Grace abounding to the chief of sinners

The news media reported a few days ago that a talk by Graeme Capill, at the Stratford Baptist Church, had been cancelled at the last minute “after causing divisions in the community”.

The reporting was pretty inadequate.  No one could actually confirm that it was Capill who was to speak, and it isn’t clear quite which “community” is being referred to.  And only one aggrieved church member is quoted.  As the Get Religion website people would no doubt ask, did the reporter make any effort to talk to anyone elsewhere in the Christian world about forgiveness, reconciliation, and how these central concepts of the gospel might apply here?

Capill, for any younger or foreign readers, was a prominent figure in New Zealand in the mid 1990s.  As leader of the Christian Heritage party, and one part of the Christian Coalition, at the 1996 election (our first proportional representation election) he came close to taking his party into Parliament.

But he fell very badly, and in 2005 was sentenced to nine years in prison for several child sex offences.  He served several years in prison and was released in 2011

My concern here is not the criminal penalties.  It is about how seriously we take a gospel that tells us that we are sinners (from St Paul on through) and that not one of us deserves the goodness and grace of God.  And yet he offers it.  Few of us have been to prison, but all have sinned – no just in the past tense but in the present.  We will sin until we die, and each day or each week must throw ourselves afresh on the forgiving mercy of God.

We proclaim a gospel that came to the penitent thief of the cross, in the last hour of his life.  We marvel at that, and proclaim the truth.  But perhaps we have more difficulty with the concept of a God who would have received the repentance, and offered mercy and adoption as a brother in Christ, to Hitler, Stalin, or Mao.  Around dinner last night, one my kids was grilling me about who was the most evil person in the world.  I resisted the classification.  Plenty of people have done very evil deeds, but their deeds no more exclude them from the scope of God’s mercy than my sin excludes me.  But it gets harder to live that belief the closer the person or deed is to us.

And I don’t know the state of Graeme Capill’s soul (nor is it particularly my business).  But I do know that his wife, and mother of his ten children, has forgiven him, and received him back.  If her own media interview a few years ago is accurate, that was not (as one might expect) an easy or painless process for her or for the family.  Her forgiveness, and their reconciliation, suggests something genuine in Capill’s contrition and repentance –  rather more than, say, a conventional regret at having been caught.

The comments in the Stuff article don’t suggest any great insight either:

They understood the need for forgiveness, but Capill deceived everybody, they said.

“He was holier than thou. He held a position in Christian Heritage, was a police prosecutor and and spoke out against sexual abuse, sex before marriage. He fooled everyone for 14 years.”

Capill’s three victims were all aged under 12.

“He may have repented,” they said, ‘If so, put it out there and see what the consensus is about it.”

Deception and dishonesty are perhaps in the nature of things when a Christian leaders falls as badly as Capill did.  But which of us –  church leaders or not – would want all our thoughts out there?  In which of us is there not an element of deception, intentional or otherwise.

I don’t know what process John Burgess went through in deciding to invite Capill.  It would be surprising if he had not done a lot to check out the genuineness of Capill’s repentance, and his progress since release, with other Christian leaders.

There are some cases of forgiveness and reconciliation that the world seems to cope with.  Charles Colson was a good example, perhaps made easier by the fact that his Christian conversion came through his fall –  he wasn’t proclaiming his faith while doing the acts for which he was sent to prison.  The new Dean of Wellington Cathedral was once a Baptist minister.  At the time, he stole, and ended up with a criminal conviction, and lost his job and position.  With time, and wise counsel and spiritual discipline, he is once again a Christian leader.

But if reconciliation, forgiveness, and restoration mean anything they have to mean it for the hardest cases, not just the more sympathetic ones.  Child sex abuse –  always an awful crime –  seems to fall almost in a class of its own in polite society these days. But each of us sins.  Each of us needs, and needs to know and proclaim, the tender mercy of a crucified God.

None of this is an argument for ignoring the past.  Temptations are real, and we take precautions, to protect the sinner, and his past or potential victims, from a repeat.  But when we hear humble stories of a forgiving and renewing God, and see the evidence of a broken and contrite heart we are reminded again of what the gospel truly is.

So if Capill’s story is for real, I hope that he gets the chance to share it.  Not for his own glory, in any sense, but to the glory of a merciful and redeeming God.  Mercy and reconciliation – counterpoint to the serious reality of sin –  needs to be proclaimed among our congregations  and in our wider communities.  It may be a scandal to some –  as the notion of a crucified Messiah was in the first century –  but that is the nature of the gospel we proclaim and seek to live.

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