by Tom Stuckey.
When Covid-19 is over will Methodism revert to business as usual? Over the past ten years I have been arguing that if Methodism in Britain is to thrive, a complete sea change is required. I have used the word ‘repentance’ to describe the radical nature of this shift. I mentioned it first in my Presidential Address of 2005, repeated it in 2006, spoke of it in study days across the connexion, alluded to it in Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land (2017), addressed it directly in Methodism Unfinished (2019) and reflected on it in a series of short articles in the Methodist Recorder throughout the months of March, April and May 2020.
One of the motivations for this decade of repetition has been my growing awareness of a ‘paradigm shift’ taking place. Back in 1962 the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn first propounded this concept. It describes how a dominant framework under which normal science operates is rendered incompatible with new phenomena. This necessitates the adoption of a new interpretive framework to make understanding possible. My former theological teacher, Prof. Thomas Torrance, introduced me to this idea in a theological way by using the word metanoia – ‘repentance’. Since then I have come to believe that a universal kairos event would occur making it clear that our usual ways of thinking and doing have come to an end. Only repentance will enable us to cross over from the old to the new. I suggest that Covid-19 is that liminal event.
I have been taken to task, sometimes quite severely, for saying that Methodism must repent. My suggestion of a paradigm shift has similarly been dismissed. These negative reactions have puzzled me. I now see that Methodists interpret the word ‘repentance’ in a personal way. As followers of Wesley we readily appreciate his words ‘he has saved my from my sins, even mine’. Is this preventing us from thinking about what repentance might mean for an institution? Ecclesiastical institutions obviously sin. We have examples of this in the recent revelations of clergy abuse, the Church’s anti-Semitism and its discrimination against sections of society: women, black people or those with different sexual orientations. In such cases these ethical sins can be named and addressed but what of the more subtle spiritual and theological sins?
The author of the book of Revelation diagnoses the failure of six of the seven churches. Each must repent of their particular spiritual/theological sin. Paul in Colossians, writing to the churches of the Lycus Valley, does not hesitate in naming their corporate theological sin. These Churches have absorbed into their life features of the prevailing culture which are having a toxic effect upon their witness. Sin in these cases is corporate and institutional. When Churches become national establishments or are linked in some way through an Episcopal or Connexional system does not sin, whether ethical, spiritual or theological, affect the ecclesiastical culture and distort their structural processes?
While governments in a ‘post-truth’ culture often resort to denial or self-justification, the Church does attempt, sometimes reluctantly, to address the sin within. One solution is to list the ‘sins’ (failures?) on the agenda to be dealt with through the usual channels. ‘Lament’, which is a fundamental feature of repentance, is largely avoided. Another approach is to initiate a review, identify mistakes and learn from them. ‘Lament’ may figure in this but still lacks the radical renewing power which Walter Brueggemann alludes to in his expositions of the Psalms. ‘Lament’ as he describes it, drives us to our knees in desperate petitionary prayers which seek to motivate God into action!
Why do institutions find it so hard to repent? According to Michael Polanyi the interpretive framework or paradigm which enables us to hear and understand is buried deep within our minds and subject to our passions. Institutions are reluctant to admit that they may be getting things wrong because this raises questions about trust, integrity and power. In order to comprehend ‘the new’ the current way of thinking and doing may have to be abandoned. Polanyi describes this move into a new understanding as a ‘heuristic’ act of non-rational discovery. In Christian terms he is describing renunciation and faith which takes us back to the Gospel imperative ‘repent and believe’. If we are indeed where I think we are in the history of the Church, we cannot revert to business as usual. The old is passing away and the new is coming.
The full script plus references can be found on www.tomstuckey.me.uk
12 thoughts on “Repentance”
As a lifelong Methodist now coming up to my 74th birthday I have thought for years that the Methodist Church has lost its way; again and again I feel we’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water, or never got the baby into the bath in the first place. Many a time I would dearly have liked to have walked away from this Church – but where would I go? Somehow our clinging to what has been is getting in the way of our renewal but I still think God has work for Methodists to do through our unique understanding of what it means to be the people of God if only we can open up to his future, not ours. Whether we call it repentance or lament or anything else I’m sure we have to look afresh at ourselves as the Methodist people as we stand before God and allow him to move us on through the Spirit wherever that may lead, and not try to shoehorn him into our present structures and understanding. I still long for a church that is vital, dynamic, and above all relevant to the needs of people today.
Coming up to my 74th birthday as a lifelong Methodist I have felt for years that my Church has lost its way – throwing the baby out with the bath water or never getting the baby into the bath in the first place. Many a time I have considered walking away from it but where would I go? I still believe God has work for us to do if only we could bring ourselves to be open to him without wanting to shoehorn him into our existing structures. It doesn’t surprise me that Tom Stuckey has met opposition and denial but whether we call it repentance, lament or anything else somehow we have to allow the Spirit to lead us into newness of life – and relevance to the people around us.
I have children in their sixties so am unlikely to see how this one develops, but many years ago I asked two or three then Presidents of Conference (not including Tom) what they would do if the Methodist Church had finished the specific work for which it was called into existence and ceased to exist, and I got some interesting answers which I do not feel free to share or attribute! But God will be worshipped, whatever. The Spirit will move. Jesus will remain alive.
I went to the full text of the piece, as suggested, and it has given me enough to think about for the rest of the week if not the rest of my life. (Whichever is the longer…..!)
The idea that the church has nothing to repent of is absurd; the past cases review is but one example of why we cannot simply say we’re Christians so we’re ‘good’. Having just written an assignment on the responses of the German and French churches to the Holocaust, I have a somewhat jaded view of an apologetic that seeks to justify why a church couldn’t/wouldn’t do a particular thing, instead of admitting it got it wrong and truly repenting.
The idea that all denominations are confronted with the need for a paradigm shift, however defined, is being worked out in various ways by members of tge Progressive Christian Network. These voluntary groups, often ecumenical in character, attract many who are retired and therefore feel free to suggest new directions (metanoia) in which church thinking can be carried on. Inevitably this means questioning some long-established dogmas, and opinions are constantly divided, but the principle is one of exploration and open-mindedness. Change will inevitably come, and it is important that we face the possibility of radically new expressions of faith. Within church circles this tends to be understood as retelling the old, old stories in contemporary language. The elephant in the pews, so to speak, is not that people do not know what we believe. Many do, and understand the implications, and do not share those beliefs as conventionally (or trendily) expressed. This goes for many in the pews, who do not feel empowered to speak up.
I found the article on repentance very interesting. In particular the idea that a paradigm shift is required in which the Methodist Church should change and this will require repentance. The key phrase that took my attention was that “only repentance will enable us to cross over from the old to the new”. Not sure I agree. For me repentance seems less useful that thinking of this situation in terms of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the motivation, repentance the praxis. In seeking forgiveness we repent, but not the other way round. Perhaps we should think of repentance as reconciliation, the purely secular matter of bringing justice and fairness to the situation. There is also the problem that repentance is about making a deal with God or others – Will you forgive me if I/we repent. But God’s love is unconditional so there are no “ifs” in the Kingdom. God does not make deals! I would say only forgiveness will enable us to cross over from the old to the new.
If we follow the Jesus we meet in the Bible then we should relate to all people we meet with unconditional love and unconditional forgiveness and this brings problems – we lock up paedophiles, men who abuse women and militant racialists and quite right to! And yet Jesus forgave people even though “they were yet sinners”, so how does this radical forgiveness relate to the fact that we are to seek justice and fairness?
I find it easier to understand the message of Jesus about forgiveness in terms of motivation and practice. The motivation is easy: There is the demand written on all our hearts (even non-Christians) that we should love our neighbour. which means we always seek justice and fairness – and that includes forgiving all who we meet. When we meet someone (a sinner!) who has ignored the demand we must endeavour to forgive and forget.
In practice we have to think about others. Yes, I can forgive and forget, but if the sinner murders, abuses or hurts others (or me), my forgiveness is modified by the fact that I will forgive, but I will not forget. I would suggest there is no rule book for this and God absents Him/Herself from this issue (kenosis).
My point is that to apply this distinction between motivation and practice in the Methodist Church would be to recognise that we are forgiven but we must not forget the wrong we have done. To reiterate: God forgives and forgets. People (all people) can forgive, but should not forget. And we have to move on. How an institution can repent or lament is beyond me and is there any point in such an inward looking activity anyway!
The important thing is ‘Metanoia’ – turning towards what we need to turn towards, rather than the Latin ‘Repentance’ and spending too much time on what we did wrong. In this Kairos moment, let us pause, as we have had to, and look to where we should be going in the guidance of the Holy Spirit and with the blueprint of how Jesus challenged each ‘given’ in His own day.
This is part two I suppose. For some people repentance, lament, regret and the wrath of God are important aspects of their spiritual life, but I feel there are others who, in the same circumstances, would find forgiveness, praise, hope and unconditional love. For me the latter view is not just blind optimism (all is for the best in the best of possible worlds) but what comes to mind when I think of faith.
As I see it we know when we have done wrong and know we have to deal with the consequences. We also know we are forgiven and should forgive others, moving forward on our journey from mundane self-obsessed hedonism to other-obsessed altruism. I suggest this is following Christ and applies to every person, whether they verbalise it religiously or not. And not only that! I recognise this positive mental attitude of ethical concern in most of the people I meet and it makes life wonderful, amazing and meaningful.
There’s more! When I recognise the particularity, the difference and the need of the person before me I am disturbed. I am unintentionally affected by the presence of the other. There is an incessant demand that I must respond to the ethical needs of the person before me. I reckon this demand is from God because it is an event that invariably brings God to mind. And this is no still small voice! God bawls at me – take responsibility! Dostoievsky in “The Brothers Karamazov” makes the point – “everyone of us is responsible for everyone else in every way, and I most of all”. So I am to be responsible for the needs of my body, my immune system, my emotions, my mind, my self; for how I deal with close relationships, for how I deal with the needs of the stranger, for the mistakes I make, for the environment, for other creatures, for the future and probably for the weather!
Repentance, lament, regret and the wrath of God and even sin seem far removed from this.
While I was writing the above it came to mind that repentance, lament, regret and the wrath of God are not necessarily about our ethical concern for others. I have a question. Levinas made the audacious statement that God ONLY arises in the context of the ethical concern we have for others. Is this true?
Gareth Davies on this topic wrote ”The elephant in the pews, so to speak, is not that people do not know what we believe. Many do, and understand the implications, and do not share those beliefs as conventionally (or trendily) expressed. This goes for many in the pews, who do not feel empowered to speak up”. This is me feeling empowered to speak up!
Robert Bridge, I am pleased that you feel empowered to speak up. It is right to do so, but it is also right to allow others to disagree. When it comes to hedonism vs altruism, I think maybe we need to seek a balance. When we allow Jesus to transform our hearts and minds, we naturally begin to look outwards, towards the needs of others. But in doing so, we should not neglect our own need for God. Jesus called God ‘Abba’ and he ‘raised his eyes to Heaven’ when he prayed. Even the Saviour needed his Father.
When it comes to ‘everyone of us being responsible for everyone else in every way’ I would ask you this question: if you were standing on a bridge over a river and you saw the person you love most in the world drowning on one side and a complete stranger drowning on the other side but you only had one life-belt, which person would you throw it to? Be honest.
I think that it is in asking the question and risking disagreement we learn more of God, who is and always will be a mystery to us and yet is ever present in our lives. You pose two questions here. For the second one about the lifebelt I would hope that I was never given the choice, or it happened that one person was easier to reach than the other. My point about being responsible for everyone is that this is the motivation for my actions. God calls me to respond to both drowning people. In practice I have to choose and if necessary deal with the consequences. To recognise that everyone of us is responsible for everyone else in every way is pretty much the same as the injunction to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. I prefer it because it avoids the idea that there is a deal involved here or love that comes over as sentimental.
The first question is pretty much the same: It is in the motivation or call to move from hedonism to altruism that God intervenes in my/our lives. How we bring justice and fairness into our relationships with others is up to us.
For me God is actually the call to respond, the motivation, rather than a being or a presence. So I live with the fact that God only arises in the context of the ethical concern I have for others.
I am well aware that this initiates a deconstructive theology that many find contentious but as Luther said; “here I stand, I can do no other”.
Going back to “repentance” could it be the case that it is the religious language that alienates people from going to church? Perhaps Tillich was right: A secular language that avoided unnecessary metaphysical ideas is acceptable in that it avoids “supernaturalism” and follows his Method of Correlation to create a different theology than the creedal one we are stuck with.
Thank you, Robert for your considered response to my question. I too hope I am never confronted with such a choice; it’s too horrible to even think about. But hypothetical questions such as that one do sometimes help us to face the truth of our own hearts. We can all be altruistic up to a point but, in extreme situations, who knows?
I never ask questions to cause friction or argument, but simply to help people see that there is more than one point of view. I don’t have to accept yours and you don’t have to accept mine. Faith is always a voyage of discovery. It may be the creeds and the language that put people off going to church; I really don’t know, but if you change them you risk alienating those for whom the creeds and language are the bedrock of their faith. You can’t please everyone.
PS I do think our paths may have crossed a few years ago. Are you the same Robert Bridge who did a discipleship course with Revd Hilary Howarth? I was in that group.
Sorry to go on about repentance but it seems to me this is critical for the future of the Church. Tom’s suggested that we need to repent and I rumbled on about the status of repentance and forgiveness. Now I wish to suggest that to address the paradigmatic shift evident in society we should consider the issue of language. Are we alienating people by insisting on the use of religious language? Tom points out that preachers are taking this on board to some extent and he gives examples, but I have come round to the thought that this is doing a gentle prune when we need a root and branch transformation. Example. I have been to Communion services where the hymns and the address have been meaningful, inclusive and non-judgmental. Then we start on the Service Book and for me love goes out of the window: Its about a judgmental God who expects us to make deals with him – in particular repent and your sins will be forgiven. Yes, it is in the creed but in my inner life this is just bad theology. Not sure about the Trinity either.
I know many in the congregation expect a creedal message but perhaps we should see this from the point of view of the many people who feel alienated by the language we use in church.