Advanced search Click here for the website of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

This is an archived website containing material relating to Dr Rowan Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury, which ended on 31st December 2012

Skip Content

Archbishop's BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day on Good Friday

Friday 10th April 2009

The Archbishop spoke on BBC Radio 4 on Good Friday 2009 in the "Thought for the Day" slot.

Good morning. It's been very noticeable how often in the last few months people have been talking about the need to hear someone say sorry. Sorry for the mess we're in with our economic affairs, sorry for offensive comments about this or that. It keeps coming back – as if we couldn't move on until someone – government, bankers, brokers, police, journalists, whoever – had actually got up and apologised. Someone has got to say how wrong they were, and then we can work out whether we feel like forgiving them.

One of the shocking things about the story of Jesus' death on Good Friday is that he asks God to forgive his torturers when there isn't even a chance of them saying sorry. 'Father, forgive them, they don't know what they're doing'. We talk flippantly sometimes about getting our retaliation in first; well, Jesus gets his forgiveness in first. And he does so, according to the Bible's account, because those who are torturing him to death 'don't know what they're doing.' They can't apologise because they haven't seen the problem. And part of what they don't see is that they are doing damage to themselves as well as to others.

So the story of Jesus' death tells us that even before we know what the problem is, God has taken the first step towards mending it. He doesn't wait for an apology that sounds satisfactory. He begins by recognising that people are trapped in a level of violence and inhumanity they don't even notice, and he says to them that his love is already available. If they can bring themselves to see how deeply they are injuring themselves by their violence and fear towards others, there is a future for them, supported by God's forgiveness.

When we sit tight and wait for an apology, the usual effect is that the other person gets fearful and resentful. They know that an apology to an angry, injured person will sound like an admission of weakness and be a cause for more hostility. There we are, told you so. How wrong you were, how guilty you are!

Of course apologies are good for the soul. We need to recognise when we really have failed, when we really are responsible for hurt and offence and damage. But what makes it feel safe to say sorry? That only happens when someone else says, 'all right, you failed, you were at fault, you caused me and others hurt - but you hurt yourself too. So now I want to have some part in healing the damage you've done to yourself – and I want you to have some part in my healing too.' That's real forgiveness – not pretending there never was a problem.

It's the heart of the Good Friday message about God. And it's the heart of the Good Friday challenge about us and what we think is possible. Today's story of Jesus' crucifixion simply says, It can be done.

© Rowan Williams 2009

Back · Back to top