Ash Wednesday, Psalm 51, and #ACCToo

On Ash Wednesday—a mere week ago, a group of over 200 signatories sent a letter to high ranking officials of the Anglican Church of Canada, including the Primate and Council of General Synod (CoGS).

The letter (which you can read here) details the mishandling of four cases of clergy sexual abuse—sexual violence perpetuated by men ordained as clergy. The letter detailed the story, which has been further explored in a number of subsequent news articles, and asks for three concrete actions going forward. This week, the Council of General Synod is meeting, and in reflecting on some of the readings from Ash Wednesday and the #ACCToo letter, I wrote my own letter to a few members of the Council.

After some consideration, I have decided to share my letter below.

This week’s meeting and situation comes in the same week that another Canadian church body (The Meeting House) sanitized the story of Clergy Sexual Abuse at the hands of its teaching pastor. The church’s statement, and the statement by Bruxy Cavey seeks to minimize the nature of the abuse, referring to the actions as an affair, rather than digging into the corruption of power, and naming clergy sexual abuse for what it is.

I have so many friends who have called the Meeting House home over the years, and this adds to the pain this week. But so too does the reality of what is going on in the church home that I have adopted, and that has adopted me into its fold.

There is grave danger in not addressing these issues head on, and I pray that in the days ahead, the Anglican Church of Canada will take concrete steps not only to right the particular wrongs listed in the letter, but the systemic wrongdoing, the systemic sin, that has led us here.

Dear [Member of CoGS]

I’m writing to you today knowing that you and many others are heading into meetings for the Council of General Synod this week. This letter has been brewing for some time, but I’ve struggled to put into words the muddle of frustration, anger, and sadness that have been swirling around me since first being introduced to a draft of the ACCToo letter.

Yet again this year, on Ash Wednesday, we read from Psalm 51 in church. This is a psalm that I have come to hate, and it’s all because of the second stanza.

For I know my transgressions,
And my sin is ever before me
Against you only have I sinned
And done what is evil in your sight.

This is the second Ash Wednesday I’ve been in the parish I serve. This year in my preparations, I found myself wanting to preach against this psalm and these short verses.

Here’s why: with each passing year, it strikes me as abusive to put the words of a rapist into the mouth of a congregation. I cannot fathom why we let the psalmist off the hook, saying that he has only sinned against God, when Bathsheba’s right here in front of us, with her version of the story, a story that she is not allowed to tell. A story that she would have taken anonymously to the papers, if they would have listened. But she knows what happened to her husband. She knows it could happen to her. And she knows that she is trapped. Each year at Ash Wednesday, we erase her and her story over and over and over again.

Each year, we implicitly say that her story doesn’t matter.

It was a small group this year on Ash Wednesday at St. David’s in Castlegar. Shortly after the service began, a 10 year old girl and her mom—who I haven’t seen in some time—showed up. Her surprising presence there led me to change my sermon on the fly. It seemed right given the context, even though my preparations had led me to reflect on the injustice baked into this confessional psalm when David sings to God, “against you only have I sinned.”

Oh really?

Here’s the thing that I’ve been struggling with in putting this Psalm and the ACCToo letter together. The implications of the letter and the layers of systemic disfunction it points to—clergy sexual abuse, the trauma, how one part of the system says “it’s safe here,” while another part crushes the story, breaks trust, sharing details with the abusers against the victims’ consent, capped off with thin apologies and weak responses—have all been done in secret. Each of them seems to play to a logic of “against God only have I sinned.”

And I find this deeply disturbing. Sickening, actually. Because there are all too many out there who, like Bathsheba, are saying “what about me?” and others in growing whispers, saying “me too.”

I know that I’m on the outside of this discussion, that I don’t know all the details. From this place, what’s contained in the letter, the recent articles, and the Primate’s initial response, it appears as though the impulse in this case continues to be to sanitize the whole scene. Clean it up quietly behind closed doors. Minimize it. And yet, what true repentance looks like is a turning away from sin. Weeping, Confession, and Resistance. An acknowledgment of sin before God and God’s people, especially those who were victimized by the sin, followed by a very intentional turning away. In this case, there are a lot of things that can be done, and I believe that the original authors of the letter offer a good starting point.

  1. Release the unredacted findings of the investigation to a representative chosen by the survivors; and

  2. Require the resignation of the ACC church official who circulated a draft of the Anglican Journal article to four institutions outside the General Synod office; and

  3. Submit an apology for publication in the Anglican Journal that summarizes the investigation report, confesses wrongdoing, and presents a plan of action that is a worthy beginning of repentance.

To the first point:

It is no longer time for the Anglican Church of Canada to control the narrative at the expense of the victims. In cases of Clergy Sexual Abuse, it is a best practice to require a fully independent investigation. Not one that reports solely to management who can then decide how and what to release, but an independent investigation that is responsive to the needs of the victims. This is why I think the first point is imperative.

To the second point:

At first I struggled with this point, but I now feel as though this would be a strong signal of wrongdoing. This doesn’t solve everything, but it could signal the desire for change. This, rather obviously needs to be accompanied by an audit of the structures of General Synod, that contributed to (and could very well contribute in future) to a similar logic and practice.

To the third point:

Weeping, Confession, and Resistance. I mentioned this threefold pattern earlier, which comes to me by way of Christine M. Smith who wrote a book entitled “Preaching as Weeping, Confession, and Resistance” in the 1990s. I refer to this pattern often as a blueprint for what repentance looks like. What we need in this time are not empty words or vague plans, but a plan of action that articulates specific, measurable goals, and that does so on a clear timeline. An apology is a start. Releasing the report is a start. The real, hard work, will come when as a church we examine our structures, and the ways in which they permit not just the quashing of a story, but the perpetuation of structures that allow or give implicit permission to the kinds of abuse being addressed by the ACCToo letter. Once we do those things, the next step in repentance is to change—in intention, in focus, and yes, in structure—to reduce such instances again in the future.

I assume that your discussions in the days ahead will be heavy. And I want you to know that you and all members of the Council will be in my prayers.

In advance of your deliberations, I also wanted to share the beginnings of my thinking on this, and some of the ways in which we might seek to transform the unjust structures at play, even in our church.

At the heart of all of this, my hope is that your conversation, and the subsequent actions of our Church (at national, provincial, diocesan, and parish levels) will lead to an active resistance of violence. That we will pursue peace corporately, and as individuals, and that we will be known for how we took the information provided in this moment as a cue to embrace our own transformation.


Andrew Stephens-Rennie on FacebookAndrew Stephens-Rennie on Twitter
Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

He currently serves as the Director of Missional Renewal for the Anglican Diocese of Kootenay on the unceded territories of the Sinixt, Syilx, and Ktunaxa nations. He previously served as the Director of Ministry Innovation at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC.

Andrew is cofounder and contributing editor at, and co-editor of "A Sort of Homecoming: Essays Honoring the Academic and Community Work of Brian Walsh" with Marcia Boniferro and Amanda Jagt.

5 Responses to “Ash Wednesday, Psalm 51, and #ACCToo”

  1. Sylvia Keesmaat

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Andrew.

  2. Michael Garner

    As always and as expected a thoughtful and deep reflection on this situation. Thank you Andrew.

  3. Scott McLeod

    Thank you. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.


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