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Repentance is more than saying sorry

Updated: Mar 11, 2021

by Pete Phillips, Head of Digital Theology

Last week's Repentance Webinar on the Premier Digital Members Service was quite an eye-and-ear-opener.

The Speakers

We had an awesome guest list:

  • Archbishop Angaelos, Coptic Archbishop of London

  • Selina Stone, Tutor and Lecturer in Political Theology at St Mellitus College

  • Professor Dawn Edge, Chair in Mental Health & Inclusion at Manchester University

  • Bishop Mike Royal, Bishop and co-Chair of the Cinnamon Network

Each of the guests was asked to share their view of repentance - what is it, what does it mean and how does it work. However, the publicity which had gone out on social media prior to the event had used a graphic focussing on the phrase "Say Sorry". Many of the speakers reacted against this image and in a conversation with host, Pete Phillips, Selina Stone said that there was a cultural obsession with 'saying sorry' rather than repenting. Saying sorry for every minor social bump meant that we were less willing to be repentant. Indeed, we could cite lots of examples of key figures offering false apologies ("I am sorry you felt that way") rather than true repentance - which is essentially a change in behaviour leading to confession of sin and reparation for that sin.

We'll be linking to a copy of the whole webinar at the end of this blogpost but first an account of the different talks and why watching the video is actually really, really important.

The Account

The webinar had opened with an extract from Vince and Jo Vitale's "personal confession" concerning the Ravi Zacharias scandal (a new edited version has been uploaded since the meeting but a full transcript is available here). And references to this video came up in several of the guests' contributions. Premier has reported on the scandal in different ways, for example here and here.

Archbishop Angaelos, The Coptic Archbishop of London, was the first of our speakers to present.

The Archbishop explored repentance from the very beginning - the fact that we are created in the image of God but still sin, still resist the life which God offers to us.

Repentance is a process which reflects on our own actions, owns our own sin, confesses that sin and changes our behaviour to prevent a repeat of this sin.

Love is to own up to our faults, our sins, and deciding to change the way we live to avoid those sins, those faults in what we do that hurt others and God (Psalm 51).

In the talk, Archbishop Angaelos reflected on stories from John's Gospel exploring these themes.

Professor Dawn Edge is the Chair in Mental Health and Inclusivity at Manchester University, and a member of a black-led church in the city. Professor Dawn’s talk focussed on the role of repentance in inclusion and in her own lived experience and her professional work. Dawn’s family were part of the invited Windrush generation, brought to the UK to help rebuild the post-war economy. Instead of being included as fellow British citizens, often those who came were marginalised and de-professionalised. Dawn explored the continuation of that marginalisation within contemporary society - a reality which impinges on every part of contemporary experience. Racism pervades our society and causes divisions and exclusion in many different directions.

We need to repent. Dawn outlined the process in terms of an acknowledging our sins/wrongs; confessing our sin; seeking forgiveness, turning away from sin; righting wrongs through reparation.

Dawn argued that we are quick to short circuit this by saying sorry but by not changing our actions, not offering reparation for wrong.

Dawn asked a series of questions at the end of her talk:

  • Why is the Church complacent/complicit in perpetuating segregation?

  • What would true confession look like?

  • From whom should we seek forgiveness?

  • How do we co-create a roadmap for turning away?

  • What will be the evidence of reparation?

Bishop Mike Royal focussed his talk on repentance and the community. But just as Dawn looked at the systemic sin of prejudice, so Mike also picked up this theme, making racism the focus of his talk, following George Floyd’s murder and the worldwide demonstrations in support of the #BLM movement. Mike explored his own response to the #BLM movement within his local community and church, pointing to the problems associated with endemic racism in UK society, and establishing a protest march under the title of Ministers of Colour. His decision at that rally to take the knee was both an act of prayer and a sign of defiance, calling Parliament to repent.

Bishop Mike points out that the church needs to take its own medicine! The Church needs to repent when it is clear that it has misunderstood God's will, ignored God's call for justice.

We cannot preach a Gospel of repentance, unless we are willing to repent.

At the time of the #BLM protests, Mike wrote his own repentance for being silent when he noted moments of oppression. His repentance led to a movement focussed on owning our own need to repent at whatever level of the Church we are in. We too need to repent and move towards restitution and reparation. Mike points to the voluntary reparations paid by Zacchaeus - this is where repentance is shown in action.

Selina Stone is Political Theology Lecturer and Tutor at St Mellitus College in London.

She's just submitted her PhD thesis which will be examined in the next few months. Selina's presentation at the meeting continued to explore the social context in which we repent. Selina pointed out that often we use apology too quickly as a form of saving face rather than a true pattern of repentance. Indeed, if the person who is offered an apology refuses to accept this, they are seen as transgressing the social code rather than the person apologising. This is an endemic part of our society. Indeed, apologies are so problematic as Selina explores in her pact.

Picking up on David Novak's research, Selina argues that guilt lies with perpetrator of sin. But also there is the need for a collective acceptance of our culture's sins.

The sins of our society, our country's past echo through time. Repentance is about a desire to do better, to improve the situation, to bring shalom, not just about saving face in an awkward situation.

Repentance, Selina argues, is always a process, always on the horizon. Repentance means we need to be continually aware of sin, continually striving for shalom, - a constant process of repentant living.

The Video


All these videos are available along with over 150 more. Join us for our next Webinar in Easter Week - March 7th at 3pm - for a Celebration of Digital Easter.


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