Ecclesial Repentance: The Churches Confront Their Sinful Pasts
Jeremy M. Bergen. New York, NY: T & T Clark, 2011. 352 pages.
Ecclesial repentance, a new and growing phenomenon in church history, is “the act in which church/denominational bodies make official statements of repentance, apology, confession or requests for forgiveness for those things which were once official policy or practice” (3). The need to critically reflect on their own past has grown among church traditions, due to ecumenical encounters, confrontations with solid historical and sociological studies, as well as the revelations of victims in different contexts where the church has clearly sinned.
In this revised doctoral dissertation, Mennonite scholar Jeremy Bergen presents a study in ecclesiology, which is timely since it helps us to understand different motivations for and ways of repenting, depending on the given cultural context and church tradition. Bergen summarizes his task as that of studying ecclesial repentance which studies the church studying itself (287). Ecclesiology for Bergen is not primarily a theoretical discipline but an “irreducibly historical and practical one” (following Roman Catholic Nicholas M. Healy’s ecclesiological approach as “a practical-prophetic discipline”).
In the first half of the book, Bergen summarizes more than analyzes the material he finds in twentieth- and early twenty-first-century documents. Churches have expressed repentance in three major categories. First, for unnecessary divisions “among the people of God.” The disunity of Christians as expressed in many bilateral dialogues points to the given unity in Christ, which calls for reconciliation. Included are several Mennonite statements on repentance from North America and Canada, although a confession expressed by German Mennonites fifty years after WWII is missing. Repentance for offences against the Jewish people were issued by the churches after the Holocaust, an initiative which made Jewish-Christian dialogue possible and paved the way for much needed corrections in Christian theologies (particularly supersessionism). While church declarations from Western Europe receive special attention, the criteria for selecting the resources are not always self-evident. For example, the important statement by the Evangelical Church in Rhineland in 1980—a paradigm shift for Christians in Germany—is summarized in a mere two sentences (43). This is simply to signal the vast quantity of material and the enormous influence ecclesial repentance has on doing theology, which is one of the main reasons why this research is so important.
Second, churches have confessed guilt and expressed repentance for the legacy of Western colonialism, including such offences against aboriginal people as slavery, racism, and apartheid. The third category includes declarations of repentance for sexual abuse, violence, and injustice; discrimination against women and homosexual persons; as well as participation in civil wars and environmental destruction.
In the second half of the book, entitled “Doctrine and Practice: Frameworks and Implications,” Bergen seeks to interpret the presented material by choosing corresponding ecclesiological motives: questions of history, memory, and the temporal nature of the church are confronted with the self-understanding of the church as “the communion of saints” (ch. 5). Here he draws on the Trinitarian approach of Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson as a reference point. The temporal continuity of the church is rooted in God’s triune life: it is the movement of the Holy Spirit that enables the church to repent of its sins. Further, it is God’s reconciling work in Christ that creates the community of saints and also establishes and preserves the eschatological character of the church.
Differences in ecclesiological self-understanding become relevant when dealing with the nature and meaning of sin in the church. While in Protestant perspective the “community of believers” is able to sin collectively and always sins, the Roman Catholic interpretation of the church as “sacrament,” which therefore simply cannot sin, still faces the challenge of repenting for the sins of its members. Here the question of the holiness of the church is chosen as a point of reference and a possible way to interpret ecclesiologically what in fact happens (ch. 6). Bergen sees a movement in both traditions towards one another: “The church’s holiness is fully in Christ, and fully bound to its historical character and identity” (241), even in light of the Holocaust. Holiness is an indestructible gift of God, and the church is conformed evermore to the body of Christ by repentance.
Bergen then moves on to discuss the nature of forgiveness and reconciliation ecclesiologically, in light of the relation of divine and human forgiveness, the sacrament of penance, and the church’s mission of reconciliation (ch. 7). Still, one might want to ask: what if the church does not change in structure and in deeds after repentance? What if discrimination and irresponsibility continue despite all repentance for sins of the past? And what if church doctrines are not corrected? Should we not also consider the possibility of a performance of God’s reconciliation outside the church, recalling that God—as revealed in Christ—is primarily on the side of the marginalized and victims of violence and injustice? How does the church avoid an instrumentalization of God’s gift of grace (“cheap grace”) in its ecclesiology? A reflection on the tension between the empirical church and the church in which we believe might have been helpful here.
Bergen’s research, with its broad ecumenical approach, is a real gift to the ecumenical church. It is also a gift to all church traditions that do not claim to be perfect but self-critically revisit their past and present in order to become a more faithful communion, one that seeks to live up to the divine call to the ministry of reconciliation, entrusted and enabled by the Triune God.