Not with a bang but a simper
is the way the Church of England will end. I learn from the BBC that a new report
is out in which some Church of England bishops suggest that Christian leaders should apologise
to Muslim leaders for the war in Iraq. The BBC story says:
A report from a working group of bishops says the war was one of a "long litany of errors" relating to Iraq.
As the government is unlikely to offer an apology, a meeting of religious leaders would provide a "public act of institutional repentance", it said.
Here are my objections, in no particular order.
- Let's face it, the bit of the apology addressed to the Iraqis would be ticklish to write. "Dear Iraqis, we are so sorry we in the West didn't spend even longer leaving you to the care of Saddam Hussein. [Look at the size of those body bags.] In our ethnocentric arrogance some of us failed to realise that massacres like this and this and this have to be allowed to continue in order to preserve world peace. Had we truly, humbly listened to those who speak for you we would have realised that people in your culture accept being treated like that and that you consider democracy an imposition."
- OK, forget all that. Let's shovel all those dead Iraqis back into the sand and imagine for a moment that I and everyone else whose backside ever warmed a pew have unanimously decided that the bishops are right: the war was a bad thing.
The bishops making a public apology for it would still be deeply dishonest. They didn't support the war. Everybody knows they didn't and they know everybody knows it. It's a fine bargain - you pay in a penny's worth of pseudo-repentance for someone else's alleged sins and get back a pound's worth of plaudits for your humility. Even better than that, you get to jab at your political enemies in circumstances where they can't jab back.
Perhaps I am being too harsh. When in 1940 C. S. Lewis wrote a still relevant essay called "Dangers of National Repentance", he was kinder. (This post from Photon Courier describes how the essay came to be written.) Here is a quote from it:
The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing - but, first, of denouncing - the conduct of others. If it were clear to the young penitent that this is what he is doing, no doubt he would remember the law of charity. Unfortunately the very terms in which national repentance is recommended to him conceal its true nature. By a dangerous figure of speech, he calls the Government not 'they' but 'we'. And since, as penitents, we are not encouraged to be charitable to our own sins, nor to give ourselves the benefit of any doubt, a Government which is called 'we' is ipso facto placed beyond the sphere of charity or even of justice. You can say anything you please about it. You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practising contrition.
- Have these "working groups" of bishops no other work to do? Is the Gospel so widely followed in this realm that the Lords Spiritual can spare the time to waffle on about matters about which they are no better informed than the average middle manager? "The harvest is plenteous but the labourers few." Yea verily, and the few we have can't be with us at the moment because they are discussing sustainable energy, or the Ghanaian agricultural subsidy regime, or whether Jacksonian nationalism is a good influence on American foreign policy.
- Which brings me to the next one. It's not obvious, guys. Even leaving out every other question about the Iraq war, it's not obvious that the deaths caused will outnumber the lives saved. It's not obvious that the Christian Aid/Oxfam line will actually help the world's poor. It's not obvious that the Kyoto accords matter. Not everyone agrees. Quite often, you know, even people of great goodness and wisdom disagree on this sort of thing. Quite often, looking back after a few years have gone by, propositions that seemed obvious to almost the entire educated class turn out to be wrong. I suspect, my lords, that sixty years ago a majority of the bishops of the Church of England believed in the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. I suspect that a few centuries earlier the vast majority of your predecessors believed in winning souls to Christ by force. I am pretty sure none of you hold the latter proposition now.
- "Not in my name" is a slogan we hear much. Now it's my turn to use it. Jesus gave almost no specific guidance on politics. Christians are obliged to assume that He didn't just forget, He knew what He was doing when He left us to figure out what loving your neighbour as yourself meant in practice. The particular guesses some bishops make shouldn't dress themselves up as the voice of the church. With every pronouncement the bishops make in support of sectional and temporary currents of opinion a few more Christians decide that the bishops don't speak in their name and walk out through the doors of their local Anglican church for the last time. Some of them might find another church to go to; others won't. Is the faith of the latter group weak, that they drop away for such a peripheral reason? Yes. But where faith is weak the Church should be in the business of strengthening it, not weakening it further. This aspect would be as bad if the sectional opinion the bishops happened to hold was in perfect agreement with mine.
- Be warned. This institutional repentance stuff is dangerous. When you proffer your apologies to the Muslim leaders (which ones, by the way?) for things that other Christians did, are you going to ask them to apologise for things that other Muslims did? If not, why not?
I do not say there is no place for institutional repentance. It was a good thing, as the report says, that the Catholic Church apologised for the Inquisition and for pogroms against Jews and others, because these acts clearly were evil, were done in the name of Christianity, and in many cases were ordered by the direct predecessors in office of those giving the official apology. By all means say that a special duty falls on Christians to keep their religion free of inquisitions and pogroms in the future, just as a special - and presently more urgent - duty falls upon Muslims to get and keep their religion free of terrorism.
But if you set a precedent of apology for acts not your own you also set a precedent that apologies can be demanded for acts not your own. You will encourage people to demand that their Muslim co-workers and neighbours must not merely disavow but apologise for 9/11 and 7/7 and whatever other pairs of numbers the Islamofascists are yet to give the world. Group repentance implies group guilt. That could get ugly.
ADDED MONDAY EVENING: I have added one or two connecting sentences to the post above. And here is a story in the Guardian about the same report. It said the working party consisted of four diocesan bishops, all from the liberal wing of the C of E.
Later post here.