Thursday, 25 February 2010

What Grace is Not...

I’m gutted to hear of the tragic resignation of Margot Käßmann as Bishop of Hannover and Chair of the EKD Ratsvorsitzende, following a drink driving incident when she jumped a red light. Bishop Nick Baines’ account here, and DW press roundup (in English) here. The local TV headline was “Bearer of Hope explains her resignation.”

As leader of the Protestant Church in Germany, Käßmann has engaged passionately and intelligently with culture and society, and won much respect at home and abroad. The respect is undimmed by her resignation, indeed the journalists at her resignation press conference applauded her for her honesty, sense of responsibility, and dignity. We can only accept her decision, I suppose.

Still it leads me to ask, in Lent, what is grace, and what is it not?

When I worked in a prison I had to reflect for the first time in my life, if I’m honest, on how grace really worked among people who had often done criminal, some would say evil things. The colour, contrast and volume were certainly higher in prison, but amidst much that expressed the worst side of what we call human nature, I did also see some clear and present demonstrations of the Grace of God powerfully redeeming people and turning their lives around.

20 years ago, only the Chaplaincy and uniformed staff worked Saturdays, so the reception board that morning was always busy and somewhat mob-handed, with a crowd from Isleworth Crown Court the day before. Amongst them would be middle class prisoners, often with fraud or drink driving convictions, who had been bailed on remand and told they would never be imprisoned, and had honestly not believed they would be, until they found themselves in prison the night before.

Sometimes, in the night, I still recall these prisoners’ bewilderment, anxiety, embarrassment, rage and distress. It was no part of my job to pretend they had not done what was criminal, wrong and foolish. But neither was it my job to add to their shame or distress. Being deprived of your liberty is the punishment, not cruelty or disrespect whilst you are inside

Quite apart from the humiliation and pain of the moment, often careers or relationships were kicked into touch by the conviction. I was in absolutely no doubt what Jesus would do, and tried, stumbingly, to do likewise. So did the screws, in that sometimes hard but essentially humane world that is gone of Ronnie Barker Porridge.

So how real is Grace? Is it like borrowing money from a bank, where you only get it if you’re rich enough not to need it? Assuming Jesus being ironic when he talked of “righteous persons who have no need of repentance,” we may assume the idea is that the sick need the doctor not those glowing with health.

How do the sick receive the doctor’s help? And when Jesus implied hating someone was as bad as murdering them, lusting was as bad as adultery, was that “as bad as” or “as good as” or... both? And so what?

Over to you.

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Unknown said...

Very sad news indeed. I often muse about the way we categorise sins.Being over the limit is measurable -we kid ourselves that we can be objective abut it, but of course without knowing the story how can we balance judgement with compassion? The really pernicious stuff, the stuff that poisons trust and undermines the gospel often goes unjudged because it occurs as fault lines within a person's character. I suspect that was what Jesus was getting at in the passage you quote.
Meanwhile it would take a very arrogant church leader not to say 'there but for the grace of God go I.' -Somehow we manage to mess up in private! Rosie (using James' account!)

Erika Baker said...

Oh, what sad news, I hadn’t heard it yet. She is such an outstanding woman and her integrity and intelligence made her such a beacon in the EKD! Of course, it’s precisely that honesty and integrity that made her assume full responsibility for what she did and accept the consequences. Isn’t it refreshing to see that people still do that!

For me, your post really poses two questions.
What is Grace is one of them. What does “as bad as” mean? I suppose I like C S Lewis’ answer that when you find yourself in Heaven you will find that your whole life path has led you there, but when you find yourself in Hell, you will also find that your life choices have led you there. It’s a case of making minute choices every day, of being aware what we ought to do and what we ought not to do – and why! Obviously, lusting after someone isn’t as bad as adultery. But what about the person who is passionately in love or in lust with someone else and cannot stop thinking about them. To a very real extent they have, at that moment, already lost something precious from within their marriage relationship. It’s a kind of slippery slope thing. Do you break your marriage vows when you sleep with someone else, or do you already break them when you are no longer interested in your partner, no longer deeply engage with their lives?
So to me, grace is a continuous gift of awareness and the ability to make changes (forgiveness) we can tap into, either in times of crisis, or ideally through a constant prayerful questioning and trying to listen to what is really motivating me and why, and where it might lead to. Am I in danger of using people for my own aims or do I still see them and treat them as the amazing Other they truly are? Do I still see Christ in them or are they just someone who makes me a cup of tea in the morning before I go off to my important job? Am I genuinely interested in my children or do I only listen to them perfunctorily? Do I mean it when I say to my friends that I’m here for them, or do I secretly hope they’ll go somewhere else when they’re in trouble? Am I inward focused or outward focused?
The awareness of that ever present grace can some suddenly or it can be a constant guide – that’s up to us, really.

The other question that arises for me is to what extent we actually believe in the absolution and the forgiveness of sins.
Do we really and truly believe that our sins are forgiven when we repent and that we are genuinely free from them?
If we truly believe it, would someone like Margot Käßmann have had to resign? Would we not be able to say to her “you’ve clearly shown that you are aware of what you have done and that you are genuinely sorry, to the extent that you are willing to accept all the consequences. Because of that, you are truly free of this particular sin and we cannot accept your resignation”.
Is our Christianity radical enough to understand Christ in this way, and could we, collectively, be brave enough to live accordingly?

Ann said...

I am really sorry she resigned. Bp Irish of Utah had an alcohol addiction and went to treatment several times before healing-- she is a great witness to others suffering from addictions. The church is a witness of support for the suffering. A few weeks ago she was named a Giant In Our City in Salt Lake City.

Simon MARSH said...

That journalists "applauded (the bishop) for her honesty, sense of responsibility, and dignity" gives us all reason to hope that precisely these qualities will be put to good use in some new, no less important ministry in the future. Meanwhile these same qualities - Lenten wilderness qualities each of them - dispense unexpected blessing to any who "have ears to hear". Whatever Grace is, it's at work in this bishop ... and in one or two episcopal leaders who've been gifted with the holy remembrance, "There but for the grace of God go I ..."

Vinaigrette girl said...

A severe mercy, perhaps, in her case.

She did the right thing to resign and her organisation would have been patronising to refuse it. You can't give people choices and then not honour them when they are made freely and with intention to act upon them (cf the much-maligned Lyndon Baines Johnson's famous "if elected I will not serve" speech, a sad and wise choice if ever there was one).

I would see grace as acting in her choice to resign, much as it appears there was a forgetting or rejection of grace in driving whilst under the influence of alcohol. Her rsignation is an example to others, which is right and proper and life-enhancing. (I have a thing about DUIs; she was possibly spared a great tragedy indeed, which is why I think of this episode as a severe mercy.)

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Many thnks for some kind the thoughtful comment. Rosie I see exactly what you mean about public as opposed to private sins. I think I would err in the more rigorist drection about a failing which could endanger innocnt life, like this, and, say, the fact of someone being dvorced (another public fact, but far less open adn shut morally.)

Erika, thanks for a dynamic reading of grace as process. I don't want to imply a lack of awareness of grace necessarily in what happened. I can see the point VG is making below about hard grace. Putting the two thoughts together, I'm sure +Margot's decision was an expression of grace-as-awarenss rather than a denial of grace-as-forgiveness.

Ann & Simon, I certainly see a possibiity of a good future in your story from Utah and hopes for a new phase of ministry for +M. I think that's what we're all praying for.

Finally, VG, thanks for integrating the two aspects of this wisely and seamlessly so that it doesn't degenerate into a simple hardball/softball story. I think, on reflection, I agree with you strongly.

Erika Baker said...

Oh, I didn't think the church should simply have refused her resignation, that would have been patronising and insulting.
But a church that takes absolution and forgiveness of sin seriously might find it in itself to offer the position back if it was wanted.

There are two dynamic players in this process and the church has not just a passive role.

Anonymous said...

I have a different perspective on research took me back to the churches of my German ancestors in Schaumburg-Lippe and Hannover. While the parish church in Vehlen, in the Landkirche of Schaumburg-Lippe (my great-great grandfather's) home is going strong, the Alexander church in Willershausen, part of the Landkirche Hannover, is not even served, but rather yoked to three other parishes, with a part-time woman pastor. Perhaps the German people are this irreligious, but I suggest that if you get down to their level, and meet them where they live, you might actually get them to come to church. This woman, so much like Jack Spong, all she could talk about is closing churches...well, when I look at Willershausen, the only other church in the village is the New Apostolic church. But the community honors its old parish church, as a beloved memorial. Here is the picture from the TSV Willershausen's 90 year anniversary last summer.

It is clear that this is a going community, but the EKD has not a clue how to reach out to its own flock.

Also, 1.54 blood alcohol level is not a venial offense to the German traffic law. When I was stationed in Germany, it was commonly understood wnat the .5 level meant: two drinks, no more and chase with coffee if you want to stay alert. So I think Bishop Alan protests too much in defense of this woman bishop. The circumstantial evidence against here - divorce three years ago, now this - looks pretty strong. So what happened in response seems right.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Erika, thanks for your clarification.

Anon, thank you for your comment. Please do feel free to use your name or at least a name —— I know some people can't log on as themselves for technical reasons, but it always helps to know who's talking to who and, indeed, if we're talking to the same peson twice.

I'm grateful for your explanation of the German drink drive limits. I have been confused about how they relate to UK limits, which are higher, but it's plain she was substantially over hte limit in either country.

Thanks for the lovely picture of the Church of which you spoke in Germany. I don't know anything of the circumstances of +MK's divorce, or the pastoral circs of any particular parish in her LK. Knowing nothing of the commuity or the Church you mention, I can have no idea how religious it is, or how that relates to sharing a pastor with others. Generally EKD has higher staffing levels than the C of E, because of the Church Tax. How do you see the gender of the people about whose work you comment relating to their performance?

I have not heard her compared to Jsck Spong before, partly because some of her more controversial views are in the direction of, e.g. a heavier emphasis on the bible in Church teaching and work with the young, and not allowing the conversion of redundant churches into discotheques and the like. I can't imagine Jack Spong (whose prientation is definitely modernist rather than post-modern, I would have thought) taking either of those positions.

Archbeship Anthony said...


I feel that if a bishop, has broken the law, although what they have done is unacceptable, it enforces the point that no one is perfect, so to have a bishop who has been found to be over the legal limit who is reasonably repentant about the incident would if anything draw me nearer to the church. Once the Disciplinary proceedings had taken place (if any were to) the Subject SHOULD THEN BE LAID TO REST.

I had an incident which I did something that I should not have done when I worked full time in the Supermarket, was Punished (suspended from duty) accepted responsibility for my actions, but it was not laid to rest, instead it was rubbed in. I eventually complained to the manager and the other person, the manager and I then settled it there. This I view as she being insecure.

Many Thanks


Ann Memmott said...

From what we read in the more reliable press, the good lady in question had consumed the equivalent of her having drunk a whole bottle of wine in the hour before she drove her car. That is a degree of drunkenness that could have resulted in not only her death, but the deaths of others on the road. Was this the only time she had done this? We cannot know.

Those in positions of great power and influence sadly do have a greater responsibility to behave in good ways. I am greatly saddened to lose her, but I think she did a wise thing in stepping down.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for reading, +Alan. VG

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