On The Gifting of the Holy Spirit

The celebration of Pentecost raises some concerns about how best to discern the presence and action of the Spirit

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8; NRSV)

I sit down to write this column in the context and confluence of a few factors and events. It is this context and confluence that has prompted my reflections this week.

In the past couple of weeks, the annual ‘confirmation season’ of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, with parishes celebrating this great Sacrament of the Holy Spirit with the young children of their parishes. The celebration of Confirmation takes on a slightly different tone in 2021, largely because it was not possible to celebrate this Sacrament in 2020 because of the advent of COVID-19. The celebrations in 2021, therefore, both larger and more significant because of the delay and the hunger that delay has engendered in many people in many parishes.

Also of significance for this column is the second session of the Diocesan Synod journey that commenced in 2019, and which will continue into 2022 (and beyond). The chance offered by a Synod in the life of any diocese, and particularly the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle since that is where I live and minister, is not something that comes along very often, and it is a Spirit-given opportunity for conversation, discernment, and decision-making. The journey to this point has been long in coming – longer than anticipated because of COVID-19 – and the impact of the current Synod, once it comes to ‘conclusion’, will be felt for years and decades to come.

And lastly, I am writing this column on the eve of the Solemnity of Pentecost Sunday, that annual celebration where we celebrate the gifting of the Holy Spirit to the disciples following the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. It is the same Spirit which is continually guiding the life of the Church as it has done for more than two millennia, and which will continue to guide the life of the Church into the future – if only we are prepared to listen to the often soft and sometimes hard promptings of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers individually and the Church corporately.

But how do we identify and acknowledge the presence of the Spirit in our lives, both individually and collectively? How do we ensure that it is, in fact, the Spirit that is capturing our attention and prompting us to move from where we are? In other words, is what we are thinking about, both in words and actions, truly the actions of the Spirit, or is it ‘just us’ having a brainwave, coming up with a thought that might have its origins in any number of places, including our agendas and preferences.

The discernment of the Spirit, unsurprisingly, has had a long history in the life of the Church, and there are many approaches that could be, and have been, adopted across the history and the life of the Church. Common to many approaches – and to the one I prefer to use personally – is what I like to term ‘hastening slowly’. And by that, I mean that we take the time to stop, to pray, to reflect, and to come to understand what the way forward might be.

And yes, I am aware that sounds a little ‘wish washy’, but I believe that is the nature of the process of discernment that is necessary in the life of the Church and believers. The process cannot be rushed, it cannot be done except in relationship with the Church (at all levels and in all manifestations), and it cannot ignore the context in which the discernment is taking place.

Yet the reality is often the opposite, or at least it has been in my experience. It is always easy to fall into the trap of thinking about what I think we should do, what I believe is needed, what I know to be right and proper. Such an approach is readily understandable given its prevalence in the broader society in which the Church exists. A sense of having to ‘get it done’ and ‘getting it done as quickly and efficiently as possible’ is overwhelmingly the preferred approach to anything and everything.

There may have been a time when such an approach was almost universal in the corporate world, the modus operandi of how to succeed and ‘get ahead’ in the world, especially the business world. Yet even there, amongst the ‘top end of town’ there is a growing recognition that such a ‘gung-ho’ approach might not always be the best approach. A ‘slower’ approach, with more time for thinking, reflecting, conversation and mutual decision making, is proving to be not only a better way of operating, but also seems to bring a better outcome, a better ‘bottom line’.

The approach adopted by the Church should be somewhat different to that utilised presently or in the past by the corporate world. And it should be so if for no other reason than it must be different to the corporate world’s approach given we are dealing with and attending to radically different spheres of life and existence. The Church is not a business, and it does not deal with the same kind of things business does (though some business skills and concepts do have a place in making sure the Church can survive and thrive). The Church deals with matters that are ultimately beyond itself, things that are transcendent and beyond measurement by any worldly methodology. The Church, given its longer existence and differing horizon, adopts an approach that is fundamentally and radically different.

And so it should be!

Unless the Church – individually and collectively – ensures that it operates differently than the world in which it lives, unless it adopts an attitude of discernment and ‘slow thinking’ as both its modus operandi and modus vivendi, then it will risk the slow eradication of our fundamental identity as Church.

When it comes to the discernment of Spirits, it cannot simply be about ‘the numbers’ in a vote, nor can it be about the imposition of some ‘truth’ upon a group by either one person or some smaller sub-group. The task cannot be left to such things because it is far too important for the existence and life of the Church. The longer, slower, and more profound approach to discernment while difficult is something that is vital if the Church is going to remain Church.