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Corporate Penance


This prayer exercise is an attempt to examine the corporate dimension to our "sinfulness" which requires some sort of mutual expression.

There are some obvious difficulties in the enterprise of corporate penance. First, it may be necessary to spend a considerable amount of time on the examination of the corporate conscience. This requires an understanding that by simply living in a developed industrial nation at the beginning of the 21st century we are inextricably linked with so many of the problems, injustices and disasters of the little planet which we inhabit. Such an examination will reveal both areas of our individual lives over which we can exercise control in the interests of all the people of the earth, but also situations to which we can respond only with the heart.

The second difficulty is that, whilst such an examination may lead to appropriate acts of contrition and confession, there is no absolution possible in the traditional sense. We cannot simply put aside our corporate involvement - it is bound to continue. There is therefore the danger of creating an unspecified general feeling of guilt which is often not very constructive. Set against that must be the need, as individuals, to consider how we might adapt our lifestyles in the light of these discoveries. We must beware being tempted to conclude that, having done "our bit", the problems can be left to someone else. It is somewhere within this dilemma of massive corporate responsibility and minuscule individual response that the final act of prayer takes place.


  • Examination of the corporate conscience and its relation to the individual (Approx. 45 minutes)
  • A corporate act of contrition (15 minutes)
  • An offering of personal responsibility (15 minutes)
  • Watching with the crucified Christ (15 minutes)


'Your hands are covered in blood, wash, make yourselves clean. Take your wrong-doing out of my sight. Cease doing evil. Learn to do good, search for justice, discipline the violent, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow.' (Isaiah 1: 15b-17 NJB)

The leader begins with a quotation like that from Isaiah and reminds the group of how an examination of conscience normally focuses upon matters of personal behaviour and morality in relation to those with whom we have day-to-day contact. We are then reminded that throughout the scriptures God also demands corporate morality in terms of the care of the environment (e.g. Leviticus 25:1-7), justice for the poor (e.g. Leviticus 25:8-17) and peace between peoples (e.g. Matthew 5:9). The World Council of Churches launched an initiative to remind us of these responsibilities under the title 'Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation'.

One way to move from the abstract to the concrete is by way of the news media but this will probably require a degree of explanation. The leader chooses an item of current news (a newspaper report, magazine article, or even a video of a TV news clip) and attempts to examine how we are interlinked to events which seem to be far away and remote - for example news of yet another famine. The cause of such a famine may be complex but might include climatic change (which may be related to our pollution of the atmosphere ... including driving cars, using electricity generated by fossil fuels, using CFC-powered aerosols), civil war (sustained by the continuation of the arms trade) plus years of failure to establish just trade relations which would give Third World producers a proper economic return for their produce.

Once the general principle is established each member of the group is given a suitable resource such as a recent newspaper or news magazine and is given time to look for one story where the links between our own life and some failure of humanity seems apparent. Each group member is also supplied with a sheet of paper and has access to scissors, glue, felt tip pens, etc., and is invited to illustrate how he or she understands that linkage in words/pictures/cuttings or collage.

The group is re-convened and each member is invited to pin their illustration on to a suitably large board and to say a few words of explanation.


Using the pin-board as a visual focus, the group is invited to express its sorrow at its participation in the pain, destruction and injustice which has been demonstrated.

Some corporate act is demanded at this point. It could take the form of a litany but perhaps an act which trails into silence is to be preferred. One way of achieving this is through the repetitive singing of a chant e.g. Salvator mundi (Music from Taize, vol.1) which can be sung through a number of times getting quieter until the sound dies away and the song is continued in the heart. About 15 minutes could be devoted to this part of the exercise most of which would be spent in silence. The silence can be concluded by the leader picking up the Salvator mundi at an audible level once again. If the leader lacks confidence about sustaining the music, a tape recording/CD of the chant can be used and the group encouraged to join in.

A suitable alternative, if music is felt inappropriate, is the corporate repetition of the Jesus prayer:

'Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.'

The prayer can, like the chant, begin audibly, trail into silence and be picked up again at the end of the allotted time.


The exercise up to this point may engender feelings of guilt and the inevitable desire to take away the pain of culpability by 'doing something about it'. It may be necessary at this stage, therefore, to allow the expression of such feelings in open discussion. The conclusion of that discussion might include some of the following thoughts:

  • The scale of the problems and the extent of their complexity are massive.
  • We cannot by our actions 'solve' any of them.
  • Nonetheless, by taking personal responsibility for some of the consequences of our actions we become important signs of the kingdom of God in our time.

'To live in today's world and within it offer the solitary witness of staying unentangled, uncompromised by its power-struggles, unviolated by its attempts to corrupt, is what will ... change the world.' Maggie Ross, Pillars of Flame, SCM Press.

Each member of the group is then asked to think about one of the illustrations on the pin-board (not necessarily their own) and to consider one element of their lifestyle which might be altered, in however small a way, as to accept something of the responsibility which is ours, to make some contribution (no matter how small) to the solution and to act as a witness (whether publicly visible or not) to God's kingdom. That alteration can be turned into a commitment which is written on a piece of paper and the pieces of paper (perhaps folded) are placed in a bowl or basket in front of the pin-board as an offering.


We have tried to see where our responsibilities lie, we have made an act of contrition and we have made a small penance ... but absolution in the traditional sense is not possible. We shall continue to be involved in sins against humanity and creation whether we like it or not. In this final part of the exercise we therefore acknowledge the pain of our powerlessness in the face of our corporate responsibility.

'Yet ours were the sufferings he was bearing, ours the sorrows he was carrying,
while we thought of him as someone being punished and struck with affliction by God; whereas he was being wounded for our rebellions, crushed because of our guilt; the punishment reconciling us fell on him, and we have been healed by his bruises.'
(Isaiah 53:4-5 NJB)

A crucifix is hung or placed in the centre of the pin board as the words of Isaiah are read. The group is invited to meditate upon the cross as the place where God takes responsibility for all the pain and suffering over which we have no power.

The meditation is probably best left as silent but could be concluded with suitable words which do not attempt to reduce the magnitude of what is happening but bring us back to God's overwhelming redeeming and reconciling love. One suggestion for this purpose is the poem Still Falls the Rain by Edith Sitwell, which can be found in The Faber Book of Religious Verse, ed. Helen Gardner.