To forgive is to remember aright
To forgive is not to forget but to remember aright. That seems to be have one of the conclusions of the report produced this week from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. This revealed that the Church of England had failed to protect children and had a culture where abusers "could hide". The focus was on bishops who defended alleged perpetrators instead of protecting children and young people from sexual predators. Not just bishops but an entire culture is held to account, Strangely one of the problems has been a readiness to forgive and then move on. As a result the inquiry found examples of clergy being ordained despite having a history of child sexual offences. It is as if the ordaining bishops thought that forgiveness is sufficient. We now realise that such forgiveness is necessary but not sufficient. There’s more at play: there’s the reality of evil. We need God's forgiveness, of course – but more, much more - we need to be rescued, saved from the power of darkness. I’m coming to appreciate Croatian-born theologian Miroslav Volf who experienced the unspeakable horrors of the Balkan conflicts first hand. “Forgiveness is not enough” he pleads. “There must be justice too.” We know this instinctively when we witness terrible injustice even first hand. More so when it is inflicted not just by a single individual but by an entire system Think Hillsborough, think Black Lives Matter. The premise of Fleming Rutledge’s Crucifixion is that in our world, something is terribly wrong and must be put right. The good news is that God is not just a God who forgives, he is the God who brings justice. So Volf can proclaim that “the cross (of Jesus) is not forgiveness pure and simple, but God’s setting aright the world of injustice and deception.” So when terrible things are done, Volf teaches that it is vital that we learn to remember in the right way if we're to achieve peace and forgiveness. We cannot ignore our memoires and act as if the abuse did not happen. This is especially so in case of sexual abuse. Again, forgiveness is not enough. Rutledge comments “ This is not always understood in the church. The continuing exposés about clergy sexual abuse reveal a profound failure to understand the way in which the righteousness of God works to make right what is wrong at the same time that forgiveness is unconditionally offered.” One of my church members some years back was imprisoned for the abuse of three children. This was at a time when such abuse was not given the attention it deserved from church authorities, even before the Violent and Sex Offender Register was set up by the Sexual Offences Act 2003. On their release along with the (excellent) prison chaplain I insisted that they sign an undertaking not only not to attend church services and events where children and young people were present. And more, they undertook not to visit at any time the homes of any church member with children. This was strongly resisted by some church members even those with children. After all the offender had served their time in prison, their debt paid. Why should they not invite this fellow Christian into their home? If they chose to forgive, what right had I to dictate away from church premises? Of course, they had a point. So I emailed the Churches' Child Protection and Advisory Service (now called Thirtyone:Eight). In response I had an excellent and detailed email. Sadly this email went down with my long-defunct Windows 3.1 computer – which just goes to show how long ago all this took place. Essentially they supported my stance. I can’t remember the exact words used but the argument was this abuser will continue to abuse – their behaviour just doesn’t go away however much they will try to resist it. And more, if any abuse takes place even away from church, the families will still hold me to account as vicar. Yes, forgive – and remember. After all signing the contract was not just a defence for children. More, it was ensuring that the offender, now released from prison, would not be placed in situations of temptation. Looking back over the decades I now realise that the decisions I was wrestling with would today be accounted as automatic and obvious.
Giles Fraser, writing this week in Unherd, comments “But some acts of forgiveness are above our pay grade and reserved for God alone. The Peter Balls (the disgraced former Anglican bishop who was sent to prison for sexually abusing vulnerable young men) of this world will also have to face the judgment of God. But this side of the last judgment, it is the church’s job to protect the vulnerable.” He continues: “And that requires us to have a more clear-eyed assessment that, notwithstanding the commandment to love and forgive each other, sin also exists as much within the church as it does elsewhere.” Going back to Rutledge, she makes the essential point that forgiveness in and of itself is not the essence of Christianity. “Peace without justice is an illusory peace that sets the stage for vengeful behaviour later on.”
The essence of Christianity is the cross of Jesus, his defeat of the devil and all his work. God’s love and justice intersect at the cross of Jesus, nowhere else. But as Fraser points out, we are not there yet. As John sees the Lamb standing yet slain is his vision which concludes the Bible, he urges confidence that God is at work, even as the battle rages. “He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5, note the present continuous tense). We may be forgiven but we are still a work in progress, “simul iustus et peccator” (saint and sinner simultaneously). So we long with Charles Wesley, “Finish, then, thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be!”