The Bishop’s E-pistle: True Repentance

Most holy and merciful Father:
We confess to you and to one another,
And to the whole communion of saints
In heaven and on earth,
That we have sinned by our own fault
In thought, word, and deed;
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone….

So begins the Litany of Penitence for Ash Wednesday.

Two weeks ago, many Episcopalians were horrified to learn that Washington National Cathedral had invited Max Lucado, an evangelical pastor and author whose past statements about homosexuality included comparisons to incest and bestiality, to preach for their February 7 service.

Statements from the National Cathedral followed a predictable arc: first a commitment to sharing a “diversity of views,” and a last minute invitation to Bishop Gene Robinson to serve as the Celebrant at the service; and then eventually apologies for retraumatizing LGBTQ+ persons, and an admission that inviting someone whose ministry and theology does not merely offer a diversity of opinion but actively harms LGBTQ+ people, particularly children and teens who seek to be beloved children of God in their full identity, was perhaps better not done.

I started to write several responses to this two weeks ago. I deleted all of them. I didn’t want to inflict more trauma, and I wasn’t sure that what I would say would not do so. But two weeks later, I believe that my silence may be harming the very people that I was hoping to protect.

Max Lucado has views which are easy to denounce. It’s the honesty of looking at why he was invited, and why LGBTQ+ people are so regularly harmed by churches, even when those churches claim to welcome all, and have LGBTQ+ leaders among their clergy and lay people, and have declared that marriage is a sacrament available to any two people whose love is an outward and visible sign of God’s love for us, that is so much harder to face.

I wanted to say something pastoral. I wanted to speak to our clergy and laypeople who were hurting. I wanted to say “I’m sorry this is happening. Again.”

But to say that, without truly being able to offer the church’s amendment of life, sounds hollow to me.

I want to say that members of the LGBTQ+ community will always be welcome and safe in churches in the Diocese of Arizona. But I know that is not true. Members of our churches, and sometimes the institution itself, continue to harm LGBTQ+ people by our words and actions.

In my two years as your bishop, I have seen joy and inclusion–celebrating the Eucharist at the Phoenix Pride Parade the morning I was installed at Trinity Cathedral as Bishop; meeting lay and clergy leaders around the Diocese, including some remarkable young LGBTQ+ folks in our chaplaincies and congregations. But I have also seen harsh treatment, cruel words, and congregations that struggle with moving from merely tolerating LGBTQ+ members and clergy, to actually affirming and celebrating their presence.

It is certainly better than it was; and the Church has moved forward in many ways. But we do not yet fully witness to the Reign of God that welcomes all people as God created them; and until we do, we sin by things done and left undone.

The Ash Wednesday Litany of Penitence ends with a sort-of-absolution: it proclaims that God does pardon all those who truly repent, and beseeches God to grant us true repentance. But it doesn’t pronounce absolution in the same way as our usual confessions.

I find that emphasis on true repentance telling. There are all sorts of actions that we apologize for without truly repenting of. When we are sorry someone has been hurt, but do not intend to change our ways.

The work of Jesus in offering us salvation and forgiveness has been accomplished. Our work, of true repentance, conversion, amendment of life, and abiding with those who are suffering continues.

Editor’s Note: To read more, see Episcopal News Service coverage.