Excusing oneself of sins and failings is a dangerous activity for the clergy. It may compromise the very Gospel of forgiveness one seeks to preach. The Editor was not impressed by the communiqué from Bishop Gene Robinson

I apologize for the hurt and upset caused (see Letters) by the satirical material published last month regarding Bishop Gene Robinson’s communiqué from an alcohol rehabilitation centre in the United States. I am indeed sorry that many of those who read it were upset on his behalf.

Readers of this magazine will recognize this as a very Anglican, indeed Episcopalian style of apology, and so may find it appropriate. There was clearly nothing sensitive about what was written, nor was there anything remotely pastoral in the phrasing used. It was, and was intended to be, satire. By ‘satire’ was not meant anything funny or amusing, but rather the vicious, biting anger of righteousness first found in the Old Testament prophets, and later exemplified by such Anglican writers as Dean Jonathan Swift.

‘Righteousness?’ This is the issue. It is not human failing, weakness or sin that is the proper object of satirical anger; it is the rejection of the condemnation (what modern psychology simply calls ‘denial’) which is the suitable object of such anger. Yes, we are sinners; and as those who claim faithfulness to the tradition, we must be the greater sinners.

Clergy discipline

None of us can know whether we shall not fall. It is, furthermore, a burden and a warning borne by every member of the clergy that at any time we may fall, and both our ministry and others’ lives be broken by that fall. Our existing weakness and our potential failings are multiplied by the expectations placed upon us.

I acknowledge that I am guilty under the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003 (Section 8, subsection 1, sub-subsection c, second item). If and when that piece of legislation is put into practice, my Ordinary can begin proceedings as soon as someone makes the formal complaint. I have already told my PCC that I will not appeal against it. I realize it may not carry the shame of other forms of ‘misconduct,’ but I, like any other priest, may one day bring hurt and shame to others.

It is not the failing that is the object of satirical anger. No priest who hears confessions (vicious sinner though he may himself be) can fail to be moved, again and again, by the pathetic inadequacies that lurk within us all, the desperate, often useless struggles to improve, the terrible fear and self-loathing. The wretchedness of the human condition is moving precisely because it is confessed. No, not shouted from the rooftops nor flaunted, but painfully and often with great difficulty, confessed – in words to another human being, also a sinner.

What remains fundamental is the stern context within which God’s healing takes place. There is judgement and there is condemnation. It is only by accepting both that forgiveness is received. It nearly always seems harsh, but to shortcut that traditional pathway (tempting as it may sometimes be) is to devalue, undermine and even remove the great gift of forgiveness and absolution.

Sin is part of the Christian Gospel; as St Paul says (and we remind ourselves of his words each week) ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’ We are all aware that it is a message not always well received, which is becoming more and more difficult to proclaim, and which is at odds with the secular complacency of modern Western culture – we seem to be living in a world of good people, in which few souls need saving.

Sin and the Gospel

If, therefore, a priest redefines his own activity so as to remove the element of condemnation, he is being untrue to the Gospel he preaches. All priests are sinners, and perhaps all (myself especially) need condemnation delivered in person by other people, ghostly counsel from a spiritual director, and most important of all wise discipline from a godly bishop.

All of which makes the ministry of a bishop still more demanding. For it requires that a bishop is most particularly under the discipline of the Gospel. A bishop, more than others, cannot take a short cut to forgiveness. A bishop, above all, cannot absolve himself.

To hear that a man, who had been at the centre of controversy, and whose moral decisions had caused so much offence, should now be suffering from alcoholism – it makes you think, to use the old phrase. There is a strange confusion between ‘So that’s where it all leads,’ and ‘Has my opposition contributed to his stress?’ or even ‘Am I somehow answerable for his fall?’ But there is prayer, as well as the gossip. Of course there is, for we know the precipice beneath our own feet.

Righteous anger

However, to read a self-exculpation, even before the treatment has been allowed to run its course, this does evoke righteous anger. Not because I am righteous, but because other brethren are seeking to be: with Christian humility they are struggling to keep to the narrow path; they have received God’s judgement, they are working their penance, they are rebuilding lives through Christ’s love and forgiveness, but they are not presuming.

It is this that seems to be denied in Bishop Robinson’s communiqué, by what seem such complacent words. To say that alcoholism is an illness is a moral judgement one can make either in general or of another person, but not immediately of oneself: the rehabilitation process is the means by which one assumes this outside judgement (from other people) into one’s own self. It is absolutely not something which one can appropriate for oneself.

Yes, I accept that God can ‘bring an Easter out of Good Friday,’ but again this is not something one can claim for oneself. If it is Good Friday, then you/I must stay there, humbly at the foot of the cross. It is God who will raise us up, and other people who will recognize us, thus raised to new life; it is not something that we do for ourselves.

I do apologize for those who were hurt by the satirical anger. But I am not convinced that a solemn analysis, of fair-minded concern etc, etc, would have been the most appropriate response to the communiqué.

Those who wrote, rang or spoke to complain since last month’s issue have mostly been straightforwardly angry, which in the circumstances seems entirely reasonable. We disagree. Probably, fundamentally.