Making a case for ecclesial repentance

Of late, I’ve been rereading in tandem Bathtubs but no Water: A Tribute to the Mushuau Innu by Gerry Steele and Ecclesial Repentance by Jeremy M. Bergen. Both were published in 2011.

Steele has worked as an advisor and negotiator on Aboriginal affairs at regional, provincial and national levels. In his book, he recounts the Canadian government’s resettlement of Labrador’s Aboriginal people on Davis Inlet in 1967.

“The decision by the government and the church,” Steele writes, “which caused this land-based people to occupy a sedentary community on the Labrador coast as a better way to serve their health, educational, spiritual and nutritional needs, has proven to be, in many respects, a bad decision.”

It created cultural, economic and spiritual upheaval, Davis Inlet becoming synonymous with shocking substance abuse and staggering suicide rates. Innu traditions and beliefs were broken, resulting in what then Chief Katie Rich called “our downward spiral.”

Bergen is associate professor of religious studies and theology at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, ON. He believes “that if the church is to witness truly to the justice, peace and reconciliation of the gospel, its repentance may be needed.”

Bathtubs but no Water and Ecclesial Repentance are brave books both.

Bathtubs but no water

Bergen defines ecclesial repentance as the public act “in which church/denominational bodies make official statements of repentance, apology, confession or requests for forgiveness for those things which were once official church policy or practice.”

His approach is twofold.

First, he illustrates how the churches confront their sinful pasts with concrete examples of church repentance in recent decades.

So, he narrates actual practice by tackling division among the people of God (the disunity of Christians and offences against the Jewish people), western colonialism and its legacy (offences against Aboriginal people, slavery and/or racism, and apartheid in South Africa), sexual abuse, violence and injustice (clergy sexual abuse; war, civil war, and crusades; women; homosexual persons; relation to science/scientists; and environmental destruction), and Pope John Paul II’s Day of Pardon during Lent 2000.

Second, Bergen explores the theological issues raised by such examples.

A series of questions anchors his inquiry in Part 1: How can the church’s repentance for acts in the past have integrity and be meaningful today? How is sin present in and through the church? What is the basis and nature of the church’s holiness? How does ecclesial repentance fit within the context of forgiveness and reconciliation?

Bergen’s working assumption is that ecclesial repentance “may reflect the work of the Trinitarian God,” even as it “may require Christian theology to speak a bit differently about God,” especially the church’s role in God’s mission.

In Part 2, Bergen discusses the doctrine of the communion of saints, sin and the mark of the holiness of the church, and the church’s mission of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Many years ago, I apologized on behalf of my denomination to a friend, whose late parents had been unfairly treated by the executive leadership. My friend later assured me that his parents had harboured no ill feelings toward the denomination they felt to leave. I have since analyzed my action. Did I have a right to offer, on behalf of an entire denomination, a personal and unofficial apology, especially as one had been neither requested nor expected?

It is not without significance that Bergen writes: “though repentance is a prominent theme in Pentecostal theology and practice, I have found no instances of ecclesial repentance by Pentecostal denominations (though they may well exist).”

Admittedly, ecclesial repentance or, for that matter, any repentance, is not easy. Social activist and retired Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu, and author of No Future Without Forgiveness (1999), in a transparent and trenchant comment, says, “It is not easy to admit one’s wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness. ‘I am sorry’ are perhaps the three hardest words to say.”

Steele and Bergen reach different conclusions and make different proposals.

Ecclesial repentance

Steele calls for, first, humility, followed by respect. He believes that government is obligated “to manage its institutional requirements in a manner that contributes to the Innu capacity to fashion and control their own future.”

Similarly, church must respect “Innu spirituality and traditions” and “contribute to Innu renewal.” Indeed, church “should feel comfortable in accepting the part of that [Innu] spirituality sourced in nature, the revelation of creation, which in earlier times it worked to stamp out.”

Some evangelicals may find this proposal wanting.

However, Steele’s plea is echoed by the evangelical anthropologist and missiologist Miriam Adeney, who writes in Evangelicals Around the World: A Global Handbook for the 21st Century (2015), “Humility is required, expressed in a teachable spirit and a passion to learn from and work under indigenous leaders, immersed in the Word and the Spirit together.”

It is refreshing to read a book like Bergen’s that is both descriptive and proscriptive. The author builds on descriptive data to formulate a doctrinal tradition of the church that makes sense of acts of apology and repentance. His Trinitarian account of ecclesial repentance shows how the church is inextricably tied to forgiveness in Christ.

Ecclesial repentance that is Holy Spirit inspired and Christ centred serves to “conform the penitent Church evermore to Christ’s body–that body on the cross which is God’s endurance of sin and victory over it.”

Love of neighbour, mandated by Jesus in Mark 12:31 and elsewhere, aligned with fidelity to the Crucified God, bids the church to engage in the public act of repentance. The church’s God-given mission may be helped along by such repentance. Perhaps a process of what Margaret Pfeil calls “communal examination of conscience” should be initiated.

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About the author


ChristianWeek Columnist

Following a 35-year career as an ordained minister, Burton K. Janes is now a freelance editor, writer and online instructor. He lives in Newfoundland where he maintains his own blog burtonkjanes.com