I couldn’t help smiling to myself – the little boy of about six stood in front of his younger sister, who he’d obviously just upset, and drawled slowly “Sooorrrryy”. His exasperated mother shook him firmly by the shoulder and loudly whispered “Now say it like you mean it – say it from your heart!”
How often does God want to do the same to us, I wonder? What does it mean for us to truly say we are sorry – to mean it, to feel it, to own it so that we can honestly say that it comes “from the heart”?
It’s of course far easier to apologise for the things we’re conscious of getting wrong, when we have knowingly upset or hurt someone. It’s far more difficult I think to say sorry for things that we have been unknowing perpetrators of – where we have unwittingly inflicted pain and trauma on whole communities. Be it the horrors of the slave trade, sexism within Church or past colonial wrongs – there are countless examples of where a heartfelt apology could do so much to heal old wounds.
But to coin an old phrase – “Sorry” always seems to be the hardest word…
It’s something I too have found great difficulty with. A couple of weeks ago I was confronted by some LGBT Christians as to whether I had publicly repented for being an evangelical! I must admit I was quite taken aback by this, especially given the pain they knew I had been through in “coming out” to my evangelical friends and family.
However, I could see that their question was of deep importance to them, and one that required an answer. What they meant, I think, was had I repented for my part of unwittingly adding to the harm and pain of LGBT Christians given the views I once held – which are so prevalent amongst so many in my “wing” of the Church?
I’ve taken time to reflect on this. My immediate response was that I felt quite hurt to be asked this as I believed myself to be a victim, having sat under teachings that had caused me to reject who I was in Christ. I therefore felt that there was nothing I needed to repent of – save perhaps asking forgiveness of myself for not coming to terms with how God had created me to be earlier.
But they are right of course – I have not actively sought their forgiveness for being part of the church that has sought to deny the humanity of a significant part of our Christian family. Nor have I publicly repented of being so fearful of rejection I that I had failed to challenge those in authority. I’m trying to do my best now, at some cost, but I know that there are hundreds if not thousands who could have been helped if I – and others – had found a voice sooner.
I’m truly sorry for the pain that this has caused, and the way that evangelical churches I have been part of have demeaned and marginalised those who are not born heterosexual. I hope that somehow they can find it in their hearts to forgive me, and know that I am now trying to do all I can to right that wrong.
Interestingly, this was a point that Archbishop Justin also chose to make in front of a packed St Aldate’s in Oxford last month. To an astonished congregation he declared that it was critically important that the Church recognised that it had got things “deeply, deeply wrong” in the past with regards to sexuality, and that it had often treated LGBT community as “sub-human”.
Both he and the authors of the Pilling Report have urged the Church to take steps to repent and say sorry for how they have collectively treated this important part of Christ’s family – but we have yet to see much action.
Saying sorry for the pain the Church has caused and the rejection it has knowingly and unknowingly inflicted is, I believe, a prerequisite for any meaningful Shared Conversation. Without it words will sound like clanging cymbals, where prejudice is seen to speak to angry hearts that are deaf to listen.
What would it take, I wonder, for churches across the land to find a day when they could openly repent of the pain the Church has caused, ask forgiveness for the rejection that it has inflicted and look to embrace the LGBT community that has so bravely continued to worship with dignity and grace in its midst? Then, and only then, might we be able to find a way through all of this.
But we’d have to say sorry from the depths of our hearts – and really mean it!