Contrition as response to abuse

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By Rosemary Hagan, D. Min

Hagan_RosemaryJesus tells us only one sin will not be forgiven, and that is the sin of blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.  I don’t know about you, but I grew up confusing this with not using God’s most Holy name if I should swear. Most biblical scholars tell us the lesson is actually a dire warning against sustained self dishonesty, meaning our ability to rationalize our actions and lie to ourselves.  As the English Mystic Ruth Barrows said, “What is most troubling is not our weakness and our sin, but our lack of searing contrition”. I believe the people of Grace Church, Traverse City, MI are trying to bring the broader Episcopal Church to a consideration of a lack of contrition around its handling of the abuse of women by its Priests.

If the Church places other parishes in harm’s way through continued deployment of a Priest who is a convicted predator of women, this may point to a lack of contrition. If the Church does not ask for forgiveness from an aggrieved parish after abuse, this places contrition in question. If pastoral concern for victims even appears to take a secondary role to pastoral responses to Priests and Bishops, contrition becomes suspect. The inherent risk in any of these is the appearance of the Church holding more concern for the esteem and authority of clergy than they do over the illegal and immoral actions of its clergy, and the subsequent harm done to women and whole parishes.

The tricky part of contrition for all of us is that we may feel really sorry that something happened, but upon closer examination we may find we are sorry because it places us in a bad light, or we fear we may be losing control. Our ego is crafty at protecting itself. There are three very basic human temptations. They are the fear of losing power, losing affection, or losing esteem. They all involve the need to control how others see us. When we fear a loss of any one of these we may slip into rationalization and self-protection. Without honesty about our fears, which is healthy spiritual examination, we stay locked in our own denial, justification, and inner pain. And we all know what happens to unexplored emotional pain. It will act again to get our attention. Herein lies the reason individuals in authority within the Church must examine their relationship to contrition. For denied contrition allows for and may embolden abuse to emerge again in another place and time.

Perhaps this sin against the Holy Spirit is like taking the Lord’s name in vain after all, for it is our vanity (ego) that keeps us from honesty, easing God’s love and grace out of our thinking and actions. May we all look within and pray to find those areas of our lives that call out for honesty around our own acts of self-protection and injustice. May we all pray for the desire for a contrite heart. But may our Church leaders pray these desires with urgency. Have courage dear Church, no one will die, except your own false self, and out of that will come the Church’s truest self in God. May our Church leaders join us bravely on the Narrow Way, and greet us with a kiss of honesty and peace.

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