Re-Reading the Green Report 4: Discernment

This is the fourth in my series of posts on the Green Report.  See the first, second and third.

As discussed last time, we are thinking about some specific niches in the overall ecology of the Church’s ministry – Bishops and Deans in the first instance, but also various others roles with a particular kind of public visibility, or roles which require working on an unusually large  scale.  Those niches do exist in the life of the church, and they do from time to time need filling.  We do therefore need some processes by which we discern who will best fill those niches, and provide them with the support and development needed to fill them well.

These are not things that, on the whole, we currently do well.

The Green Report sketches a process for discernment, rightly aiming to be ‘more open to the emergence of leaders from a wider variety of backgrounds and range of skills than is currently predictable’ (§11), and to be more transparent and accountable.

The Nature of Discernment

As we think through whether and how the Report’s proposed new process might work well, it is worth keeping in mind various characteristics of discernment.

Discernment is (or should be) a corporate process; it is, fundamentally an activity of the whole church (see the FAOC report, §182).  It involves attentive looking, and the testing of what we see – and both of these are, finally, activities of the whole Body.  We open each others eyes to see better; we test each other’s discernments, and the truthfulness of our discernment emerges, God willing, from this interaction.  We are therefore charged with discovering how to keep our processes of discernment as open as possible to the challenging wisdom of the Body.

Discernment is (or should be) a process in which the church allows itself to be surprised. We are seeking to discern together the movement of the Spirit of God, not seeking ways to secure the continuation of our own plans.  Discernment is therefore properly a two-directional process.  On the one hand, there is the process of the church discerning who might be the right person to fit into the space we want to fill.  On the other, there is the process of discerning how our sense of the shape of that space might be changed by the people whom God is sending us.  It is a process in which the church is seeking to be discerning about itself and its future, as well as about the future ministries of specific individuals.

Discernment is (or should be) a spiritual discipline.  We are not the first generation or the only church to worry about discernment, and there is a good deal of wisdom to plunder from earlier generations and from other churches about how discernment might be handled well – about the patterns of prayer, the forms of self-examination, the practices of mutual accountability, that are proper to those most directly involved in discernment, and about the kinds of support from the wider body that they need.

Overseeing Discernment

A great deal of  the process set out in the Green Report rests upon the Development and Appointments Group (DAG), who are given the right to determine who participates in the process (§49).  Whether and how that process can work well will depend to a significant extent, therefore, on how DAG is asked to operate.

The first thing to say is that its remit is not to run a ‘Talent Pool’ (that language, as the report itself suggests, simply needs to go). It’s remit is to oversee the church’s discernment process in these instances.

Second, DAG will be overseeing just one discernment process amongst the many that the church needs – formal discernment processes like BAPs, the discernment involved in the allocation of different forms of CMD, the discernment of gifts and ministries in the local church, and so on.  (Once again, the Green Report only makes sense in the context of the other reports that have recently been published.)  Actually, it would probably be better to say that it is just one family of discernment processes amongst the many processes that the church needs.  There is only a rough and partial unity amongst the various ministries on which this process is focused, and only a very rough and very partial distinction of these from other, related ministries.

Third, DAG operates on behalf of the church as a whole, and it will need to find ways in which its work can be informed as richly as possible, and challenged as deeply as possible, by the discernment of others.  Some of this is set out in the Report’s discussion of how DAG will relate to diocesan processes.  DAG is there to gather and to reflect on (and be surprised and challenged by) the discernment of others – both about who they should be looking for and about what they should be looking for.  It also needs, of course, to be alert for cases where the discernment of others has been unimaginative or inattentive (including watching for unconscious bias, §62).  But it is there to search diligently, prayerfully and humbly for the signs of what God is doing, by listening long and hard to those around it in the church.  A DAG too convinced of its own patent remedies for the church’s ills would inevitably become undiscerning.

Fourth, DAG will need constantly to be open to challenge and to surprise.  Any list of criteria it uses (like those in Appendix 3 of the Report) need to be kept low key and heuristic, so as not to turn into a cookie cutter guaranteeing uniformity  of output.  DAG will need to cultivate an explicit ethos of looking at the margins – at the square pegs.  (As the Report says: ‘The Church must be more intentional about drawing in those with high potential who do not appear to “fit in”’, §11).  The language of monitoring, of evaluation, and of benchmarking can work against this.  Those words are capable of exerting a distorting gravitational pull which, at its worst, could lead to a deadening ethos of control – to a DAG that saw itself as a quality control mechanism on a production line.  A desire for control is, however, incompatible with true discernment.

Fifth, DAG will need to be very wary indeed of the lure of measurement.  In §14, the Report rightly says that ‘God’s wisdom is our measure of how we learn to manage better’; in §24 it speaks of ‘the measure of the full stature of Christ’.  In the light of these measures, we should be very reluctant indeed to give too high a role to supposedly objective measures of success.  As the FAOC report says,

It is always worth asking whether our descriptions of leadership can leave room for a leader who was abandoned by all his followers, who was stripped of all dignity and power, and whose ministry was in every measurable sense defeated – and where that failure was nevertheless the foundation stone of God’s mission. (§49)

There is simply no short cut to discernment.  The most readily available ‘objective’ measures of success by which we might compare candidates only achieve their comparability by having the narratives that make sense of them shorn away.  Discernment has to look at context; it has to look at the whole story – it has to take time and to risk wise judgment, rather than retreating to the safety of apparent objectivity, especially when it draws on apparently objective data.  But the work of discernment is always, at its deepest, the work of discovering how God is working amongst us – and that’s never going to be a process that we can make safe.

Sixth, DAG will need, if it is to live up to the best instincts of the Report, to give serious thought to how its own work can be grounded in prayer – not just in the prayerfulness of its individual members, nor simply in the opening and closing of its meetings with prayer, but in the recognition that its whole business is a form of prayer, a spiritual discipline.  We have, I suspect, a good deal to learn – from everyone from Jesuits to Quakers, as well as from our own tradition – about how such a form of prayer can flourish.  As Justin Welby has said, ‘If we want to see things changed, it starts with prayer. It starts with a new spirit of prayer, using all the traditions, ancient and modern’ – and there is ‘No renewal of the Church without renewal of prayer.’


Next time: Management

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