I appreciate the boldness of the promise in the Baptismal Covenant about evil and sin. It states: Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? And we all reply, “I will, with God’s help,” often not fully digesting the promise we’ve just made.
I appreciate the boldness that in that promise, we don’t quibble about if we are seduced by evil, if we explain, justify, or even enjoy the benefits of evil and sin. We admit we do, and we remind ourselves we, as Christians, are never defined only by our sins because repentance and reconciliation is always — always — an imperative for Christians.
Repentance and reconciliation are not merely options, but expectations Jesus has for those who follow him. We are invited to repent and return to the Lord. This repentance, this turning away from sin and its consequences in our lives, gives us new life and hope.
We promise this to God and to each other, to recognize the times we’ve embraced sin and its consequences, and to repent and find our way forward into restoration and reunion with love.
I love that part, that reconciliation, that restoration of community and relationship, when what has been done and what has been left undone is cast in the past and we step into newness of life. Angels sing, the sun shines brightly, and unicorns skip across the meadows.
What I don’t love is the muck to dig through to get there. I don’t enjoy hearing how I have sinned, how I have benefitted from sin, and even how I have knowingly and even unknowingly sinned against others. I don’t love the truth part of reconciliation.
None of us do, I imagine. Because hearing we are far from perfect, hearing we have acted in ways that do not respect the dignity of others, hearing we have not loved as we can love is not an ideal way to spend an afternoon or a convention.
Yet that part, that hard, messy, even painful part that we call confession, is an act of courageous love. To hear about sin and to hear about the pain sin inflicts, not explaining it away, not saying, “But I didn’t mean to…” (because let’s face it, many of our sins that cut and wound each other are often unintentional), in the face of another’s truth, is a moment we connect to the meek king who is Jesus.
In February, the president of the House of Deputies asked me to chair a subcommittee on Truth and Reconciliation regarding women and sexual abuse, harassment, and gender discrimination in the church. Before accepting the chair, I sat for many days with the promise we as members of the Episcopal Church make to God and each other about sin and repentance. I thought about the sin that places women in an inferior category that allows and even invites inequality, abuse, and harassment. I prayed about how even to begin a process of truth and reconciliation for a sin many leaders in the general church believe is either a figment of the imagination of women or is only a rare event, perpetrated by an occasional bad apple in a leadership position.
Studies and surveys from other mainstream denominations refute both of these propositions. Instead, they reveal to us that the systemic sin of ignoring, demeaning, and debasing those who identify as women is pervasive in the church, and damaging both to the women who are victims and to the community of the church. These studies show that women do indeed tell their truths, but that those in leadership positions do little or nothing to respond.
Statistics tell us that a woman you know, from whom you have received the Body and Blood of Christ is being subject to harassment and abuse simply because she is a woman. And she is being subject to this harassment and abuse by a fellow Episcopalian.
We have indeed fallen into this sin. We are sitting in the muck and mire of a dearth of justice, equality, and love.
But the Good News is we don’t have to stay here.
Jesus holds out his hands and invites us to take them, pulling ourselves upward and outward into newness, into equality, and into love. We can turn from this sin, to strive for justice and peace, mercy and love, and equality and dignity for women in our church and in our world. We have a chance to step into the messiness of confession and hear the truth. We will feel uncomfortable as we hear these truths. We will want to explain situations away, argue the budget can’t afford this work. We will want to move quickly to an easy but unhelpful and fragile restoration, saying fervently that hearing the stories is enough.
Our process of reconciliation and restoration in the church calls for confession and a turning away from this sin, an action that changes us. Some call these acts of contrition. I call them doing justice. After all, as Cornel West reminds us, justice is what love looks like in public.
I had the privilege of speaking with the Rev. Allan Boesak, a minister in the South African Dutch Reformed Church and anti-apartheid activist about his work with truth and reconciliation in South Africa. I asked him what he would suggest to us as we contemplate a truth and reconciliation process. His answer was profound. He said, “We forgot to ask what justice would look like to those who were harmed.”
The holy words of truth, justice, and love guided us and filled our prayers as our subcommittee engaged in this process. Two resolutions came from the time of conversations, prayers, and work of the women on this subcommittee. The first calls for a task force to hear the truth of women and men in our church who have been demeaned, abused, harassed, and discriminated against because of gender. Thankfully, our Methodists sisters and brothers did a comprehensive survey several years ago and have generously offered to assist us as we begin the courageous act of faith and love to hear the truth in our own denomination.
The second resolution asks the General Convention to create a task force on Women, Truth, and Reconciliation, as we explain in the Resolution:
for the purpose of helping the Church engage in truth-telling, confession, and reconciliation regarding gender-based discrimination, harassment, and violence against women and girls in all their forms by those in power in the Church, making an accounting of things done and left undone in thought, word, and deed, intending amendment of life, and seeking counsel, direction, and absolution as we are restored in love, grace, and trust with each other through Christ;
My hope is that the General Convention heeds the example of Jesus and thousands of years of faithful Christians and humbly, lovingly, and courageously enters this time of confession and reconciliation as we strive to love each other as we desire to be loved. My hope is that women and men of the Church will want for those who identify as women in the church the same rights, dignity, and safety as those who identify as men regularly receive. My hope is that we pass the resolutions as a tangible witness of our belief in this reconciling love Jesus preached, lived, and believes we can embody.
My fear is that we find speaking words of justice and love much easier than acting on them, that voices will continue to embrace excuses and shortcomings as “that’s just the way it is” or we will continue to deny that gender discrimination is alive and even nurtured in the Church. My fear is that we will continue to deny the place of women in our faith.
I fear, but I hear the voices of women and remember always, always to hope.
We are the children of Tamar, of Rahab, and of Ruth. We drink the living water brought up from the depths by the Samaritan woman who asked for that living water at the well and who held with Jesus one of the longest conversations in the Gospels. We cry out for justice and help with Hagar, the first person in Holy Scripture to name God. God heard her and hears our cries yearning for justice and help in the face of oppression. And we sing with Mary who birthed Jesus into the world with courage and love. We live in the hope of the women who went to the tomb and who were entrusted, above all others, to announce the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Because of their witness, because of their love, we live in hope. I live in hope that we will follow their witness and as a church, embark on the journey to be restored to that place where women and men are equal in all aspects of our faith.
The Rev. Laurie Brock, rector of St. Michael’s Church in Lexington, Kentucky, is a deputy from the Diocese of Lexington and author of “Horses Speak of God.”