Andy Hawes on “sorry” and real penitence

THE WINDSOR REPORT is about the nature and meaning of Communion for Anglicans. One key factor that has shaped the Anglican Communion is a liturgical tradition which has been formed by the language and spirituality of the Prayer Book. The liturgies of the Prayer Book are at their most eloquent in expressing penitence; many readers, I am sure, will know by heart the General Confessions from Morning and Evening Prayer and from The Order for Holy Communion. A little reminder might be helpful: “The prayer is directed to “Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men, “It confesses the sins against “Thy Divine Majesty, “and concludes “the memory of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable, have mercy upon us most merciful Father; for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ sake, Forgive us all that is past; and grant that we may hereafter Serve thee in newness of life. To the honour and glory of thy name;’ In these words (to be said by all the people meekly kneeling upon their Knees) is expressed the theology and spirituality of penitence as Anglicans have known it.

I assume that Frank Griswold, being an Anglican (and presiding Bishop of ECUSA) will be familiar with this prayer. Indeed, it is to be hoped that he prays it from time to lime. This being the case it is quite scandalous that none of the above has in any way framed his response to the Windsor Report. There is not one hint of penitence he simply “regrets how difficult and painful actions of our church have been in many provinces of our communion, and the negative repercussions that have been felt by brother and sister Anglicans.’ That is it – in its entirety. Not the slightest intimation of “burden’ – certainly no “grievous memory.” In contrast to this “he is obliged to affirm the presence and positive contribution of gay and lesbian persons to every aspect of the life of our church and in all orders of ministry. He also “regrets” that there are places within our communion where it is unsafe for them to speak the truth of who they are’ (No doubt he is referring to Africa.)

It is quite terrifying that there is not the slightest recognition that the wilful breaking of communion is sinful. That unilateral action without proper authority can wound the Body of Christ. There is here a wicked myopia that has turned a blind eye to real danger and suffering caused to others who, under the threat of Islamic militants, have seen their moral authority as Anglicans undermined. It would seem Bishop Griswold does not know the correct answer to the question “Am I my brothers keeper?’ Instead there is an exercise in self- justification and the defence of the “application” ( or more accurately distortion) of the gospel in different “cultural contexts.” There is talk about “going beyond containment”, and “recognising differences.” Sorry, it would seem, is a word too far.

This is so far from the spirit and language of penitence. Penitence, is framed (as the Prayer Book) reminds us by the Majesty of Almighty God, who is Maker and Judge of all. The penitent sees himself as nothing before God, he is poor, humble, entirely dependent of God as creator and redeemer. There is at the heart of penitence the Holy Fear that is the beginning of wisdom. Penitence is the work of the Holy Spirit, enlightening Conscience and giving energy to the will. Penitence is the fulcrum on which an individual and community turns away from the pursuit of what is wrong and unworthy, to that which is good and Holy. Penitence is the first fruit of conversion to Christ: it expresses the hope and desire that “minds can be remade” and that it is possible to be “a new creation.” It is a sign that a person has determined “to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold me.” Penitence, as the Prayer Book prays, is a shedding of “intolerable burdens” and the means of healing “grievous memories.”

None of this is possible without a living encounter with The Source of Truth and Goodness; without being subject to the living Word “ that pierces where bone and marrow meet”. Penitential Christians and penitential Christian Communities are growing and vibrant, open to God s grace and free to respond – set free to serve “in newness of life.” An absence of penitence in the face of wilful hurt and betrayal is proof that the Holy Spirit has been denied. The awful warning of Our Lord about the “one unforgivable sin “comes to mind.

Some last words, born of righteous anger and zeal for the Gospel from Archbishop Peter Akinola. “We have been filled with grief as we have witnessed the decline of the North American Church that was once filled with missionary zeal and yet now seems determined to bury itself in a deadly embrace with the spirit of the age.” What is abundantly clear is that the spirit of the age has no room for penitence, it will justify itself blissfully, all the way to oblivion.