Conflict and forgiveness: A feminist critique of reconciliation in the Church

The contemporary popularity of the language and theology of reconciliation has been such that one might be forgiven for thinking that it is a concept born in post-1994 South Africa, with its link with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process of 1996 led by the erstwhile Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Mpilo Tutu. In fact, the concept of reconciliation has been contested throughout the ages in theology, sociology and anthropological studies. This brief essay looks at reconciliation as a mandate of the church, the conceptualisation of reconciliation in the church, and the subsequent possible impact of the application of reconciliation within the context of conflict in the church. 

The importance of reconciliation for Christians finds expression in doctrine, liturgy, and scripture. Biblically, the missio dei, translated as the mission of God, is best understood in Jesus Christ’s purpose on earth as expressed in Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians (5:19 NRSV) ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them,’ therefore Jesus’ mission was and is to reconcile humanity with God. 

As part of the Anglican liturgy, the Anglican Church of Southern Africa’s Anglican Prayer Book (APB)1 celebrates the Holy Eucharist with the presiding priest proclaiming the following words to the congregants: ‘Drink of it all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins; whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me.’ Elsewhere in the same prayer book, just before the priest can consecrate the bread and the wine into the body and blood of Christ, the presiding priest shares the peace with the congregation saying: ‘If when you are bringing your gift to the altar, you remember that someone has a grievance against you, leave your gift where it is before the altar. Go, make peace, and only then come and offer your gift.’2 When congregants hear these words, one wonders if they perceive their inability or unwillingness to forgive as an act that will exclude them from God’s grace? This call to forgive one another can create an obligation on the part of the victims to forgive their offenders immediately, which only ‘serves to heal the wound lightly.’3 

Based on these liturgies, the Holy Eucharist depicts the sacramental table as a place of reconciliation, unity, and forgiveness. Those who participate in it receive a closer communion with God and with each other. This is well expressed through this IsiXhosa chant, during the Holy Eucharist: ‘Thina sibaninzi nje simzimba mnye ngokuba sonke siyamkela isonka sinye’4 meaning, we who are many are one body for we all partake in the one bread. This idea of unification through the Eucharist is not exclusively Anglican but can be found in medieval interpretations of patristic sources, like the thirteenth-century Thomas Aquinas. According to Giles Emery, Aquinas derived his understanding of Eucharist as a unifying sacrament from Augustine’s development of the Didache5 which stated that: ‘Our Lord has proffered his Body and his Blood in those things which, from a multitude, are reduced to unity, since the bread is one single reality made of many grains; while the wine is one single [drink] made of many grapes.’6

But scholars such as Christopher Grundy have challenged the view that the celebration of the Holy Eucharist is a unifying tool. According to Grundy, the celebration of the Holy Eucharist has certain attributes which reveal what he calls ‘traces of the liturgical abuse of power, the liturgical coercion of unity, and a presumptive enactment of forgiveness that smoothes the need for just relationships and actually discourages deeper reconciliation.’7 Like Grundy, I am critical of the ‘liturgical coercion of unity’ and the ‘presumptive enactment of forgiveness’ present in the liturgy of the church. From an ecumenist perspective, I am critical of the notion of uniformity and uncostly unity, arguing that church unity does not equate church uniformity. Skipping the hard work of reconciliation and jumping to forgiveness and uniformity renders reconciliation cheap and shallow. From a feminist perspective, I am suspicious of the overemphasis on unity and unlimited forgiveness present in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist whilst an emphasis on offender rebuke and repentance is seldom referenced. From a GBV activist perspective, I worry about the implications of hearing such liturgies as a victim of sexual abuse, much worse if the liturgy is being said by my perpetrator, as is the case with clergy sexual abuse.8

In my critique I am not of course against reconciliation or forgiveness; however, I hold the view inspired by Marie Fortune and others who argue that forgiveness should always be viewed from the experience of the victim and not the perpetrator.9 From an intercultural pastoral care approach, reconciliation is listed as one of the main functions of pastoral care. Lartey describes it as the one function responsible for the restoration of fellowship and harmony between previously estranged parties.10 Therefore, forgiveness has a role to play as a pastoral resource to achieve wholeness and restoration for the victim. 

This view is inspired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s theology of reconciliation where he argues that when one forgives, one does not serve the interests of the offender. Instead one frees oneself from the chains of being consumed by hate and revenge. This is particularly evident in one of his speeches to the international community about the TRC, where he said “Forgiveness is not pretending that things are other than they really are – forgiveness can be confrontational, telling it as it is, looking the beast in the eye. Forgiveness is letting go of your right to retaliation.”11 Liturgies about forgiveness ought to reflect this, instead of coercing members to forgive and forget.

Rhine Phillip Tsobotsi Koloti, Young Anglican Theology Project Secretary and the Gender, Education, and Transformation officer for the Anglican Students Federation in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa


  1. An Anglican Prayer Book, Jeppestown: HarperCollins Publishers (1989) 118
  2. An Anglican Prayer Book, 142
  3. Marie Fortune, “Sexual Abuse by Religious Leaders,” in When Pastors Prey, ed. Valli Boobal Batchelor (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2013:14-21)
  4. Incwadi Yomthandazo Yase Tshethsi, Jeppestown: HarperCollins Publishers (1989) 127
  5.  The Didache is a short Christian manual that was created to focus on memory whilst offering training in ‘The Way’ of the Lord, the Practices of the Church as well as the hope for the future for the community of Israelites.
  6.  Giles Emery, “The Ecclesial Fruit of the Eucharist in St.Thomas Aquinas,” Nova et Vetera 2, no. 1 (2004): 43–60
  7. Christopher Grundy, “A Table in the Midst of My Enemies? Power, Abuse, and the Possibilities for Reconciliation in Holy Communion,” Liturgy 23, no. 4(2008): 27-34, DOI: 10.1080/04580630802205512
  8. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae. New York: McGraw-Hill, (1965), 58.
  9. Fortune, “Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited,” 163-170
  10. Emmanuel Lartey, “In Living Color: Intercultural Approach to Pastoral Care and Counselling,” London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers (2003) 65
  11. Desmond Tutu, “Speech: No Future Without Forgiveness,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu Collection Textual 15, no. 2 (2003): 1-8. 

One response to “Conflict and forgiveness: A feminist critique of reconciliation in the Church”

  1. […] is very un-Christ-like. This view is offered by Rhine Koloti who does a critical introspection on the Anglican Liturgy on the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Whilst he holds the unifying meaning of the Eucharist, he postulates that the language used in our […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: