Guidelines for Communal Discernment: A Critique
by Viola Larson
Reading the Guidelines for Communal Discernment, a resource for the 218 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), I am reminded of C.S. Lewis's Narnia book, The Silver Chair. In that story Prince Rilian, Jill, Scrubb and the Marsh-Wiggle, Puddleglum, face the witch-queen of the Underland.
The Scene is set. With a bit of magic powder, the queen provides a sweet and drowsy smell from the fire. She takes “a musical instrument rather like a mandolin,” and begins to “play with her fingers-a steady, monotonous thrumming,” that will become unnoticeable after awhile. The queen uses “a soothing voice,” as though she is “humoring a child…”
Only the Puddleglum can change the situation by stepping on the fire so the whole room will be filled with the smell of burnt Marsh-wiggle. It's hard to manipulate the outcome of a situation with burnt Marsh-wiggle waking everyone up, but in the real world of Presbyterian decision making understanding the difference between “communal discernment” and parliamentary procedures will help. So will knowledge of how spirituality can be used to manipulate people.
The booklet, Guidelines for Communal Discernment, written by Victoria G. Curtiss, is meant as a guide to be used with or instead of the normal parliamentary procedures in some General Assembly committees as well as other official meetings of the PCUSA. Communal discernment in its most basic and simplified form consists of discussion about and discernment of an issue until a particular group arrives at a decision.
Voting is usually not a part of the process although it may be. Communal discernment does not follow parliamentary procedures instead a facilitator guides the discernment conversation using various techniques to help the members reach a decision. The facilitator or another member eventuality offers what Curtiss calls a `trial balloon,' which is, “a summary statement based on group input that expresses where the Holy Spirit seems to be leading the body.” (8) Various non-voting methods are suggested to find out if the members of the group agree with the trial balloon.
Although Curtiss does not define communal discernment as consensus decision making she does define consensus decision making in the context of such discernment, and the two concepts are basically the same thing. I want to look at three problems with this kind of discernment as it is offered in this document.
First I will look at the author's definition of communal discernment and consensus decisions. The definitions are themselves manipulative. Next I will look at the manipulative qualities of some of the communal discernment concepts and how they lead to the loss of commissioner's rights. Third I will look at the biblical and theological problems, in particular the author's use of spirituality as a control mechanism related to her views of the Holy Spirit. It should be noted that most of the problems will overlap.
Definitions of communal discernment and consensus as manipulation: Under the sub-title, “What is Communal Discernment?,” Curtiss gives many definitions and many of them, in this section, could also be applied to parliamentary procedures. For instance, she writes, “Communal discernment engages a group of people to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. It involves prayer, a humble surrendering of control, reflection on Scripture, and listening carefully to one another as together we seek to hear God's voice.”(4)
Yet, in the gathered Body of Christ any kind of action involving decision making, when not used manipulatively, could possess these same qualities. A presbytery that worships before addressing motions and then offers time through parliamentary procedures for members to speak to a motion is also encouraging them to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. Surrendering control, reflecting on Scripture and listening carefully to one another is always a matter of the individual's attitude toward Christ and other Christians and has nothing to do with the procedure used.
Curtiss also writes, “Discernment seeks more than group agreement. The goal is to recognize when `it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us' (Acts 15:28).” But this is also a goal of parliamentary procedure. The difference here between the two is that the author suggests some rather subjective ways of knowing if a decision is the will of the Holy Spirit. Such subjective feelings and emotions as “God's presence settling over the group in silence,” and a “joyous convergence of direction that brings a sense of peace and rightness,” are her indicators for a final decision. (4)
On the other hand, the use of parliamentary procedures offers a concrete vote. This is not to say that the vote is always the will of the Lord, but at least it is outside the bounds of spiritual manipulation. And it is important to note, as Marianne L. Wolfe, author of the booklet, Parliamentary Procedures in the Presbyterian Church (USA) states:
Majority rule is not a mystical or arbitrary concept. It is highly pragmatic, reflecting the reality that the whole church, as it acts, can do only that which most of the church is willing to do. Hence, the majority vote is a function of unity. Decisions taken by majority vote do not reflect “truth” but, rather, the search for truth. (4-5)
Wolfe, goes on to explain that consensus decision making “at its worst” is “manipulative and overpowering to the rights of the minority because it compels the minority to `break the unity of the body' in order to disagree.” But Curtiss, in her booklet on communal discernment, seems unaware of the problem that consensus decision making holds for the minority. Compounding the problem she writes:
Consensus as used in this booklet does not mean unanimity. It refers to a shared sense of God's presence as manifest through the group's work together and through the decision reached. Members of the group affirm that they have been heard and are willing to move ahead in a common direction that most, if not all, have sensed to be the leading of the Holy Spirit. (Emphasis mine)(8)
So it is not about consensus toward the decision but consensus about sensing the presence of God. That means that the decisions, although not the consensus of the group, are, once again, based on nothing but subjective feelings. This is a dangerous move because now to be in ardent disagreement as a minority means not only breaking the unity of the body but denying the felt presence of God in the work and decision.
At the back of Curtiss' booklet on page 20, she makes a comparison between, “Debate,” “Dialogue,” and “Discernment.” It would take up too much space to cover each point but needless to say it is slanted toward discernment. Here are a few examples between debate and discernment.
Debate uses, “hard data to get to answers to problems; reasoning is made explicit.” Discernment uses “intellect/reason and affect/intuition: mind and spirit experience.” But, contrary to Curtiss' view, the Christian, in debate, not only uses the Book of Order but also Scripture and the Confessions of the Church, and that is where the Church finds her final authority for decision making. (G-1.0100 c. & G-2.0100 a.) So instead of a contrast between hard data and a mind and spirit experience is the foundational authority of the Church versus mind and spirit experience.
Another example is seeing debate resolving issues “by defeating or persuading” the “opposing side,” or finding a “synthesis of opposites” versus seeing discernment as uncovering “a decision rather than [making] it” and discovering “what is most life-giving and loving by listening to [the] wisdom of the Holy Spirit and all voices.” But, isn't the Christian who stands before her presbytery, committee or the General Assembly, while speaking to a motion or an overture, listening for the Holy Spirit, remembering the words of Scripture and thinking about what others have said?
Using such a spiritual dichotomy between these two actions is manipulative.
Communal discernment concepts and loss of rights: Nevertheless, there is a true dichotomy between communal discernment and parliamentary procedures. It has nothing to do with the devotional attitudes of commissioners or the presence of God, but rather with methodology and the rights of the commissioners. Wolfe explains the rights of individuals in parliamentary principles. She writes:
Parliamentary principles attempt to balance the expression of individual conscience with the will of the majority. In so doing, these principles take very seriously the following rights of individuals in the body. (3)
Wolfe then lists, “The Right to Know,” “The Right to Speak,” “The Right to Vote,” and “The Right to Hold Office,” connecting these to various procedures and rules in Parliamentary governance. On first reading this list one sees immediately that communal discernment generally takes away the right to vote. But there are several other losses.
For instance, the right to know is downgraded in communal discernment. And this happens in several ways. Under the subtitle, `Who Uses a Communal Discernment Process?” Curtiss suggests that groups larger then twenty persons should be divided into smaller groups. This means that the committees at GA who use this method will be divided into smaller groups each with a facilitator. Because of that division each small group will not hear the whole committee's comments.
Those who find themselves in the minority in a small group will undoubtedly be alone and perhaps afraid to express their true feelings. Lacking the full committee, the minority person will experience the loss of hearing those with whom they agree. The majority people will miss hearing the thoughts of the minority people who fail to speak out of timidity or even fear.
Another problem along this same line is found under the subtitle “The Community listens to the Holy Spirit.” Curtiss writes “Participants need to practice the grace to lay aside ego, preconceived notions, biases, and predetermined conclusions that may limit openness to God in order to reach “holy indifference.”(7) While it is true that we all need to learn to lay aside ego the rest of this list is questionable. But the important point here is that we will fail to speak out our diverse opinions if we do not speak our biases and conclusions. And those who hear us will be cheated out of knowing what we truly believe, who we are and what we know.
Another suggestion under this subtitle is:
Before a large group considers an issue, it is usually helpful for a subgroup, preferably consisting of persons with a variety of perspectives on the matter, to meet first to consider what information the larger body needs. It is helpful to distribute, in advance of the meeting, written material that defines the issue and provides background information as well as the rationale for a particular proposal, if there is one. Such material does not preclude the consideration of other options, but brings the whole body on board with the reflection previously done by a few persons. (Emphasis mine)
Although other material may be looked at this leaves the larger group under the tyranny of a few, limits the focus of the group and severely limits information. The right to know is once again neglected.
I will address the loss of the right to speak in the next section, although I have already looked at several of Curtiss' suggestions that affect that right.
The Holy Spirit and spirituality as a control mechanism: When debating and voting using parliamentary procedures one follows definite rules. On the other hand, Curtiss, in her booklet, offers multiple rules to choose from and anchors them to subjective spiritual feelings as well as spiritual practices meant for far different settings. She also misuses the work and person of the Holy Spirit in an unhelpful manner.
Under “What is Communal Discernment?,” Curtiss states that the Holy Spirit's “movement” “cannot be predicted or packaged.” Under, “Why Does the Church Engage in Communal Discernment?” Curtiss gives three theological principles for discernment. She, rightly, explains that Jesus Christ is head of the Church, and then she paraphrases several texts that deal with the work of the Holy Spirit including John 14:16, 26; 16:13, writing “God sends us the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth, to teach us everything, and to remind us of all that Jesus Christ said.” (4)
Curtiss' words about the Holy Spirit's movement are less than biblical and need to be reconciled with the scriptures she has paraphrased. A Christian reading scripture can know what the will and movement of the Spirit is like because every truth and movement of the Holy Spirit comes from and belongs to Jesus Christ. Biblically one can know that the Holy Spirit's leading will never go beyond scripture or the person of Jesus Christ.
Calvin, writing of John 16:13, connects the truth which the Holy Spirit guides the Church into with Jesus Christ and the New Testament. He writes, “The same Spirit led them [the apostles] into `all truth' when they wrote down the substance of their teaching.” (Emphasis the Editors) Likewise, Calvin writing on John 14:26 explains, “But observe what all these things are which he [Jesus] promises the Spirit will teach. He `will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (Emphasis Editors) Commenting further, Calvin writes:
But the spirit that introduces any new idea apart from the Gospel is a deceiving spirit, and not the Spirit of Christ. Christ promises the Spirit who will confirm the Gospel teaching as if he were signing it.
Curtiss description of the Holy Spirit as unpredictable shapes a lot of her guidelines for communal discernment. When something or someone is unpredictable there is a need to find a way to follow and be open to the unexpected and the new.
An example of influencing commissioner's thinking about guidance because of her own views about the Holy Spirit is Curtiss' many exhortations to remain open to the Holy Spirit and possible new ideas. She also offers spiritual technologies to guide them toward openness. Curtiss, in fact, states that “there are spiritual practices that can enable us to be more receptive and attentive to God and one another and help us discern the mind of Christ.” (4) One of the practices she suggests is Lectio Divina.
Although Lectio Divina is undoubtedly a helpful devotional practice for individuals and groups, it is not particularly helpful for group decisions among people who are in disagreement. That is because, once again, it can be used as a control mechanism. First several scriptures are looked at, individually or corporately, prior to the meeting, in the meeting one scripture passage is focused on and questions are asked between each reading of the same scripture, such as “What one word or phrase leaps out at you from the passage.” (6, 7, 17)
To understand how this is not helpful think of a Christian who is visited by two Jehovah's Witnesses. There is a discussion about the Trinity or the Lordship of Jesus Christ. (These two topics have been debated in recent General Assemblies)The Jehovah's Witnesses are taught to stay with just certain scriptures when discussing one of their beliefs. They want the Christian to focus on just a few words and their meaning. That is control; but the Christian knows they will not get a true picture of the biblical view from just one verse or word.
If the Witnesses pick just one verse, the Christian suggests that they read the whole chapter to get a better understanding of the text. (Explaining as she reads.) Or the Christian might suggest several different sections of Scripture on the same subject. The point is, in decision making, Christians should allow the Holy Spirit to use the whole text not just a phrase or a word. God's word is not a magical mantra to use for discernment.
The use of Lectio Divina is one way commissioners could lose their right to speak since this method only allows them to respond to someone else's question rather then speak from their own thought processes. There are other ways a misunderstanding of the Holy Spirit leads to the loss of the right to speak.
I have already addressed Curtiss' insistence that members of committees and assemblies lay aside” their biases and predetermined conclusions.” But she also suggests that participants “may be invited to write on an index card anything that he or she is aware of that may block `holy indifference.” (7)
In another place, in a suggested covenant for groups, Curtiss writes, “Lay aside all biases and blocks to the Holy Spirit, leaving the outcome to God's direction, being willing to consider new ideas, and being obedient to the results.” Still later in her comparisons between debate and discernment, in rather gnostic terms, Curtiss writes that debate “defends a viewpoint” while discernment “offers `holy indifference' to all but God's will.” The commissioner, reading this could be intimated, thinking that somehow debating a subject is unholy, while practicing discernment is holy. Feeling this way he loses his right to speak what is in his heart and mind. This can only curtail his faithfulness to the other commissioners and to Jesus Christ.
Conclusion: There are numerous control mechanisms in Guidelines for Communal Discernment. They move from constant checking of the feelings and emotions of the participants to the use of silence to refocus the group to the actual use of a monitor who observes “the dynamics and interaction among group members, reminding the group of its norms and values, helping pace the process by tracking the time allotted, and recommending breaks or times out.” (10)
The decision making in communal discernment is complicated and even confusing. For example, the trial balloon, mentioned above, must be accepted or rejected, so in an attempt to not vote several ideas are suggested. One is the five finger method going from five fingers, “I am fully supportive,” to one finger, “I cannot support this at this time.” If a decision is not reached several suggestions for resolving the dilemma are given including “appoint a smaller group or a person to make the decision,” thus moving the church a very long way from Presbyterian polity.
For a church such as the PCUSA, a denomination racked by significant disagreements over vital doctrine and polity, a church filled with distrust and lack of unity, Guidelines for Communal Discernment is simply another match to add to an already burning bonfire. It takes away rights, misuses spirituality as a means of control and does all of this under the guise of creating good will and unity in the Body of Christ. Parliamentary Procedures may not sound particularly spiritual but the Lord of the Church generally works through the mundane rather than the ultra spiritual. The glory, after all, belongs to Jesus Christ.
Calvin, John. John. The Crossway Classic Commentaries. Editors, Alister McGrath &
J.I. Packer. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994.
Curtiss, Victoria. Guidelines for Communal Discernment. Presbyterian Peacemaking Program/Presbyterian Distribution Service.
Wolfe, Marianne L. Parliamentary Procedures in the Presbyterian Church (USA).