IS FORGIVENESS something that the Church should be talking about when abuse has taken place? It is a question that, in one form or another, the Church of England’s Faith and Order Commission has heard repeatedly since it started work in 2014 on the text that has now been released as Forgiveness and Reconciliation in the Aftermath of Abuse.
The question has been asked — and needs to be heard — because representatives of the Church have, at times, invoked the language of forgiveness in ways that add to the harm done by abuse. People who have experienced abuse may be told that, as Christians, they should be able to forgive those who abused them — if not immediately, then certainly after suitable counsel, prayer, and other forms of ministry.
If they cannot, then the message conveyed is that they are not proper Christians: that they have failed, are guilty of sin, and cannot be part of the life of the Church until they are willing to say “I forgive you” without reservation or hesitation. For a person suffering trauma, that is a destructive message, and can only alienate them from the Church and from the good news that the Church exists to spread.
We have also been aware that the language of forgiveness can be used to block the way to justice. Survivors may be told that forgiving their abusers will mean not taking any action that may “hurt” them, such as telling others in positions of responsibility about what happened.
At the same time, people who have committed abuse may be reassured that receiving divine pardon for their actions makes it unnecessary to face the human consequences of their crime. The Churches, including the Church of England, have been guilty of collusion and cover-up in the aftermath of abuse, and the call to forgiveness has sometimes been employed to help to justify that.
THE Church cannot stop talking about forgiveness, however. Forgiveness is at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ. That does not mean that forgiveness needs to be the first thing that the Church says in every situation. Moreover, it does not mean that forgiveness is an easy thing to talk about, or that its meaning is obvious and that doing it is straightforward.
Forgiveness in Christian teaching is first and foremost God’s gift, and the Church has a corresponding responsibility to weigh its words carefully when it wants to speak about this gift and, therefore, about the one who gives it. Careless words and bad communication become obstacles along the path of those whom God longs to reach with the truth that sets all people free.
One of the key conclusions of Forgiveness and Reconciliation in the Aftermath of Abuse is that, while forgiveness matters in the aftermath of abuse, that does not mean that it should be the immediate focus of what the Church says and does. Forgiveness needs to be seen in relation to justice, healing, and repentance. It can never be a substitute for them, and it is simply wrong, theologically, to think that it could.
To forgive sin is not tantamount to saying that sin does not matter, and that its consequences can be waved aside. A faith that has at its centre the crucified Saviour should never dare to think that. The two sides of forgiveness — receiving it and giving it — both begin with recognising that what has been done is sin, and that sin is a serious and deeply destructive thing: more serious and more destructive than we can ever fully comprehend.
The more catastrophic the damage wrought by sin, the greater the likely need for some basic repairs to be made to the fabric of people’s lives before forgiveness can even begin to be imagined by those who have been hurt the most. Justice, healing, and repentance are all part of that.
Caring about forgiveness as the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ means, therefore, that, in the aftermath of abuse, the Church should be concerned first and foremost for justice for all involved, healing for those who have been abused, and repentance on the part of those who have committed abuse or colluded with it.
FORGIVENESS and Reconciliation in the Aftermath of Abuse explores, in some depth, this relationship between forgiveness, justice, healing, repentance, and reconciliation.
My hope is that careful study of it will help pastors, teachers, and leaders in the Church to have a richer understanding of the Church’s teaching about forgiveness, and greater wisdom in knowing how and when to speak about it — aware that, whenever they do so, it is possible, and even likely, that at least one person listening to them is living in the aftermath of abuse.
Dr Christopher Cocksworth is the Bishop of Coventry and chairs the General Synod’s Faith and Order Commission.