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Ecclesial Repentance: The Churches Confront Their Sinful Past.

Ecclesial Repentance: The Churches Confront Their Sinful Past. By Jeremy M. Bergen. London: T. & T. Clark. 2011. Pp. 338. $130, hardcover; $39.95, paperback.

From time to time a doctoral thesis produced for the scholarly halls of academia merits wider circulation. This is certainly the case with Ecclesial Repentance. For some decades now the effort of churches far and wide to address and redress their "sinful past" has piqued public interest in the church and beyond. Thus it is timely that Jeremy Bergen offers for public consumption the results of his careful research into an issue that has come to plague the church in our day and that begs for in-depth theological scrutiny.

As the title states, this book is about the theological implications of ecclesial repentance, which the author defines as "the act in which church/denominational bodies make official statements of repentance, apology, confession or requests for forgiveness for those things which were once official church policy or practice"(3). The book is divided logically into two parts. In the first part, entitled "Counter-Witness and Scandal: Repentance for Historical Wrongs," Bergen presents and analyzes a variety of examples of wrongdoings that have implicated the church in the past century. In the course of his report he highlights theological questions that arise, questions that provide background for second part of the book, entitled "Doctrine and Practice: Frameworks and Implications."

The first chapter on "divisions among the people of God" targets two issues. The first of these, disunity within the Christian church, has been widely viewed as problematic, especially since the onset of the modern ecumenical movement. The second, offenses against the Jewish people, a problem that dates back to the beginning of the Christian Era, has only recently been recognized (by some) as an offense.

The second chapter, entitled "Western Colonialism and its Legacy," discusses offenses against aboriginal people in Canada, as well as issues of slavery, racism, and apartheid. As the author states, "this chapter is about repentance for the part played by churches in European exploration, conquest, colonialization and settlement, especially in the Americas, Australia and South Africa" (58).

The third chapter is something of a miscellany of samples of abuse, including clergy sexual abuse, war, civil war, the Crusades, women, homosexual discrimination, relation to science and scientists, and environmental destruction.

The fourth and final chapter in the first part is devoted entirely to the Roman Catholic Church's Day of Pardon, initiated by the aged Pope John Paul H and held on March 12, 2000. The Day of Pardon has been widely recognized as a qualitatively unique event in the history and life of the Catholic Church in that the Catholic Church went further than it ever had in admitting wrongdoing.

In the second part, Bergen offers extended theological reflections on several of the problems uncovered in the earlier section. The first of these, highlighted in chapter 5, deals with the difficulty of bridging the space between past sins and present-day initiatives. As a framework for a resolution to this issue, the author turns to the doctrinal confession of the church as "the communion of saints." Within this rubric, the present church converses with its own past and, prospectively, with its eschatological future.

The second issue, which Bergen discusses in chapter 6, concerns the question of how a church that claims to be holy can confront and admit its sinfulness. The Catholic Church claims that it is the members of the church that sin, not the church as such. To Bergen this position seems theologically untenable. How can the church exist apart from its members? On the other hand, most Protestants readily admit that the church sins, but rely on the universal principle of the grace of God to forgive the church of its misdemeanors and restore it to holiness. Bergen questions whether this recourse takes sin seriously enough, as it begs a rationale for justice and for reparation. Rather than side with the Catholic view or, on the other hand, with the Protestant view, Bergen proposes that both together would do well to reexamine their ecclesiology. Indeed, the possibility for mutual reexamination is there, given what both groups are learning from their sometimes humbling efforts at ecclesial repentance.

The final chapter of the book discusses questions that belong typically to the latter stages of a process of ecclesial repentance. For there to be genuine repentance, there must be reciprocation by way of forgiveness. Bergen proposes that the sacrament of penance (which he renames the "sacrament of reconciliation"), drawn from the Catholic tradition, holds promise for the achievement of forgiveness, especially where social groups are seeking the repair of broken relationships. When penitence involves individuals, persons need to be "guided into a way of life that seeks to overcome [sin]" (282). When the penitent party is the church itself, appropriate measures to transform structures and repair brokenness need to be implemented.

I have a high regard for Jeremy Bergen's work. He has amassed an impressive amount of material on the subject, in terms of both case studies and theological reflection. With few exceptions (108-114) he keeps his writing focused on the subject at hand. His treatment of abuse relative to aboriginals is outstanding. His theological acumen is well attested, particularly in his presentation on "Memory and Reconciliation" (123-133), and in his case for "the communion of saints" as a theological rubric for bridging past, present, and future.

It does strike me as somewhat unusual that a theologian in the Mennonite tradition would advocate so strongly for the sacrament of penance as a way of dealing with forgiveness and reconciliation. Historically, and dare I suggest that to good effect, Mennonites have concentrated more on an ethical response to sinfulness--on the reparation of wrong done, and on mediation and justice--than on sacramental rituals. Something similar could be said for the author's concentration on "the communion of saints" as a way of connecting with wrongs of the past. Here too, the Mennonite way would be to elaborate and engage in constructive reparation.

Further, to the question of how one might proceed with this topic from within the Mennonite tradition, I think much could be gained by referring to the Scriptures on the major theological themes of the subject at hand. For example, how might a biblical theology of repentance contribute to the topic? How might the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, offer perspective on how to deal with the sins of previous generations? Where do the teachings and example of Jesus provide clues for viewing and reckoning with sin? How might a biblical ecclesiology such as we find in the Book of Acts, in the Letter to the Ephesians, to the Galatians, or to the Hebrews provide grist for the hard work of nurturing ecclesial repentance in our time?

Jeremy Bergen has offered the wider church a most important book on a vital topic. Without detracting from my enthusiasm for this work, I must add that the manuscript would have benefited from the careful attention of a copy editor.

Canadian Mennonite University
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Author:Harder, Helmut
Publication:Mennonite Quarterly Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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