For Emma Ineson, Lent is a good time to think about the theology of failure
The neglected liturgy in the Church of England, from the BCP, called, ‘A commination or denouncing of God’s anger and judgements against sinners’, involves ‘certain prayers to be used on the first day of Lent, and at other times, as the ordinary shall appoint’. I am not surprised that it is not often used, because it lays out in fairly bald terms all the ways in which human beings fail, sin, turn against God and generally hurt themselves and one another. It includes such wonders as confession by the person who ‘removeth his neighbour’s land-mark’ or ‘maketh the blind to go out of his way‘ or ‘smiteth his neighbour secretly’, as well as the ‘unmerciful, fornicators, and adulterers, covetous persons, idolaters, slanderers, drunkards, and extortioners’. The liturgy begins with the words:
Now seeing that all they are accursed (as the prophet David beareth witness) who do err and go astray from the commandments of God; let us (remembering the dreadful judgement hanging over our heads, and always ready to fall upon us) return unto our Lord God with all contrition and meekness of heart; bewailing and lamenting our sinful life, acknowledging and confessing our offences, and seeking to bring forth worthy fruits of penance.
It is, perhaps, a little harsh and obtuse for most of our sensibilities these days, but it is helpful to remember the facts: we are sinful, fallen, failing people. We remember, too, the fact that God is a merciful God, and the service ends, thankfully, with the words, ‘For thou art a merciful God, full of compassion, long-suffering, and of great pity.’
Lent is a great time to think about our failures, but let’s be careful how we approach this. During Lent, quite rightly, we bring our failures to mind and to the attention of a loving God who is always readier to forgive us than we are to repent. Sometimes, though it’s tempting to treat Lent itself as something that we should be hugely successful at. One writer says:
I . . . wonder if a certain sense of failure during Lent is actually a good thing. In part, it reminds us that Lent is not a home renovation show. The primary goal of the season is not self-improvement; we are not here to fix up our own personal backsplash. We are trying to open ourselves to a deeper relationship with our friend and savior, Jesus.
Above all, Lent is a time when we are encouraged to turn to God and God’s word in the Bible and allow it to be reflected in our own lives to enable us to see ourselves as we really are. The problem is that the Bible is not the first place many people turn to today when looking for solutions to the problem of failure or even simply for comfort.
We say that we should embrace failure and learn from it, but the story of God and his people is rarely one in which abject failure is turned into rip-roaring success. The Bible reframes what we think of as success and failure. The story we see most commonly is apparent success followed by failure and eventual redemption, but not in the ways originally expected. The success of creation – the pinnacle of which is humankind – is followed by the failure of the fall and banishment from the garden. The success of the flight from Egypt is followed by forty years of failure and wandering in the desert. The success of the Law being given to Moses on the mountaintop is followed by the failure of God’s people to make do with anything other than a golden calf to worship. The success of the promised land is followed by the failure of exile. The success of successful King David (giant slayer – yay!) is followed by his own moral failure. The success of Jesus’ ministry is followed by apparent failure on the cross. The success of God’s Holy Spirit being poured out on all people is followed by the story of the Church being persecuted and scattered. The success of Pentecost is followed by 2,000 years of the fallible Church dividing and splitting and sinning and failing, even as it grows and spreads.
Is failure really something you encounter on the road to success or is it more often the other way round? Rather than seeing failure as the path to success, maybe we ought to see it instead as part of the weft and weave of life, part of the texture of our existence. We can ask what we will learn from it, of course, but perhaps more than that, we ought to accept it, reflect on it, think carefully about it and aim to fail well. Rather than asking how we get through it, instead we could ask what God is doing in and through it.
The past few years have caused us to shift our views on what constitutes success and failure. We have reimagined success. Perhaps we’ve lowered our expectations a little and now feel more comfortable living in the mess. It’s acceptable for parents to collect their children from school in their pyjamas and I wear Crocs for most of my Zoom meetings. At one point during the pandemic, the people viewed as really successful, our heroes, were not bankers and stockbrokers, but key workers – bin collectors, delivery drivers, front-line health care workers. They were the people who kept us going and we applauded them on our doorsteps. Perhaps it’s time to rethink success and failure.
The Rt Revd Dr Emma Ineson is Bishop to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York; she has recently been announced as the new Bishop of Kensington in the Diocese of London. Failure is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2023 and is published by SPCK.