Who’s Sorry Now?

Who’s Sorry Now?
An address delivered by Professor John Toye (Chair of the MCO Chapel Society) to the Manchester College Chapel Society in Oxford on Sunday 7 June 2009

I’ve had an exciting week. The Prime Minister wrote to me on Wednesday. Cabinet ministers had started to resign. Well, I thought, this really may be the Ministry of All the Talents. I am after all well qualified: bags of economic expertise, plus a strong non-conformist background. So I opened the letter. It began “Dear Mr Toye” – I read on, “I apologise on behalf of all political parties that the political system has let you and the public down”. Actually, I was not feeling particularly let down by the political system before I read the letter, but after doing so I felt deeply disappointed with it.

My letter was just one more in the recent spate of apologies from representatives of our most important institutions. First of all, it was the bankers appearing before the Treasury Select Committee, who apologised for wrecking the banking system. Then it was the party political leaders in Parliament, apologising for the way some MPs had claimed for expenses. Now the Prime Minister had written me a letter to apologise in black and white for the political system. Whatever next?

It had already got to the point where, when I get up in the morning and switch on the BBC news, I find myself humming the old Connie Francis hit song, “Who’s sorry now?”

“Right to the end,
Just like a friend,
I tried to warn you somehow,
You had your way,
Now you must pay,
I’m glad that you’re sorry now.”

That is rather too self-righteous and unsympathetic for my taste, but I do have to confess to some mixed feelings about all this public sorry-saying. Of course we must acknowledge it when something important has gone wrong in our political life. Once made, that acknowledgement prevents any pretence that nothing has happened and no damage has been done. It is one small step forward, and that must be good.

On the negative side, I have to admit that I am reminded of my infants’ school class: “Please miss, he hit me and he won’t say “sorry”. Make him say “sorry”, miss!” The media, acting like Miss in the infants’ school, is determined that everyone except them shall be made to say “sorry”. There is much media commentary on the speed with which “sorry” is said. The Leader of the Opposition is praised because he gets his apology in three days before the Prime Minister. There is much media commentary on the way in which “sorry” is said. The bankers’ apology, for example, was criticised for being “well-rehearsed”, the implication being presumably that it was not sincere.

Here we come to the nub of my address today. What is the point of all this public sorry-saying if it is a mere ritual, or a game being played between the media on the one hand and bankers and politicians on the other? Is not the fundamental question ‘how can things change?’ and ‘how can we do better in future?’

The linguists and classical scholars among you already know that an apology is not necessarily an expression of regret. Originally, it was just the opposite – it was a defence or a justification. This is the sense used in Plato’s “Apology of Socrates” and Cardinal Newman’s “Apologia Pro Vita Sua”. It was a robust way of saying why one was right to believe what one believed, or to do what one had done.

The English word “sorry” does not necessarily indicate a change of heart either. It can be an acknowledgement of an unintended accident, a way of indicating that, though I did just bump into you, I did not mean you any harm. I have not changed my disposition towards you, because I never intended you any harm in the first place. It was just that the gremlins got at my mind-body coordination. It was an accident.

It is plausible to argue that the banking collapse and the MPs expenses scandal were both accidents. One could say that financial innovation is no different from building a new and faster car – sometimes it works out well, and we have succeeded in producing a more advanced model. Sometimes the advanced model blows up, causing a horrible accident. The point is that we could not tell what was going to happen when we started out. We did not cause the explosion deliberately.

A similar case might be argued for MPs expenses. The rules for expense claims were written twenty-five years ago, when MPs’ pay rises were cut back and they were given bigger expense allowances as a form of compensation. Nobody knew then that the public would be scandalized twenty five years later when it discovered that MPs actually claimed expenses under these rules, and bought things like moats, chandeliers and horse manure. If instead they had been given bigger salaries back in 1983, no-one would now know – or care – how much horse manure they had purchased in the interim.

You are missing the point, I hear you cry. The bankers did not just build an advanced banking model that exploded – they did so recklessly, and their motive was greed. The MPs did not just claim for horse manure, they did so knowing that this was not a necessary expense of being an MP. (After all, how much horse manure do you need to be an MP? Don’t answer that question!) – and their motive was greed, too.

Very well, if greed was part of the story, we are dealing with a moral fault, and not just accidents. Then what we need to ask is how does a change of heart take place, and what role does saying the word “sorry” play in that change.

Here I think we need to move on to other forms of language, language that we have inherited from our religious traditions. We need to explore the meaning of three words – three words, I must say that nowadays I hardly ever hear spoken in public, even in Unitarian chapels. These words are attrition, contrition and repentance. These are the degrees of sorrow that we roll up into one word when we say “sorry”.

Attrition is the first and weakest feeling – of something rubbing or gnawing at us. It produces in us an awareness of our fault, but only a partial awareness. Richard Hooker, the C16th Exeter divine who wrote “The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity” called it “a horror of sin through fear of punishment, without any loving sense, or taste of God’s mercy”. Contrition is the next stage, which is a bruising of the heart, or a genuine affliction of the mind because of some moral fault. James Martineau brought contrition into the Unitarian tradition. He wrote: “the entire moral value of contrition belongs to it as the sign of an inner change of character from prior evil to succeeding good”. Finally, repentance comes when this inner change of character is demonstrated to others by our actions.

“Actions speak louder than words – but not nearly as often”, lamented Mark Twain. In contrast with all our public sorry-saying, we have the gospel story of Mary Magdalene, who follows Jesus into the house of Simon the Pharisee. We are told that she had been living an immoral life, but not that she is a prostitute – there were quite a few other things that women could do in Galilee at that time which would have constituted an immoral life. We know that she was experiencing feelings of contrition, because we are told that she was weeping. She let her tears of desolation fall on Jesus’s feet, which she wiped dry with her hair before anointing them with myrrh.

In the gospel story Jesus contrasts Mary’s act of repentance with Simon’s lack of hospitality in failing to provide water – which has a special significance in the Jewish religion, as it symbolises God’s loving-kindness. Jesus then tells Mary that her sins are forgiven and that her faith has saved her.

Everyone says something – Jesus, Simon, the other guests – but not Mary. Mary is silent throughout: she says nothing. It is her actions that speak for her, and they say everything that needs to be said.

Jesus remembered Mary’s actions. At the Last Supper, Jesus rose from the table, laid aside his garments, tied a towel round himself and began to wash his disciples’ feet (Gospel of John, Chapter 13). Simon Peter protested, but Jesus insisted. Afterwards Jesus told them all: “I have set you an example: you are to do as I have done for you”.

I do not mean that Jesus wanted us all to become chiropodists. It was a way of dramatising Jesus’ legacy of loving-kindness to the world. Yet our pictures of the Last Supper, such as the one in this Chapel behind me, typically do not show Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Was that image was too radical for the patrons of Christian art in the European renaissance? For centuries we have focussed on Jesus sitting at the centre of a table with bread and wine. The theological emphasis has been on the doctrine of transubstantiation and the liturgical emphasis has been on administering the communion wafer.

My own fancy is that Jesus wanted to perpetuate among his followers the act that recalled Mary Magdalene’s contrition and repentance. He wanted it to symbolise all the different ways in which we can care for each other as we each take new steps, large or small, fast or slow, along life’s wide highway.

Caring for each other involves much more than learning to say “sorry”. It requires that transforming change of heart that lets God’s mercy and loving-kindness come flooding in.