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Owning Up

Owning Up

When I went to Acklam Hall Grammar School in 1957 I had a headmaster who was steeped in what many people think of as traditional British traditions: stiff-upper-lip, fair play, obligation, honesty and hard work. He grew up with them as a boy and tried to imbue his school with them. He was very tall and imposing with a large head and an impressive thatch of brushed-back silver-grey hair. The school day began with morning assembly in the school hall. It was arranged so that we boys were in our places, standing in rows facing the stage, and when we were settled Mister Hurst would enter from the back of the hall, walking down the centre isle with a long, stately stride, followed by the masters – all of them in black academic teaching gowns billowing behind them as they walked. When they got to the stage the column split in two, some going up the right hand steps and some up the left. Each day it was different masters breaking off left or right; I never could work out the system. They stood behind the headmaster in rows, while he came forward to a pulpit. The assembly was traditional Church of England worship: hymns, readings and prayers, after which the headmaster would give the day’s announcements. Sometimes, perhaps once or twice a year his announcements would be embarrassing. Drawing himself up to his full height of six foot three or four he would gravely say something like this: “boys, I regret to announce that there has been vandalism to some of the bikes in the bike sheds; in fact one of the bikes was stolen.” He would then pause for a moment (his timing was impeccable), and say: “I would like the boy who is responsible for this to come forward now.”

Then there would be a long silence. Now, I had nothing whatever to do with it but so compelling was Mr. Hurst’s oratory and so intolerable was the silence I felt like stepping forward and shouting “it was me, it was me”. My face went beetroot red and I was sure everyone in the hall was staring at me. Of course, there was never any response from the real culprit, though at the end of the awkward silence he was invited (as a second-best option) to present himself privately in the headmaster’s study during the day. As far as I know, it never happened.

I’ve often reflected on that experience. I’ve wondered why Mr Hurst did this. He wasn’t a stupid man, in fact he was a very clever man. He must have known no-one would come forward. Superficially it was a silly thing to do. So why did he say what he said? One explanation I can think of is his code of honour. Although he knew no-one would respond, by his standards the culprit had to be given an opportunity to redeem himself by “owning up”, or “doing the decent thing”. In gospel language, he was giving the villain a chance to repent, to turn his life around. It didn’t matter that this was unlikely; the chance had to be offered. It was a concern to redeem a boy, not to unmask a culprit.

Well, I don’t know if my amateur psychoanalysis is anywhere near the truth, but I’d like to think so because this certainly the way Heavenly Father works, and he invites us to do the same. In all his dealings with his children on earth his whole objective is to redeem, to bless, to help. He is never, never, ever interested in vengeance, condemnation or punishment, except to bring about redemption. There is a thing called justice—impartial, unyielding, implacable. In the eternal scheme of things wrong actions demand payment. For every action, there is a consequence, otherwise law is meaningless and without law the universe flies apart in total annihilation. There can’t be any exceptions. We can’t decide that just for a change today gravity will be suspended and water will flow uphill. No—laws have to be consistent and the catastrophic consequence of destroying a law is built into the nature of existence. So, if we jump off a bridge, we’ll fall and probably die. It’s easy to understand this principle in the laws of physics, but it applies in the moral, mental and spiritual world too. I don’t understand why some people find this hard to accept but it seems natural and logical to me. In our choices and actions there exists good or bad, right or wrong. Some wrongs are very wrong indeed, black as night. Other wrongs, like vandalising bikes are pretty bad but not so evil. The majority of wrongs are low grade, ordinary misdemeanours like an unkind word; too selfish to help an aged neighbour; telling white lies; avoiding the washing up.

The idea of responsibility is out of fashion these days. Honesty, integrity, “owning up” are too often replaced by “what you can get away with”. Moral duty though, like the physical laws that govern the universe, is an eternal reality. In this life it can be evaded or dodged for a time, like the bike shed culprit, but eventually it has to be faced. Unless, that is, we turn to a mediator, confess, plead guilty and hope for mercy. Can you guess that even at the end of April I still have Easter on my mind?

Going back to the school assembly, I’ve often wondered at my reaction. Why did I feel guilty about something I didn’t do? Why did I glow like a beacon in the line when I had no involvement? Well, I think Mr. Hurst had another purpose in his seemingly naive announcement. He was setting a standard of behaviour in a dramatic way, emphasising the standards he expected of us. What had happened was totally unacceptable in his school, it “wasn’t cricket”. He was making clear what our behaviour should be and doing it in such a way to cause an examination of conscience. Perhaps in some peculiar way I was empathising with the culprit and putting myself in his shoes, feeling his guilt. Mmm well—maybe too much amateur psychoanalysis here—I was after all a sensitive and mixed up teenager! But one thing I know to be true: Jesus Christ felt that culprit’s guilt, and my guilt too over other things where I’ve fallen short, and the pain of all mankind, even the worst of us, that eventually, inevitably comes from broken laws. In a way just as incomprehensible as my blushing face in assembly those years ago, but at a level immeasurably higher, he took on himself an infinite pain: the suffering and and anguish of all mankind, the payment demanded by justice for imperfection. It’s a payment we can’t make ourselves; it’s beyond our reach. He did this because he loves us and the small cost he asks is that we repent, be baptised in his Church, and follow his gospel. Sadly for some, like the bike shed delinquent this is unacceptable, but in the long-run it is by far the easiest and most joyful path.

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