Windsor Nosh #4: Repentance and all that.

(Note: This is one of series of comments on the Windsor Report meant to be food for thought. These notes represent my personal concerns and NOT the concerns of any committee to which I now or ever have belonged!)

The word repentance occurs only once in the Windsor Report, in the beginning sentence to paragraph 134, but that use has been a powerful reference, reverberating through the discussions of the past year. It is worth quoting in full: “Mindful of the hurt and offence that have resulted from recent events, and yet also of the imperatives of communion - the repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation enjoined on us by Christ - we have debated long and hard how all sides may be brought together.”

As I read it, this statement is about the fact that the Lambeth Commission (the body that wrote the Windsor Report) “debated long and hard ...” It reflects what must have been a difficult time for the Lambeth Commission, and that they debated none the less under the imperatives of communion, “the repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation enjoined on us by Christ.”

The Commission believed that repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation were required of them. My sense is that it is indeed required of us all, for at the core it is the way of being whole in a broken world. What has not been picked up very often from the Windsor Report is that the witness of the Lambeth Commission in its struggle to the “imperatives … enjoined on us by Christ” is one that we might all take as a beginning point for the exploration of any sort of future for the Anglican Communion. We ought indeed be guided by the imperatives of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation in this struggle.

There has been considerable conversation on the internet regarding repentance, the willingness to repent, the demand to repent, and the desirability or undesirability of repenting, most of which fogs up the lens through which all Christians are compelled to view life in the beloved community.

The fact is, repentance is an essential element of the way of life in Christ. It is not mostly about the disservice we do institutions (including religious ones), it is about the disservice we do real human beings. Something like that being so, it would be helpful if we could not be defensive (or offensive for that matter) regarding repentance.

The question is, does any group have any business asking us to repent for doing something in the institutional life of the church that may or may not be destructive of the life of the church? Imagine if Jesus had been asked to repent from having overturned the tables of the money changers. Come to think of it he was asked why he cured someone on the Sabbath when that was clearly an affront to the law. The hurt and offence felt by the institutional church (by way of its leaders) was clear, and had the notion of the church as a corporate person held, repentance would have been in order. But it did not, and Jesus did not repent.

The one occasion that comes to mind regarding Jesus and “turning around” or repenting has to do with the Syrophoenician woman, who gets Jesus to turn around and really deal with her. (Mark 7:26 RSV). But note: Jesus repents of his previous understanding and becomes inclusive precisely because she and he are engaged in human intercourse at an immediate level of confrontation. She is no representative of some organized corporate entity. She is an incarnational presence just as is he.

I believe we ought always to be willing to repent of any statement or action in our struggles within the Communion that dismiss, denigrate, disparage, or otherwise discount real persons. It is real persons that are the primary focus of the imperatives of life together (communion.) In the beloved community it is our joy to constantly live within these imperatives. This is quite different from contending with one another and jumping on the issues. Right practice is a matter of contending and moving forward.

Churches too, as a collective, can be called to repentance, seek forgiveness and find reconciliation, but the focus of such efforts is primarily people. While we might speak of one Church repenting its behavior towards another Church, the primary recipients of repentant behavior are individuals. Repentance then is made incarnation-minding more than corporation-minding. We repent our actions concerning individuals, made in the image of God, not ecclesial corporations. The possibility of offences against the body of Christ is a reference not to organized churches (ecclesial entities) but organic fellowships (koinonia). An example of this: The Episcopal Church might well repent its falure to seriously engaged the African-American Churches in ecumenical dialogue toward reunion with the energy given to its reunion with the Lutherans.

We, individually and as churches, are called on to repent, ask forgiveness and seek reconciliation with, people and fellowships of people on many occasions:

  • We need to repent the constant temptation to make gay and lesbian people the object of our discussion, ire, concern or even love, rather than to have them as party to our discussion.
  • We need to repent our continued willingness to marginalize a wide variety of people precisely to the extent that they are unwilling or unable to act as do we, the “we” being the white, educated, male, heterosexual (more or less), clergy or clergy dominated, successful lump (of which I am one) who constitute the community with power to marginalize. We need, in other words, to repent our de facto exclusion of women, people of color, the poor, the gay and lesbian, the transgendered and transfigured, the lay and the lame.
  • We progressives need to put the brakes on the discount of conservatives and people who want an exclusive claim on orthodoxy. We may by all means argue that they are wrong, misguided, don’t understand the theological issues, etc, but we must find a way to honor and love the persons who are, after all, our salvation from an easy ride.
  • And I would suggest the realignment and “orthodox” crowd need to practice some level of repentance for suggesting that we are not only wrong but the instrument of Satan when we say or do things they don’t like.
The Windsor report made recommendations (“We recommend that:”). Those recommendations were couched in the language of regret. This has generally satisfied no one: those wanting the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Westminster to cease and desist found “regret” too easy and those who felt they had acted rightly found “regret” too much like an admission of guilt.

The problem of the call for repentance, voiced primarily by those advocating realignment or complete renunciation of actions taken, is that that call has become a non-negotiable demand by those making the call. This of course in turn makes any statement of regret or repentance, for almost anything related to the actions of General Convention 2003, an act of capitulation, a sell-out.

All of this is argued over to the point of frustration. In the end it comes to no good. Calling for repentance, when what we mean by that is repentance for actions that hurt or offend a community of Christians, is calling for capitulation in one form or another. It is to accept the call to place one’s head on the block and wait the fall of the blade.

Calling for repentance when what is meant is repentance for discounting the real demands of real people for a hearing, for a genuine struggle to a new end, is absolutely in order. When we repent for thinking, “I have no need of you,” we are repenting precisely what is always called for in confession.

I believe we have need for our adversaries, for those who find what we do is wrong. We need to struggle with them, recognizing that in the end we will in one way or another do what we believe must be done.

We should embrace the call to repentance for the wrongs done others, but not the call to repentance for the actions that we believe to be God’s call to us even if that call causes us to hurt or wrong the institutions (our own or others), whose feelings are not personal but corporate.

But most of all, we should not allow the word “repentance” to be captured by those who would have it be a judgment on our heads. We need to remember that repentance is a personal matter and that coerced it is simply another trick of those who would bind us together, not by bonds of affection but by the bundled sticks of law.


  1. Bravo, sir! This is an excellent meditation, a fitting cadence to the entire quartet. In this quiet country parish people tend to take each other as they find them, and in terms of our daily Christian lives the reality of the altar speaks far more loudly than the anxious contentions of prelates. But still in all we watch and we worry somewhat. However, in my own brooding I have been drawn more and more to the Prayer of Humble Access, not as a hammer blow to my self-esteem, but as a prayer that liberates me from the claims of my human nature. It is a relief to know that I do not have to strive to be worthy, but am the beneficiary of a loving mercy and grace that sees my weakness but embraces me anyway. And if I am the recipient of such love and kindness, how then can I turn to another and say "You are not worthy to share communion with me"? I know we have got away from penitential theology somewhat in recent years, partly for the reasons you give here, that "repentance" has been interpreted too often as non-negotiable coercion, and has become (in your words) "simply another trick of those who would bind us together, not by bonds of affection but by the bundled sticks of law". But when one can get past this coercion, one sees that it is joy and relief to say "We have left undone done those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us" not as a cry of despair but in recognition that our health is given us by grace and love. I wish more of the present discussion in the Anglican Communion were at the same level as your reflections are.

    Charles Abbott Conway,
    Diocese of Oxford.

  2. Amen to both the reflection and the comment. Humility will allow us to repent for the wrongs we do. It is critical for all of us (on every side of any issue) to be humble and to always acknowledge that we could be wrong. Christian love demands that we speak our truth as kindly as possible. But, the prophetic aspect of our calling demands that we occasionally do speak hard things to those who do not want to hear them. (I love the examples you cite on that issue!) The Church should be a safe place for everyone. We should truly repent for real sins of omission and comission against one another.

    We should not be bullied into "repenting" of actions that have as their purpose including and protecting all of God's People within the Church.

    Thank you, Rev. Harris, for your your always thought-provoking articles!

  3. I think that talk of "regret" OR "repentance" misses the mark (!).

    Why doesn't TEC say (via GC) that we call all in the AC to that which we seek for ourselves: to be more conformed to Christ's likeness?

    In that context, we can then confess that we are not as conformed to Christ as we want to, or ought to, be. Note that "conformed to Christ" means not only that we have sinned (however sin is defined: obviously, re the consecration of +GR, there are striking differences of opinion), but that we are insufficiently Christlike in our love. Omission and commission, both.

    [This sort of goes back to your WR Nosh #1: that the point is that we are walking towards Christ and Christ's Kingdom---via the cross---and not in some uniform ideological sense of "togetherness"]

    Thanks, Mark.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.