"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Ecclesial Repentance

I have written several articles on the whole concept of the "healing of memories" and the necessary exchange of forgiveness and repentance between Christians that is presupposed by the healing of memories--particularly, as I proposed, between Eastern and Latin hierarchs on the first Sunday of Great Lent during Forgiveness Vespers. In so doing, I was echoing a familiar request and practice of the late Pope John Paul II, who proposed just such a request on many times, but perhaps most centrally on the first Sunday of Lent in 2000, which he celebrated liturgically in the Vatican basilica as a "Day of Repentance."  More dramatically still, he made such a request for forgiveness in Athens in 2001 in the face of some Orthodox Christians demanding he apologize for the Fourth Crusade as though it happened last week. (As the great historian Robert Taft has said, some Eastern Christians have an unhelpful tendency to collapse history and act as though the events of, e.g., 1204 in Constantinople happened yesterday.)

When, in the late 1990s, the late pope proposed doing what he did in March 2000, some Catholics (particularly the Italians in the Roman Curia concerned about preserving la bella figura) objected that asking for forgiveness would confuse people into thinking that the Church, as the spotless bride of Christ, was asking forgiveness, which would be superfluous, if not sacrilegious. Au contraire, the pope patiently replied many times: the Church, like Christ, is dyophisite. In her divine nature, she is perfect as the Body of Christ; but in her human nature she is full of sinners, and we, as humans and sinners, need always to be asking forgiveness of the Lord.

This notion, only rarely analyzed before, is a concept at the heart of a new book: Jeremy M. Bergen, Ecclesial Repentance: The Churches Confront Their Sinful Past (T&T Clark, 2011), 352pp.
About this book, the publisher tells us:
Churches have been repenting, apologizing, and asking forgiveness for beliefs and practices they once justified. These often high-profile statements raise questions such as: Can a church repent for things that happened centuries ago? Is it possible for a church to sin or to be forgiven? What difference will repenting make? Is this just more church hypocrisy? In this book Jeremy Bergen tells the story of ecclesial repentance in recent decades and explores the theological issues its raises. He argues that because it is grounded in the doctrines of Christ and the Holy Spirit, ecclesial repentance requires the church to articulate in new ways its own nature and mission.
This book, alas, seems to pay scant attention to the East, and so I hope someone will write a companion volume for Eastern Christians lest the absence of such a reckoning merely reinforce the idea among some in the East that they have nothing to apologize for: the Western Church is entirely at fault for everything from 1054--and even from before that often wildly misunderstood and rather mythological date. But Eastern Christians thinking that they are always the victim, never the perpetrator, are merely continuing in their own delusions, recently and rightly denounced by Robert Taft, who noted, e.g., the appalling persecution of the Armenians and Copts by the Orthodox Church of the Byzantine Empire or the Greek pogrom against Latin Christians in Constantinople in 1182. Inter alia, Eastern Christians in our day have egregious sins to deal with, not least, as the Russian Orthodox theologian Antoine Arjakovsky has very recently shown in his En attendant le Concile de l'Eglise Orthodoxe, the collaboration, on the part of the Russian Church, in the violent suppression, in 1946, of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church--a sin repeated two years later by the Orthodox Church in Romania against the Greco-Catholics there.

None of this should be taken as a vulgar tit-for-tat. As Taft has repeatedly shown, we have all sinned against one another, and we all have much to repent for. Bergen's book reminds of that, and therefore deserves attention for that reason.  

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