XXXIII. Of excommunicate 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 thereunto.
More explicitly than any of the articles overtly dealing with ecclesiology this reveals certain assumptions about the Church. It places more weight on authority and discipline, and therefore on the Church as an institution. It stresses the Church as not so much a local congregation, as an interdependent body. And underpinning it seems to be a clear assumption that there is only one Church in this realm of England.
This became a problem. In practice the excommunicate of this article (as far as the Anglican settlement went) actually included various dissenters and, of course, Roman Catholics. The gradual outworking of the realisation that there were Christian bodies in England that were not Anglican slowly corroded the intent of this article. After all, once there are competing bodies all claiming the name “Church” discipline becomes a much more complex issue. That is illustrated most painfully and powerfully by the ongoing strife of the Anglican Communion. But it can also be found in the Roman splinter group of the Society of St Pius X, very loosely being sort-of-reconciled, then sort-of-unreconciled, to the Holy See.
There is another less commonly recognised anomaly to take note of. In the multi-denominational world we inhabit, Salvation Army members and Quakers are recognised by almost all as Christians, and their organisations recognised by many as “churches”. Nobody discusses the question of what on earth excommunication can mean, if those who are neither baptised or communicate in the first place, are regarded as Christian. None of this stops people talking as though the earlier situation obtained, but it does reveal a great deal of confusion behind the language that is rarely unmasked.
The article’s root lies in its allusions to St Matthew’s gospel:
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17 NRSV)
This special Matthean material appears unknown to the developing Church of the first-century outside the circles within which Matthew is writing (commonly presumed to be in Syria). Nonetheless, the degree of discipline it implies eventually came to be seen as the normal tradition of the Church, and, for Calvin at least, one of the marks of the Church. Yet, with the exception of one incident in Paul’s writing, (1 Corinthians 5) dealing with an issue of behaviour that was as unacceptable outside as it should have been inside the church, the overall method adopted seems to have been persuasion rather than coercion.
No doubt that was in large part due to the rudimentary organisation, and the diverse and disparate nature of the earliest churches. Coercive discipline was largely out of the reach of Christians in the early centuries of the Church. (This really ought to put paid to the fantasies of some of those who would see the Church of the first three centuries suppressing heretics and their books left, right and centre). It does mean, however, that persuasion as a call to self-discipline has a good New Testament pedigree, and need not simply be a matter of helpless hand-wringing.
That is, I think, unquestionably where we are today. First, the history of the Church’s use of the power of excommunication has not been a particularly happy one. A burning ardour for holiness has all too often resulted in the all-too-literal burning of those declared unholy.
Second, for a community to give legal sanction to the enforcement of what is perceived as virtue, requires a high degree of acceptance of that virtue among those who hold power, and at least a tacit degree of acceptance by society at large. Hence the modern treatment of racism, sexism and so on generally bears more than a passing resemblance to older treatments of heresy. Some of those who have become most vociferous about what they see as this secular heresy-hunting, are those who might have most defended the version carried out by earlier Christian authorities!
Thirdly, we have (I think disingenuously) tend to identify the idea of legislation for moral and religious reasons with Islamic Sharia, both to demonise it and render it un-English (somehow not noticing a certain amount of double-standards are involved). We have also, sure of our own late modern morality, particularly objected to those African church leaders in Uganda and Nigeria and elsewhere who seem quite keen on developing an anti-homosexual “Christian Sharia”.
The combination of these last two points to the way in which all societies probably always will (at least in some respects) coerce agreement in what is seen as right opinion. For that to happen effectively there has to be some degree of consent that what is being coerced is either natural or principled. The problem comes, of course, when what seems natural and principled in one culture seems the opposite in another. That problem is intensified in a globalised world, where what is published in Gath is played in Peoria. One might hope the overall effect would be somewhat chastening, but it appears rather more likely to be infuriating.
Finally, though, and I suggest rather more importantly and positively, persuasive pastoring and prophetic preaching as an appeal to self-discipline are in many ways more congruent with the methods God chose to reach us through the incarnation.
All this goes to suggest that reasonable persuasiveness is not simply a second best to excommunication. It is not simply a pragmatic alternative in the absence of some kind of mediaeval “secular arm” to do all those things bishops want done but won’t or can’t do themselves. Reasonable persuasion is in fact a tool more fitted to the gospel than the politics of power. It is not a sign of liberal weakness, but as the prophet recognised so long ago, the approach of our covenanting God:
Now come, let us argue this out, says the Lord. Though your sins are scarlet, they may yet be white as snow; though they are dyed crimson, they may become white as wool. (Is 1:18)