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Apologies not only help right past wrongs; they can also open a window on the injustices of today

By Muriel Duncan

Jostle a Canadian on a busy street and you both may exchange apologies. The victim whose parcels you've crunched says "sorry" as a signal that the incident can be forgotten. Maybe it's just an "oops" expression now and we really mean little by it.

Formal apologies by governments mean much more. Usually they are long-overdue recognitions of terrible wrongs and come with reparation. Around the world, governments have apologized for violating treaties, for interning their own citizens, for actions of their soldiers. Still, we may wonder if they are always heartfelt, pushing positive change, or if they are sometimes only politically expedient.

Since most countries have sin in their past, if one ethnic group has been given an apology, others may maintain they have been treated just as badly and expect the same. Do too many apologies cheapen the gesture, like the automatic "sorry" on the street?

When the United Church apologized to Canada's Native Peoples, both for residential school abuse and for the way it tried to replace Native spirituality, the actions were anything but automatic. The church consulted, debated, then admitted its guilt, vowed to change its behaviour and make amends.

Some United Church women who will be getting an apology from their church this spring are a bit bemused by it. They don't see what happened to them as comparable to our sins against Natives. Yet as a church, we do have reason to apologize to these women who trained as United Church deaconesses and ministers but were made to resign if they married (story, p. 32).

Many of these women continued to use their professional training as Christian educators, women's group leaders, active volunteers in whatever congregations they found themselves. They just weren't paid for their work. A bonus for the church. The ministers many of them married did not face similar rules. This policy lasted into the late 1950s.

Rev. Brian Dickson of Hamilton Conference welcomes the apology. His mother, Margaret (Kee) Dickson, died in 2002 after a lifetime of service, helping establish churches as a deaconess, running Sunday schools, working with the UCW later. "It was just fascinating to see that level of commitment," he says. "With or without the title, she did that all her life."

Theirs is a generation of women devoted to serving God and their church. They've had a big hand in building the United Church and we owe them our gratitude as well as the apology, although they haven't looked for either. I'd like to stretch that thank-you to include the many, many other women of that era who carried the weight of maintaining the local church and supporting world mission but didn't get a place on the Session.

One of the side benefits of making a sincere, deserved apology is the opportunity to take a longer view of the history surrounding it, to understand who we have been. Apologies should remind us that we currently may be blinded to injustice by being comfortably nestled in today's culture and values.

So as we apologize to a group of women disenfranchised long ago, we need to take a good look around. Are we leaving someone else outside the door these days? Have we got any current policies on the books that owe more to the norms of society than to the Gospel?

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