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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Saying Sorry in 31 Seconds

There is something not quite right about the post-mortem over Maria Miller’s resignation. It smells unpleasantly sanctimonious.

I am not for a moment saying that she didn’t make serious mistakes. There are misjudgements that someone in public office can’t afford to make. This has always been true, but scrutiny is especially thorough nowadays in the aftermath of the parliamentary expenses debacle. It’s understandable that the public is not in the mood to be lenient. We are right to expect the highest possible degree of accountability. And it’s a pity she didn’t offer to repay the higher sum about which questions had been asked, even if technically she had been cleared of the requirement to do so. It would have been a welcome sign of good faith.

What I find disturbing is how Ms Miller’s apology to the House has been endlessly picked over since she spoke. Someone on Any Questions called it (if I remember aright) the worst speech from a parliamentarian he had ever heard.  Why? Because (I am paraphrasing) it was perfunctory, insincere and lacking any real sense of contrition. The assumption is that an apology lasting a mere 31 seconds cannot possibly be genuine. Ergo it didn’t do the job. ‘It wasn’t fulsome enough’ I’ve heard it said – by people who clearly don’t know what that word really means.

There’s a lot I don’t know about what has gone on in this affair, but I can’t help thinking that it’s dangerous to make judgments like this. For one thing, how long would Ms Miller’s speech have to be to carry conviction? Two minutes? Ten? Half an hour? You see the difficulty. You can’t calibrate the quality of an apology with a stop-watch. In one of his parables, Jesus compares the attitudes of a Pharisee and a tax-collector. The Pharisee offers a long platitudinous (fulsome, indeed) address to his Maker. The tax-collector simply beats his breast and says ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’. That’s a lot shorter than 31 seconds. Yet Jesus commends him for those few words. When the Prodigal Son returns to his father to make a long contrite speech, his father cuts him off in mid flow and embraces him.

I once had to apologise to a friend I’d hurt. I tried the Prodigal’s long speech but the words would not come. All I could whisper was: I’m really sorry’. Then there was silence. I did not trust myself to speak. ‘It’s ok’ he said after a bit, and put his arms around me. Just then he didn’t need to know more than that I’d said it, and I only needed to know that he had heard. Yes, it can take a lifetime to work through the consequences and make reparation. It’s hard to say sorry but harder still to forgive, if my limited experience is any guide. What mattered to me all those years ago were the few brief words that enabled something important to begin. Saying sorry is a speech-act that opens a door.

So who is going to peer into Ms Miller’s heart and say, on the basis of what she said to Parliament, that she didn’t really mean it when she said she was sorry? We can never know what goes on inside another person; it’s hard enough when we try to look into our own hearts. Is this why Jesus says that we should not judge others, lest we come under judgment ourselves? Queen Elizabeth I wisely said, against the puritans of the 16th century, that she would not make windows into mens souls’. Nor should we.

It’s seductive to obsess about feelings and inner motivation. In today’s Guardian, Loose Canon Giles Fraser says that when it comes to forgiving other people it’s what we say and do that matters, not what we feel. ‘Forgiveness breaks the cycle of revenge and makes possible a future that is not trapped in the violence and hatred of the past.’ We can extend that to all the remembered and forgotten failures and flaws that haunt the present and get in the way of reconciliation.

Perhaps we should take an apology at face value, not try to analyse its level of sincerity but simply say: wrong has been acknowledged and publicly apologised for. The words we needed to hear have been said. It’s not cheap grace to recognise when it’s time to move on.

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