Monday, December 21, 2015

Laymen's Guide to the Thirty-nine Articles

Article XXXIII

Of Excommunicated Persons, how they are to be avoided

That person which by open denunciation of the Church is rightly cut off from the unity of the Church and excommunicated, ought to be taken of the whole multitude of the faithful as an heathen and publican, until he be openly reconciled by penance and received into the Church by a judge that hath authority thereto.

De Excommunicatis Vitandis

Qui per publicam Ecclesiae denunciationem rite ab unitate Ecclesiae praecisus est et excommunicatus, is ab universa fidelium multitudine, donec per poenitentiam publice reconciliatus fuerit arbitrio iudicis competentis, habendus est tanquam ethnicus et publicanus.

Archbishop Peter Robinson
Church discipline is a concept with which modern day Anglicans are unfamiliar. Basically, it has been a long time since any sort of real discipline has been exercised over the laity, though the clergy still have to be aware of the fact that they can be disciplined for error in religion as well as viciousness of life. One of the sadder tasks that I have as a bishop is that very occasionally I have to institute an investigation into alleged clergy misconduct, and although most of these turn out to be matters of, shall we say, perception rather than reality, the Church nonetheless has an obligation to maintain discipline among those it commissions to be ministers of Word and Sacraments. In times past the Church exercised similar supervision over the laity, and the main weapon in the church's armoury was excommunication, which meant that the person upon whom, after due process, the sentence of excommunication had been pronounced was excluded from Holy Communion until such time as they were reconciled through penance (Lesser Excommunication,) or excluded from the Church altogether (Greater Excommunication). In the Early Church, those who were under lesser excommunication were required to leave the Church at the end of the ante-Communion service, and in the Orthodox liturgy there are still vestiges of the dismissal of the catechumens 1 before the actual liturgy of the Eucharist begins.

One of the objections that the Reformers had to church discipline as it then stood was that excommunication was used far too frequently, and had lost much of its force in a church where the laity only received communion once a year anyway. As a result, the Reformers sought to end the use of excommunication for trivial offences, whilst at the same time making it a far more formidable punishment. It also has to be remembered that whilst the original version of Article XXXIII was being drafted Archbishop Cranmer was also working on a new Canon Law Code for the English Church. Indeed had all three parts of Cranmer's programme of Reform - the Articles, the Prayer Book, and the Canon Law - been completed, the Church of England would have had a comprehensive Church Order comparable to those drawn up in Lutheran Germany. Unfortunately, Cranmer's plans for the revision of Canon Law were cut short by the death of Edward VI in 1553, and so the process of reform was taken up firstly by Matthew Parker in the 1560s, and then by Richard Bancroft at the beginning of the reign of James VI & I. This culminated in the 1604 Canons, which remained in force for the next 361 years.

In practice most disciplinary cases in the Church of England involved adultery, bastardy, and slander, which led to the consistory courts gaining the nickname 'Bawdy Courts' in the 17th century. Most cases resulted in public penance being imposed on the guilty parties, usually during the Sunday morning service at the parish church, in which the person doing penance dressed in a white robe, and was seated in the middle of the church. At the appointed time, they would stand and read, or repeat their assigned confession and penance before the congregation. Excommunication was seldom used after the Reformation and then only for cases of unrepented 'open and notorious sin.' However, the major part of the business of the church courts was occupied with probate cases, which remained within the jurisdiction of the Consistory Courts until probate secularized in the early 19th century. One major difference to the Consistory Courts of Lutheran Germany and Scandinavia was that the English system was that the church courts were not involved in divorce cases. This is mainly because divorce was the province of parliament, this making it very difficult to obtain.

After the decline of the old church discipline concerning gossip, slander, and bastardy, the old Consistory Courts continued to meet from time to time for Clergy Discipline cases. The proceedings of such courts were reformed and simplified by the Clergy Discipline Act in the mid-nineteenth century. By the 1980s the main business of the Consistory Courts in the Church of England seemed to be problems arising from the granting of faculties for alterations to church buildings, and the occasional 'naughty vicar' whose sins landed him in the consistory court rather than in the civil justice system.

Fr. Robert Hart
The scriptural basis for excommunication begins in the Law of Moses, when one penalty is to be cut off from Israel. An example is Numbers 15:30,31.

"But the soul that doeth ought presumptuously, whether he be born in the land, or a stranger, the same reproacheth the LORD; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Because he hath despised the word of the LORD, and hath broken his commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him."

In the New Testament we find the words of Jesus Himself, in Matthew 18:15-18

"Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

To treat such a person as "a heathen man or a publican" is reflected in the words of St. Paul from the fifth chapter of First Corinthians, "With such an one, no not to eat." The entire chapter is short.

"It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you.For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person."

We must explain some of what appears in that text, first noting that in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians we find evidence that the man repented and that St. Paul instructs the Church to receive him back, and to assure him of forgiveness. In chapter 2:6 and following we read, 

"Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many. So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comforthim, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him. For to this end also did I write, that I might know the proof of you, whether ye be obedient in all things. To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ; Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices."

The curious phrase "To deliver such an one unto Satan..." must be interpreted by the context, in which it becomes evident that his exclusion from the Church removes a kind of protection from the spiritual forces of darkness. The command at the end of the chapter is to "put away from among yourselves that wicked person." Therefore, we must conclude that the meaning is to expel the unrepentant and notorious sinner from the fellowship of the Church. 

In our day and age that seems almost impossible. After all, the Church has never been authorized by God to make use of physical force or violence. We have control, however, over the reception of Communion, which is why excommunication is viewed mostly as refusal to administer this sacrament to someone. The Book of Common Prayer, as written for the Episcopal Church in the United States, the 1928 edition, reflects this in its rubrics.

If among those who come to be partakers of the Holy Communion, the Minister shall know any to be an open and notorious evil liver, or to have done any wrong to his neighbours by word or deed, so that the Congregation be thereby offended; he shall advertise him, that he presume not to come to the Lord’s Table, until he have openly declared himself to have truly repented and amended his former evil life, that the Congregation may thereby be satisfied; and that he hath recompensed the parties to whom he hath done wrong; or at least declare himself to be in full purpose so to do, as soon as he conveniently may.

However, merely withholding communion is less than what St. Paul commanded, and less than what Christ Himself commanded. The person excommunicated is not to be granted the fellowship of the Church, not even in a social setting. The degree to which this is possible in modern society needs to be thought through and discussed, but not ignored.

Also, the person who is excommunicated is not to be cast out because of anything less than open and unrepentant sin, inasmuch as his or her life is a scandal to the people of God. Excommunication is not an appropriate punishment for merely offending some priest or bishop. I recall an event from the life of the late and very famous John Lennon, when he was granting an interview to the press. Telling of when he was fourteen, and attended church regularly (the Church of England), he would become emotional in "the House of God," as he put it. But on one occasion a bit of laughter came over him that he could not entirely restrain, which is one of the weaknesses of being fourteen (for those of us who can remember). The vicar took it personally, and feeling insulted he told the young John Lennon that he was never to return to his church. At the time he was telling the story Lennon concluded with the words, "That was the end of the Church for me." He never became an unbeliever; but how tragic that his fellowship with the Church was cut off that way. 

In the passages both from First and Second Corinthians we must conclude that the true purpose of excommunication is not to rid the Church of "such an one." Rather, that his or her exclusion from the fellowship and sacraments of the Church may move the sinner to repent. Again those words that sound so strange to modern ears, "To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." The removal of spiritual protection, and the isolation in being "cut off from among his people" is, in all its gravity, a service of charity when all else has failed.

But, in this day and age we have a weakness in the Church due to its divisions, indeed even its competition for members as if it were comprised of local businesses hungry for customers. Merely filling pews with bodies that still breathe is not evangelism (nothing short of saving souls is genuine evangelism). The temptation exists to increase the attendance and donations, no questions asked. If someone is excommunicated nothing prevents him from joining another church, and even telling everyone about the alleged evils of his former affiliation.

Sadly, this practically seems to nullify the effect of the Article, the effect of St. Paul's words, and the effect of Christ's own instruction to us.
1 The distinction to be made is that catechumens are those yet being catechised, that is taught, and have not yet been admitted to Communion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"If someone is excommunicated nothing prevents him from [...] telling everyone about the alleged evils of his former affiliation." I have the impression (based on past journalistic reading, which I cannot cite) that in our day, some people disciplined have recourse to the State against the disciplining body to its possible inconvenience, expense, or worse (depending on the laws pertaining at the place and time). In such circumstances, or perhaps simply of those of someone "telling everyone about the alleged evils of his former affiliation", that body sometimes has (counter) recourse to the State... All of which is to suggest the great need for prudence and circumspection on the part of the disciplining body in expressing the terms and circumstances of the discipline, in the interest of justice and of avoiding possible adventitious action by the person disciplined.

In the current general circumstances of increased attention to 'safeguarding the vulnerable', there may be more frequent occasions of disciplining members of the laity as well as of the clergy.