by Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham
It’s very unsettling when you interrogate something you thought you understood and find you never understood it at all.
I was doing a sort of mental mail merge between Sunday’s gospel reading about forgiveness and the various big fat apologies that the C of E has issued in recent months over the mishandling of abuse and the arrant cruelty towards -well -anyone who wasn’t uncomplicatedly straight.
I asked myself a perfectly simple question. What exactly is forgiveness? Growing up in a fairly strict evangelical church it was presented to me as a vital but simple concept. There was sin. That was the bad stuff you did or thought. Because God was just there was a consequence to that sin, and because he was loving he wanted to forgive us. The death of Jesus bridged the gap between the justice and the love.
When I was about eight I began to question this. It sprang out of a little family incident. My father had saved up his minute pocket money and bought my mother a very tall dark green glass vase for their wedding anniversary. He wasn’t usually very good at presents, but she loved it. While they were both out at a prayer meeting or bible study or some other holy activity I was playing and accidentally broke the vase. I had already worked out that, specially with Christian parents, the best strategy in such cases was to get in first with deep contrition and beg for their forgiveness. So I confessed to my Dad and I remember to this day watching his face as he controlled the outburst of disappointment, controlled his desire to give me a good telling off that would have been his natural human response, and then put his arm around me and say ‘Darling, don’t worry. Let’s clean it up together.’
My little eight year old mind thought; ‘Is that what God is like? When I do something wrong does he really want to shout at me and punish me, but somehow he controls it and forgives me instead?’ I wasn’t liking this God very much. It was made worse by the fact that of course I hadn’t meant to break the vase in the first place, but the Pauline teaching that I had already received meant that I was horribly aware that even when I didn’t think I was sinning I probably was. In other words there was something about simply existing, about being human that was of essence sinful. Somehow we need to be forgiven for existing.
This may sound childish and ridiculous, but it’s at the root of a lot of the abusive behavior in the church. It’s how you get a poor little posh boy to accept being beaten week after week simply for masturbating – perfectly natural and normal behavior. (By the way, girls masturbate too and somehow that doesn’t seem to count. But that’s another blog!)
The whole sin and forgiveness script was then for me at that time entirely transactional. And yes, if you get stuck there you run the risk of obsessing about behaviors. Hence it is possible for some people to say it’s OK to be gay so long as you don’t do gay things. Who you are doesn’t matter as much as what you do. Probably the exact opposite of the way Jesus famed it.
Desmond Tutu understood this in a most remarkable way. The matter of forgiveness is relational. It needs to deal with the real people in the room telling the truth. The whole Truth and Reconciliation process was incredibly hard and it was imperfect, but it seems to me that if forgiveness is to mean something that restores relationship and offers a sense of potential freedom from the past then there needs to be truth not a sweeping of difficult things under the carpet.
There is some excellent work done in the field of forgiveness and reconciliation and Archbishop Justin has been at the epicenter with his previous work at Coventry Cathedral, but the way you act inevitably reveals what you really believe and the way the CofE treats survivors of abuse and LGBTI people shows that at heart we are still driven by a transactional theology. Why else could it seem right to pay your debt to the abused person via the insurance company but offer no pastoral support and fail to put into effect the well over 100 recommendations to improve our processes that have come out of repeated inquiries?
The debt has been paid, we should be forgiven!
Why do we still get heartfelt public apologies for the devastatingly cruel ways in which the church has harmed and discriminated against gay people whilst continuing to those very practices?
A survivor’s passing shot, after spending several hours talking through her story, was ‘it’s the theology that did it.’
Even articulating this is bound to get some people angry, but I firmly believe that unless we have the courage to examine our inner drivers, our theology, there is very little hope that we can change our ways and become a church that is safe for everyone.