Australia

Tassie churches confront failures with prayer and confession

Sexual abuse and other serious issues sparked a spiritual movement

Becoming head of the Anglican Diocese of Tasmania in early 2016, Richard Condie was quickly confronted by several major truths about the churches he was leading. He shares how Royal Commission findings and parish reports prompted a season of ‘Lament and Repentance” – and the consequences were “painful but good”.  

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In the first two months of being Anglican Bishop of Tasmania I had received two reports. The first report was about the state of parishes in the diocese – where we were flourishing and where we were struggling. The second report was the draft findings of the Royal Commission into the Church of England Boys Society ‘matter’. What leapt off the page to me was that the places where child sexual abuse had occurred, were also places where we were struggling to make headway in the gospel.

I began to wonder if there was something spiritual in the correlation.

This was not a universal situation of course. Some places where child sexual abuse had occurred had moved into a new positive season in ministry. And some places where the parishes were struggling, there had been no child sexual abuse. But the child sexual abuse-weakness pattern was very strong.

I began to wonder if there was something spiritual in the correlation. Could it be that the problems in the child sexual abuse parishes were more than just a bad reputation? Was it that the Lord had turned his back on the sin? Was there some deeper spiritual force at work? After all, we know that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)

When we launched our new vision – to be a church for Tasmania, making disciples of Jesus – at our Synod in 2017, we also adopted a set of strategies. One of these was to take care of some spiritual business – to observe a season of ‘Lament and Repentance’ during Lent in 2018.

The idea was, that as we are in a spiritual battle for our world, and because the sexual abuse belonged to the spiritual territory of sin and darkness, then we should tackle the problem at a spiritual level. The scriptures offered us two responses to this evil: lament – crying out to God in our sadness (even over our own sin; for example, see Psalm 32 as a penitential lament), and repentance – turning away from our failings (and those of our forebears; see the Book of Daniel, chapter 9) towards God.

As we planned for this season of lament and repentance, we realised more failings surrounded God’s people in Tasmania. Failure to protect people from family violence, failures from the misuse of power, failures to honour and respect the first peoples of our state, failure to care for the environment, and failures right at the heart of our new vision, to make disciples – to hand on the faith to the next generation.

During the 40 days, we focused on one of our areas of failure each week in Sunday services and daily prayers.

Beginning with the Ordination Service on the first Saturday in Lent, where at the end of the ordination, robes were removed as a sign of contrition, we began our lament. We used a specially written litany based on Psalm 51. Two days later, a clergy ‘Lenten Retreat’ saw clergy coming to the Lord in lament and repentance.

During the 40 days, we focused on one of our areas of failure each week in Sunday services and daily prayers. Reflections on the failure were read out, and churches were called to prayers of lament, repentance and resolve.

During the 40 days, I visited 45 of our 48 parishes (I didn’t make it to the islands) and led a simple prayer meeting of lament and repentance. In each of these, local issues were brought to the Lord in Prayer. It was extraordinary.

People confessed sins of omission and commission in their parish life. One community focused on the pain of their convict heritage. Another disclosed an occult sacrifice that had happened on the Lord’s Table in the 80s. Another lamented the Aboriginal massacre on their church site. Still another wept over the lost generations. And more than one realised their failures to adapt to allow young people to encounter faith for themselves.

Sins and failures of historic sexual abuse were named, even some we didn’t know about. Family violence was lamented with downcast eyes. The misuse of power (often in the hands of lay people withholding permission for change) was acknowledged, and sometimes past unnamed ministers were alluded to. Tears were shed for the loss of aboriginal culture and language (mostly by the youngest members of the church), and on and on it went.

‘This has been painful but good in so many ways’”

From time to time, a parish visit was met with stares of incomprehension, and the end of the prayers yielded justifications – “you don’t know how hard we work here, Bishop”, as if repentance indicated they were in some kind of trouble with the Bishop! But mostly it was met with an incredible sense of relief and deep joy, as the burden of the dark past was lifted from the shoulders. Sometimes the morning tea after was like a festive celebration. Oh, the joy of sins forgiven!

The sense we have is that God is up to something in all of this. Reports have started flowing in from different parts of the diocese. The theme? Hard but good. One minister wrote: “Sunday was very powerful. I felt the Spirit’s prompt to name some [church] specific sins, and then opened up for a time for public confession and repentance in the final songs. Dozens came forward on their knees, cut to the heart… The whole six weeks I have been hearing: ‘This has been painful but good in so many ways’”.

Our hope and prayer is that the Lord will deal mercifully with his people, have mercy on his church, and give us the spiritual breakthrough for new life and opportunity that we crave.

Our hope is for ongoing repentance and obedience to the Lord.

Would you join us in praying for spiritual revival in Tasmania?

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