by Eric Bonetti
From the earliest days of Christianity, the church has treated Lent as a time of prayer, penance, and preparation for the Paschal feast of Easter. But in recent years, it seems like Lent has become much like making New Years’ resolutions: A sort of whimsical exercise where, for example, we give up chocolate for a few weeks, safe in the knowledge we’ll be up to our ears in Easter candy before too long.
But what if we really took the notion of repentance seriously? What if one Sunday in Lent were a time when we really sought to repair relationships, both inside and outside of the church?
I’m thinking, for example, of the recent Church of England study that examined how the church responds to victims of abuse; the study is available in PDF here. Among its findings was that survivors overwhelmingly reported being dissatisfied with the church’s response to their reports of abuse, with a large number saying they received no meaningful response at all. Indeed, the reports notes what while the church purports to offer an outstretched hand of partnership to those it has hurt, its processes, attitudes and actions often inflict “further abuse, betrayal and conflict.”
At the same time, the report found that abuse is widespread. Indeed, so much so that the report recommends publishing the intake number for making reports every single Sunday, in every single church bulletin. In addition, the report suggests placing contact information in church bathrooms and other high-use locations, so that it will be readily available. The fact that these suggestions are even on the table is damning, and anecdotal evidence suggests that The Episcopal Church is no different.
What’s interesting too, is that the Church of England increasingly is moving beyond The Episcopal Church in recognizing that abuse need not be sexual. Abuse can be spiritual, emotional, relational, financial and more. But the key, the study finds, is making it easy for survivors to come forward.
So what if Episcopal churches made it easy to come forward? Right now, in this time, in this place, during this Lent? What if one Sunday were a Safe Sunday, dedicated to hearing, with an open heart and mind, of sins within the church? Not just sexual abuse, but of the backbiting, gossip, abuse of power, bullying, and myriad other issues that go on in all churches sooner or later? Of the re-traumatization that happens all too often when people turn to the church in good faith, only to find that their concerns are brushed off, dismissed, or ignored?
What if, right here and now, all involved made a meaningful effort to welcome these reports and begin the process of repentance and possible reconciliation?
Of course, it might take a while for people to come forward. The disincentives to disclosure that have built up over the centuries won’t be washed away in a single Sunday. But as clergy and lay leaders begin to share their experiences with sin, abuse, and trauma, all evidence suggests that there will be plenty of people who will be able to join the discussion.
So, as the church discusses the #metoo and #churchtoo movements, my belief is there’s no time like the present to take action. Instead of waiting for reports from various church committees, or the next general convention, why not make next Sunday your safe day for victims of abuse to come forward? Why not pick up the phone to invite people who may have left the church due to conflict or misunderstanding to share their experiences, and maybe even come back? Even if they say no, having made a sincere effort is better than sitting in silence and hoping for the best. And it adds credibility to the language that will be heard in many churches this Easter about “respecting the dignity of every human being.”
Isn’t real repentance what Lent is really about?