The Power of Forgiveness

Coventry Cathedral has been a beacon of hope and reconciliation, following the destruction of the old Cathedral Church of St Michael in the devastating bombing raid on the city in November 1940. The Centre for Peace and Reconciliation at the Cathedral has sought to overcome the pain and anger after the second world war. A former churchwarden of mine at Aston Flamville was a youth officer at the Cathedral immediately after the war and organised a trip by young people to the city of Dresden as an act of reconciliation. Dresden had been severely bombed in February 1945 and the main church of Marienkirche destroyed. The links between Coventry and Dresden have been significant, and the Marienkirche possesses a Coventry Cross of Nails to demonstrate the link and to show how enemies can be reconciled and even forgiven. Until fairly recently one of the residentiary canons at the Cathedral was Canon Paul Ostreicher, a man who knew directly the tyranny of Nazi Germany, fleeing before the war because of his family’s Jewish ancestry. He was director of the Centre and is now retired and lives in Sussex. He attends a Quaker Meeting House as well as exercising a ministry as an Anglican priest. Once Paul shocked a congregation (not always difficult for the clergy!) when he stated that an IRA prisoner received the same grace and forgiveness in his prison cell whilst receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion, as did the Queen when receiving the same sacrament in the Chapel Royal. Paul was illustrating a truth that many find hard to accept: namely within the Christian tradition, grace and forgiveness are indivisible, limitless and inseparable.

Forgiveness is, of course, the theme of the gospel reading for today, and the extent to which we are encouraged to be forgiving. Peter asks the question as to how often one should forgive having been sinned against? Peter is probably asking on behalf of the disciples, which indicates the Matthean evidence of his leadership in the Church. The number seven is significant: in Genesis 4:24 Lamech stated to his two wives that ‘if Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold’. Cain had murdered his brother Abel, and Lamech, a descendent of Cain, had killed a man for wounding him. One cannot understand or appreciate the meaning of the New Testament outside of the context of the Old Testament. After his response, which implies a limitless amount of forgiveness, Jesus illustrates his point with a parable which states that the Kingdom of Heaven (a Matthean description) is like the king, who after some special pleading lets a servant off his debt. It is worth noting that ten thousand talents are the equivalent of some 10 million pounds in today’s money. The servant who owes this debt to the king then demands the equivalent of ten pounds from his fellow servant. After pleading, the indebted servant refuses to release his fellow servant this relatively small amount and has him cast into prison. The king gets to hear of this and understandably is not impressed and asks why the servant did not have mercy on his comrade? The point of the parable is obvious, but perhaps needs continuous stating in a world where grudges and enmities are harboured and acted upon after many years. Most scholars think the parable ended with this question. Matthew was enthusiastic for the punishment of the wicked, and has the servant delivered to the torturers/jailers, or whatever, depending upon which version of the bible one might be reading! These might not be original to the words of Jesus. The point, however, is not lost: if God has forgiven us all, how much more should we be ready to forgive those who have done wrong to us!

The question is necessarily how does one apply this teaching to our contemporary lives and living? Clearly, there is a personal dimension, and we need to ask ourselves about grudges and enmities we might hold against others. It is always a sad part of a priest’s life when one encounters division in families, often long standing. This, more often than not, occurs in the arrangements of weddings and funerals. There are, however, other examples of painful forgiveness. When I worked in Canterbury prison, I was amazed at the devotion of mothers towards sons who had been convicted of some serious crimes, including murder. Such must have been at a great cost, I imagined. These are perhaps easily understandable. More difficult is that between communities and nations, and I haven’t yet mentioned enemties within the Church, and between different faiths. In our political life, there is much expression of anger, aggression and threats to wellbeing and life through social media. In the Church, we must get over issues such as the ordination of women and sexuality, both of which mainstream media thrive upon. Violence between different faith communities has been evidenced and recounted in the 70th anniversary year of Indian independence, and more recently in the violence and ethnic cleansing towards the Muslim community in Myanmar, much of which goes back many years. For myself, and further to many visits to Northern Ireland, I have been much impressed by the reconciliation that exists, although not always evidenced in the media, between people of catholic and protestant expressions of the Christian faith. For 17 years, I have been friends with the late Martin McGuiness until his death earlier this year, and I was able to visit him in his home just before he died. He spoke much about the peace process. We all know of his past, but we all know of what was achieved in that tortuous process of peace making. Two things come to mind, both of which show what forgiveness can mean. Some years ago, I attended a lecture in the Derry Guildhall given by Alan McBride. Alan’s wife had been brutally killed in the Shankill Road butcher’s bomb, but he had forgiven and was friendly with Martin McGuiness who was instrumental in the lecture invitation. Many, however, in Alan’s own protestant community ostracised him for not only giving the lecture, but also travelling to Derry. The other was the comment made by Ian Paisley junior at McGuiness’ death: ‘I think the Christian view in life is how a person’s journey started is of course important, but it is how it finishes which is actually more important’. McGuiness and Paisley senior became close friends, known as the ‘chuckle brothers’. He even had two meetings with the Queen. If such can happen within what had been terrible times, then there is a real possibility that forgiveness can be of the order of seventy times seven, no matter how difficult. The relationship between Coventry and Dresden is a good example. Also, perhaps Theresa May could forgive Boris Johnson his 4,000 word leadership bid in the Daily Telegraph!

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