it to the wider Meeting's discernment for further decision. It may even be a range of options. This is a very good practice for a number of reasons, not least the matter of the thorny question of “double discernment”. The question that the committee asks the Spirit's aid in answering is not “what should we do”, but “what should we propose”. It is far from ridiculous to suppose there are times when the Spirit guides us to propose something that it will ultimately lead us to reject, even where one supposes a flawless, omniscient guide, because sometimes the Spirit is leading us on a journey, rather than leading us to a destination. It may be important for the Meeting to consider a proposal that it will ultimately reject, in order to learn or experience something. It may be the right way for a wider group of Friends to understand why something shouldn't happen.
I might even go further, though I suspect I am treading further into territory that will get me funny looks. I suspect that, where a committee or other group is asking the Spirit a question that is beyond their authority, it will guide them in a way that is consistent with the authority that they do have. It might, at first, seem reluctant – if I may anthropomorphise – to cooperate, or it might seem like business as usual, but if all you should be discerning is a proposal to the larger Meeting, that may be what it will guide you to. And even if you present it to the wider Meeting as a fully discerned decision, it may lead them to receive it as a proposal. Indeed, I suspect that this may even happen where a committee has been granted authority that it should not have been granted.
Indeed, this idea that we might be truly led to a “wrong” decision in order that we might learn by it and find the “right” decision can apply without there being two separate venues, two different bodies making the decisions. We may find one Meeting led a long way down a path, in the quiet conviction of well-run, clear discernment, only to find the Spirit (and perhaps circumstances) slamming on the brakes and sending us down another route. People use the expression “God moves in mysterious ways” sometimes to hand-wave good people having bad luck, but truly the Spirit does sometimes move us in mysterious ways. What we learn, how we grow through the process can be as important, perhaps even more important than the eventual outcome.
These principles are especially shown in our – Britain Yearly Meeting's – system of testing and adopting concerns. An individual, perhaps with support from a small group, discerns a leading. They bring it to their Local Meeting, that tests that discernment. At the least, they may recognise the concern, agreeing that it is a true leading. They may adopt it as a concern of the Meeting, putting resources into it and getting more Friends involved in acting on it. They may not do that, but still agree to support the concern in some way other than simply recognising it. If they discern that it is something that should be acted on at a wider level, they will pass it on to their Area Meeting for further discernment. The process is repeated, and just occasionally the Area Meeting may disagree with whatever the Local Meeting has already done (though what should happen in that case is, frankly, unclear and ambiguous). More often, they send it back to say, essentially, “well, that's all very well, but what are you suggesting we do?”. If it gets over those hurdles, it may be adopted by the Area Meeting as a concern of the whole area, or it may be passed on up again (to Meeting for Sufferings), or both. Some major goings-on in the Yearly Meeting happened, I understand, partly due to Sufferings receiving concern-related Minutes from several AMs on the same subject (though not always agreeing with one another about them).
It is also vital to understand that the leadings of the Spirit are given to particular people or groups, at particular times. They are messages and guidance for those people, at those times – and perhaps, but not necessarily, for other people, or for some time to come. They are given in their contexts, and a clear leading to avoid involvement in some matter might be right for one place and time, and wrong in another. A Meeting might be led not to work openly against some injustice due to the risk it would pose to those in their community – or because there are others who are better placed to do certain work. My Local Meeting has a fairly long-running concern for the Living Wage, and I don't doubt the validity of that leading, but that doesn't mean other Meetings are wrong for not acting on a similar leading.
Even for general things that a whole Yearly Meeting might come to unity on, they might stand with no inkling of changing for a hundred years and then change in what seems the blink of an eye. They might be something that we wrestle with almost as soon as the ink is dry on the minute, and change our stand on after much soul-searching and, perhaps, recrimination after just a few years. The world changes, we change, and just as we may need a series of different leadings to lead us through a process of growth and change, so will the guidance of the Spirit change to fit the changes in both ourselves and in the wider world.
I suppose, with all that said, I should sum up in some way. So here it is… Don't take discernment lightly. It's a serious business, and discernment done properly always carries weight. But it's not something that can't be gainsaid. It's not set in stone, and it should never, never be used as a club to force through one committee's view. Be mindful of the responsibilities of different groups, and the responsibility of the Meeting in general to oversee everything in general. We create committees so that work gets done, so some Friends focus on certain things, not to set some Friends above others or give them authority. All human authority in our Meetings flows from the Meeting; all true authority flows from the Divine, but in establishing our gospel order we recognise that the practice of discerning where that authority will take us is also subject to that structure. The whole Meeting has, in a practical sense, ultimate authority for all the work of the Meeting. Sometimes the world outside has trouble seeing it that way – but that's a subject for another day.
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