If we are calling for an apology but we all know that apology will only lead to further calls for greater sanctions, who is going to apologise? Particularly, it bears saying, who is going to apologise if they are only tangentially related? Even if an apology might be well received, or helpful in some way, if they know they will be implicated (especially if deeply unfairly so) why would they raise their head above the parapet?
Scandals in the church seem to happen with far greater frequency than any of us think they should or wish they did. There is something of a well worn path that follows now too. Usually starting with a bit of distancing between people and/or organisations that are clearly, if not actually and directly linked, certainly relationally so. What then follows is often a refusal to just say sorry.
Yesterday, Michael Tinker wrote a blog post making just this point. You can read that here. What I’m about to say is not to disagree with what he wrote. I think the point he makes is quite right. When organisations are rocked by scandals, when they had some level of involvement such that they could have addressed matters, the right thing to do is just say sorry. Sometimes there are others linked in such a way that may require apologies from them too. My purpose in writing this is to press a little further and ask, are there reasons why the elusive sorry is rarely forthcoming? I think there are.
For one, an organisation needs to be clear what it is sorry about. If an individual is caught in a scandal within an organisation and those very organisational structures allowed it to happen, that would be a solid reason for the organisation at large to apologise. Or, perhaps people within the organisation raised the alarm and were subsequently ignored. Being sorry for that seems entirely right. The problem is when we start dealing with relationally linked but technically separate groups or groups even further removed from matters than that.
What, exactly, is an organisation that isn’t directly involved – but clearly has some relational links with those involved – supposed to say sorry for? Sorry we knew the person at the centre of the matter but had no jurisdiction over them? Sorry we worked with them, not knowing anything about the matters that have come to light, but nevertheless sorry anyway? The further the degree of separation – even if we can draw some relational lines – the harder it becomes to know what these other groups and individuals are meant to say sorry for. I suspect, some of the time, that is why they don’t say it. They just don’t know exactly what they are meant to apologise for.
Some insist that as believers we should be clear that all of us are sinners and will therefore err but all of us have received grace and therefore should extend it in the face of repentance. This is Christianity 101. We all sin, we all need forgiveness, therefore confess your sin and receive grace. Why on earth, we may wonder, would a Christian person or organisation not be willing to say sorry or admit fault when that is the case?
I think, if we are honest, we know the answer. Just as organisations and individuals are fallible and may sin, organisations and individuals are fallible and therefore are often less than willing to show grace. Just as the well-worn path of foot-shuffling and buck-passing has been seen enough to know that sorrys aren’t forthcoming, we have also trod this path long enough to know that if and when they do come grace is rarely extended.
Sorry, as we know, is an admission of guilt. Once we have it, let’s be honest, matters rarely stop there. Demands for a mere sorry – and incredulous claims as to why we didn’t get an apology when that is all we want – are either naïve or disingenuous. Because what most want is not a mere sorry, but the extraction of an apology as an admission of guilt from which a series of retributive actions can then be established. I don’t presume any and all people ever asking for an apology are saying or thinking this, but enough instances have occurred for us to see that it is often so. I am left wondering why those who can rightly see so clearly that if sinners will sin they may well sin further by not confessing their sin and apologising cannot similarly see that if sinners will sin those who are supposed to confer forgiveness don’t always appear very forgiving when faced with contrition.