Friday, December 21, 2007

Williams on failure in/of the church

The Church [...] addresses itself to all human violence, in all human beings. If it is to be itself, it has no option but to live in penitence, in critical self-awareness and ackowledgement of failure. It must recognise constantly its failing as a community to be a community of gift and mutuality, and warn itself of the possibility of failure.

What kind of gospel can plausibly be preached, for instance, by a Church which is unable to deal with the moral, emotional or psychological collapse of one of its ministers except by a mixture of frigid and embarrassed public silence and punitive internal discipline? It is not often that we hear leaders of our churches - it is not often that we hear any of us - admitting in such cases the failure of a community to love its ministers pastorally and the breakdown of mutual support between clergy; or warmly assuring the victim not only of Christ's love and forgiveness but of its willingness to learn from them, to receive some challenge, enlargement, even enrichment from their trust and hope. Yet all this is part of what it is to be a penitent Church - to say as firmly as possible that no one's failure is theirs alone, and that no failure can put an end to the relation of mutual gift that is the ground of the community's life. Historic Christianity has, of course, disciplined believers by means of excommunication; but we should remember that, primitively, excommunication (so far from excluding the sinner wholly from the Church) accorded the recognized status of a penitent within the Church. It was a recognition that the bonds of communal life (so much stronger in the early Church than today) were ruptured by sin, and its orientation was towards reconciliation (sometimes only in the next world, but nonetheless reconciliation). Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of this sort of discipline, we have to admit that (at least in 'North Atlantic' Christendom) we have nothing to correspond to this: excommunication has far too long been simply a penalty, absolving the community from any active work in restoring relations. We cannot use the traditional acceptability of such a practice to modify the Church's vocation to preserve the sinner's place in the community.

- Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, 48-49.

What is the Christian community to do with major failure amongst its members? How do, can or ought we respond to a life falling apart in our midst? What if it's one of our leaders? What if it's us?
Eight points for correctly naming the building.