In Eureka Street (8 Jul 10) Andrew Hamilton ponders “The strengths and shortcomings of Church apologies”. In the churches”, he says “pastoral letters go back a long way. So does scepticism about the value of carefully prepared words.” Paul warned of the mismatch between rhetorical eloquence and the Christian message. Jesus advised against pre-prepared words. James wrote about the dangers of the human tongue.
“Given this history, one can understand the ambivalence about letters and the inclination to avoid reading them, ” Hamilton says. Letters of apology are powerful symbols. They require their writers to take a position and stand to it. They speak of requires strength, make the writer vulnerabile, and can be “extraordinarily effective”. But, “However much we might want it, no symbol nor letter of apology can write the slate clean.” “Words are powerful symbols, but the hungry and the injured do not live by words alone.”
In the Catholic Church such an apology is a public act of confession, which includes the commitment to seek reconciliation, to make reparation where possible, and not to sin again. The symbol presupposes that the Church is more than a collection of individuals, that its members are accountable to one another, and that that the Bishop has the responsibility to act on its behalf.
Which brings me to my question about all this. I’m at a loss to understand how an institution is able to apologise. Institutions-companies, governments, nations, and churches-do not have souls or minds, people do. (If the church universal, the Body of Christ, has a ‘soul’, that inner being is the Holy Spirit, who, unlike church people, is sinless.)
Institutions do not sin, people do. If a company breaks the rules, the directors must apologise and, most likely, resign. If members of a church are sexually abused, the people responsible should be dealt with and culpable leaders should personally apologise and, most likely, resign. Evil doers who are dead are dead, and will receive the judgment and mercy of God. We cannot apologise for them.
In the Anglican church we employ a collective confession each Sunday: “Merciful God, our maker and our judge, we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, and in what we have failed to do: we have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves; we repent and are sorry for all our sins.”
I often challenge myself to say:
“I have sinned against you . . .
“I have not loved you . . .
“I have not loved my neighbours . . .
I repent . . .”.
It seems more authentic.
I acknowledge that Prime Minister Rudd’s apology to Australia’s “stolen generations”, for example, was a powerful moving step forward on the path to reconciliation. Even at the time, however, I wondered how he could apologise for any one else but himself and those who had invited him to do so on their behalf. I guess that was most of us.