There is much talk in the public domain about the nature, need and occasion for an apology, and beneath the discussion are a variety of questions.
When is one needed?
Is there a best time and place for it ?
Does it have to be a “public apology” just because it involves a public figure?
Do we the public have the right not to accept an apology if the injured party does?
Is it moral to force an apology upon someone whose wrongdoing is neither admitted nor proven?
If given, should the victim accept it uncritically ?
How does one discern a sincere apology from part of a “reputation management strategy”?
Can one offer an apology for something for which one did not – and could not – have had any personal responsibility?
It has all become very confused and overly complex, so Brother Ivo thought it might be helpful to the public debate if he tried to illustrate a successful confession and apology and thereby grounds the public consideration of the problem, by considering one of the Anglican Church’s historic Confessions which stands in the form of an apology to our Maker.
This is an apology which has stood the test of time and helped many a wrongdoer make his or her peace, so it seems a useful starting point for anyone before they begin to struggle with what is happening in the confused world of the un-churched, where there is little familiarity with how this kind of thing works.
First let us remind ourselves that one of the popular expressions we use for accepting responsibility is ” holding our hands up” – which is why Brother Ivo chose the above illustration.
It is a good starting point, for saying sorry begins nowhere if not in the placing of oneself in another’s power and in a position of vulnerability by abandoning bogus defences.
So we Anglican say –
Almighty and most merciful Father,
We begin with clarity, identifying precisely to whom our confession and apology is directed. Unless we are plain about the person to whom our apology is aimed it will become at best diffuse and at worst self-referential.
“we have wandered and strayed from your ways like lost sheep”
At first sight, this may look like a charming remnant of an anachronistic farming community, but whilst it may indeed have such an origin, its imagery is very pertinent to the process of apology.
Brother Ivo recalls hearing a shepherd once describing his sheep as the animals with the most highly developed death wish of any of God’s creatures. Leave a fence un-mended on a cliff top and they will find it. Pasture them by a torrential river and they will fall in. An unerring sense of imprudent behaviour is something we and sheep appear to have in common.
This portion of the confession and apology addresses an important recognition of what it is to be a fallible human being. We are wayward, we are both willful to have our own ways and thoughtless of the consequences, to ourselves and others.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
Our apology places the responsibility firmly upon ourselves; there is no room for “ the big girls made me do it” or “I am a victim too”.
The striking phrase “devices and desires” is worth a moment’s reflection.
To the Christian, every act for which we owe an apology, has an element of pride within it. We have elevated our judgement and needs above those of God, our community or the person/s we have wronged. Plainly our ‘desires” will have been prioritised, but what are these “devices”?
If we are to apologise and mend our ways effectively we need to identify how it was that we came to be in the mess in which we find ourselves. Part of our vulnerability is surely that we develop little mindsets, tricks which help us to step away from the standards we profess. Amongst these might be “ Nobody will ever know”, “I deserve this” or “s/he put temptation in my way”.
They are usually an expression of pride – Lucifer’s besetting sin – and this is rooted in the idea that the rules are for others and not at all applicable to people of our circumstance or importance.
All the time those “devices” are left unaddressed, progress cannot be made, which is why forcing an apology upon a person, whether by carrot or stick, will never result in a lasting improvement. Only when we have seriously reflected upon how we got into the mess will we learn anything of lasting value. We have to identify not only the result, but also the mechanisms by which we kidded ourselves that we could get away with it unscathed. Identifying ” the devices” is of no small importance.
We have offended against your holy laws.
We have left undone those things
that we ought to have done;
and we have done those things
that we ought not to have done;
A Christian confession /apology is nothing if not comprehensive. It has the singular advantage of starting with absolute clarity. That which God find’s displeasing is to be repented.
There is so room for moral relativism here, there is “no hiding place”. Whilst that may seem daunting to the unbeliever, it does have the real merit of making clear to the believer that there truly is no point in trying to deceive either the Almighty or oneself. We are where we are – so we might as well deal with it!
So it is, that we are invited to call to mind not only the sins of commission ( what we did wrong) but also the sins of omission (where we failed to do the good that is also required of us in the Christian life).
When one hears of public figures struggling over the terms of an apology, the likelihood is that they are equivocating in a way that this famous confession does not allow.
The contemplation of these words will swiftly take one to the heart of one’s guilty conscience but whilst that is an uncomfortable journey , the conclusion is both plain – and healing.
and there is no health in us.
We pronounce judgement upon ourselves. It is the best starting position if we are to restore ourselves to moral health and self respect. Sometimes one has to hit rock bottom before taking the road to recovery. From hereon, things can only get better.
But you, O Lord, have mercy upon us sinners.
For the first time the words could be ambiguous, but not in an unhelpful way.
Read one way, it reminds God of His nature and His promise to always have mercy on those who are truly repentant; it opens the dialogue by inviting God’s unfailing love and grace. At the same time, is serves as a reminder to us of God’s forgiving nature. That’s what he does, – He has “mercy upon us sinners” – which is precisely he sent Jesus. Through our contrition Jesus stands as the open door to forgiveness and restoration.
This may be the tricky part for the secular person following our Christian methodology. You have to place yourselves entirely in the hands and under the mercy of those whom one has wronged. The hands must be held up and the vulnerability to judgement embraced.
The Christian has the sure and confident knowledge of the outcome to an apology sincerely expressed, but unfortunately there is no such guarantee in the secular sphere. That may be why we see more equivocation outside churches than within them.
Yet have not great sinners found amazing grace in their victims? Have not murderers found understanding in the responses of their victims families? Those who engaged in fierce war reconcile, those who contended politically, smile in old age at the arrogance of their youth.
If you have done wrong and should say sorry, then you simply have to take the risk. It is easier to understand that if one has been habituated to the process through regular worship.
Spare those who confess their faults.
Restore those who are penitent,
At this point we begin to think of ourselves; this is the plea in mitigation. Although we may not be the faithful nation we once were, there is still probably enough Christian residue within the culture to apply a degree of social pressure upon one receiving a full and unqualified apology to urge them to respond appropriately with grace. In another prayer, with which most are still familiar, we are called to “ Forgive us our trespasses , as we forgive those who trespass against us”.
The imperative to accept a sincere apology is strong even in the world of the unbeliever.
Of course sometimes a wrong is so so deep, so devastating that we can understand if a forgiving response by a human is not or cannot be immediately forthcoming, but there is no better hope for the contrite than to make the plea unreservedly and leave it there.
according to your promises declared to mankind
in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Here the faithful Christian has the advantage.
The Christ who forgave those who nailed Him to the Cross has “form” when it comes to forgiveness, so we enjoy a privileged position where claiming forgiveness is concerned.
Yet the corollary of this is sincere repentance in the first place. The internal formulation of repentance and apology is intended to be part of a process and not an isolated event. Through it, we improve our personal awareness, and by knowing ourselves better, and improving our moral performance we play our part in restoring the health of the relationship which was fractured by our initial wrongdoing.
And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake,
That we may live a disciplined righteous and Godly Life
to the Glory of Your Holy name
Having passed through the process of confession and having offered our apology, we dare to hope.
Part of that hope is that having been through the process of confession and forgiveness, we shall not immediately repeat the offence, but too ready an assumption that we shall succeed, would be to fall back into the pride at the root of the problem in the first place.
We do ourselves no harm by reminding ourselves that bad actions usually arise out of bad habits, bad attitudes and ill discipline A more ready awareness of the presence of God in every part of our lives will plainly help us to avoid the worst aspects of our nature, but having confessed, apologised, and secured absolution, the Christian should be painfully aware that s/he needs to undertake this process of life reflection again – soon – and so a form of confession is to be found at the heart of all the principle services throughout the wider Church.
Daly Brother Ivo does not expect all this to be necessarily accepted on a theological level by all readers, but he hopes that explaining how we sinners in the Church manage our frailties, he offers a helpful template by which others will make a better job of that most difficult of tasks, that of holding one’s hands up and sincerely saying “I’m sorry”