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Fessing up: Churches get frank about mistakes

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Ecclesial Repentance: The Churches Confront Their Sinful Pasts
Jeremy M. Bergen

Church apologies have made headlines of late. Catholics and Protestants have said sorry for (among other sins) racism, persecution, and sexual abuse. In the 1980s, Mennonite Brethren repented for their attitudes and actions toward other Mennonites. The act of naming the church as an agent of sin is a new phenomenon, Jeremy Bergen writes. “Once churches did not confess that they failed God. Churches have changed courses many times. They have stopped doing one thing and have done something else in turn. But they have not usually gone the additional step of declaring that a previous course had been offensive to God and a counter-witness to the gospel.”

In Ecclesial Repentance, Bergen (assistant professor of religious studies and theology at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ont.) attempts to make theological sense of this growing practice. After all, is it possible, faithful, or required for a church to repent? Is it appropriate for a church to apologize for centuries-old wrongs committed by long-dead Christians?

Bergen’s book is, for the most part, a very helpful start when it comes to understanding this new work of the Spirit. For example, in Part 1, Bergen catalogues the last century’s almost-two-hundred apologies for Christian disunity and offences against the Jewish people, slavery and racism, apartheid and offences against indigenous peoples, clergy sexual abuse, war, civil war, the Crusades, environmental destruction, and offences against women, homosexual persons, and the scientific community. Bergen’s survey is not only cross-denominational, but international in scope, examining situations in Australia, Canada, Germany, South Africa, and the U.K. and the U.S.

The dangers of repentance

Perhaps more importantly, Bergen catalogues the many complexities and dangers of ecclesial repentance. For instance, forgiveness offered and granted may create a false sense that what was wrong has been fully addressed, short-circuiting the possibility of a deeper, more thorough work of reconciliation.

And what makes for a sincere apology? Is it simply a policy change, or does it require an accompanying change of heart in individuals? Which comes first?

Or consider a scenario in which power is unequal. In situations where the victims may not yet be ready to forgive, “the community which has publicly asked forgiveness may be perceived to have the moral high ground, turning the tables on a community that may be labelled spiteful, ungrateful, or stuck in the past if it does not grant forgiveness. Yet, it is unjust to assign victims the task of assuaging the guilt of their oppressors and expecting them to declare a state of affairs they do not believe exists.” Bergen’s case study of the Roman Catholic church’s Day of Pardon in 2000 provides further insight into the various opportunities and challenges of ecclesial repentance.

In Part 2, Bergen turns to constructing a compelling “practical-prophetic” theology of the church. He argues that Christians should repent of past ecclesial sins because, as the body of Christ on earth Christians are linked with all other Christians through time and space. By repenting of the Crusades, today’s earthly church is imploring those 13th-century Christians now in heaven to repent of their actions.

Drawing on Miroslav Volf, Bergen adds that by remembering the past rightly, the penitent church is more truly Christ’s body, and is therefore better able to offer God’s liberating healing to the suffering. In short, the church in repentance is Christ’s broken-yet-reconciling body on earth.

A gateway to new life

Though ecclesial repentance deepens the church’s awareness of what it means to be the body of Christ, Bergen insists that ecclesial repentance draws the church into deeper holiness. Individuals express unity in Jesus – they become Christians, members of Christ’s body – through repentance. “The very identity of the church demands that the church make a radical change of direction, repent, and resolve to act differently,” Bergen explains. “In this conviction the church holds that it is being obedient to Christ whose body it is, and whose Spirit vivifies it at all times.”

Through repentance, the church is opened up to resurrection and new life. In short, through ecclesial repentance today’s church becomes more like Christ, and therefore holy.

Practice in Christ-like-ness

In the concluding chapter, Bergen observes that ecclesial repentance not only makes the church more deeply Christ-like, but enhances the church’s ability to extend forgiveness and reconciliation. He explains that a church that possesses a sense of its identity as Jesus’ holy body on earth will shape the faith of individuals so that they are less likely to be blind to collective sins like slavery (as Christians were in the U.S. and U.K.), the Holocaust (as Christians were in Germany), and racism against First Nations peoples (as Christians are in Canada). On the flip side, a church that seeks to address wrongs enables Christians to not only avoid and resist sin, but to build new relationships and new communities in which a robust experience of reconciliation and justice – the kingdom of God – might be experienced.

Church leaders quick to call for repentance would be wise to prayerfully and thoughtfully heed Bergen’s observations. In addition to providing practical wisdom on what is (and is not) actually happening when individuals and communities engage in the always-sticky process of repentance and forgiveness, Ecclesial Repentance offers a fuller understanding of the nature of the church, the nature of sin, the nature of holiness, and the church’s mission. Mennonite Brethren readers will be especially interested to read Bergen’s analysis of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed apologies to Mennonites for the martyrdom of early Anabaptists, as well as Bergen’s discussion of inter-Mennonite apologies. Who knew a study about corporate forgiveness could touch on so many facets of theology and history?

Unfortunately, Bergen’s book is quite academic, so that its audience is likely to be limited. Indeed, pastors and denominational leaders will likely find certain sections too abstract. For instance, Bergen’s commendable attempt to connect the nature of the church to the life and action of the Trinity is particularly esoteric. In addition, it’s possible readers will find the sheer length somewhat daunting. (A more helpful editor would have not only reduced the number of distracting typos, but would not have allowed the line of argument to grow slack at points.)

Hopefully, readers will forgive the book’s faults, which pale in comparison to the riches they will find if they put in the effort. Those who join Bergen in some “theological heavy lifting” will discover themselves being led by God’s Spirit deeper into forgiveness, holiness, mission, and, ultimately, Christ.

J Janzen is pastoral elder at Highland Community (MB) Church, Abbotsford, B.C., and editor of Rejoice! an inter-Mennonite devotional publication.

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