Article XXXIII: Of excommunicated persons, how they are to be avoided

This post is part of a Lenten series on the 39 Articles.

Article XXXIII: Of excommunicated persons, how they are to be avoided
That persons 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.

To many Episcopalians, this will seem wholly irrelevant. Excommunication? Do we even do that any more? Well, yes, we do. It is thankfully rare, but the directions are right there on page 409. In fact, it is required that priests excommunicate persons under certain conditions. OK, now that I have your attention, let’s have a look at this Article.

Back in the day (450 years ago), excommunication was a matter of course. The question was what happened when someone was cast out for whatever reason. While this Article seems harsh in today’s I’m-OK-you’re-OK church culture, it is less severe than some alternatives. At least there is hope here in the opportunity to be “reconciled by penance”. Though, to be fair, the Article does command the exclusion (shunning) of those under the sentence of excommunication.

I am grateful that our church reserves excommunication only for the rarest of cases. In fact, I only know one priest who has excommunicated someone. And I am further grateful that when someone is excommunicated, the members of the church are not enjoined to think of our separated friends as heathens or publicans.

If there is something in this Article to find edifying, it is the restoration of those who are estranged from the church. While today one will usually be estranged from the church based on one’s own decision, the need for reconciliation is still real. Our rite of reaffirmation doesn’t quite cut it. Perhaps a more fulsome rite would be useful for those times when people have been cut off from the church (for whatever reason, by whatever means) and desire reconciliation.

Here are some questions for pondering or meditation:

  • Is it disturbing that our church still maintains a mechanism for excommunication?
  • What, if anything, should merit excommunication?
  • How should an excommunicated person be reconciled with the church?
  • Have you ever felt cut off from the church? What would be required for you to be reconciled? Or what aided your reconciliation with the church?

O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Image courtesy of flickr user hugovk.

Previous: Article XXXII: Of the marriage of priests
Next: Article XXXIV: Of the traditions of the Church

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3 Responses

  1. Penny Nash says:

    A certain Archbishop got in trouble with the King about this once. But you know that, having seen the movie recently.

  2. Reverend Ref says:

    1. Is it disturbing that our church still maintains a mechanism for excommunication?

    No, not in my mind. We all need to be accountable for our actions. When we live in or participate in a faith community (or even a regular business for that matter), we are held to certain behaviors. Forgiveness and reconciliation are part of what we are about, but if a person chooses to act in a way inconsistent with the standards of the church, then excommunication may be the only way to recognize that.

    2. What, if anything, should merit excommunication?

    In my case, it was escalating negative and subversive behavior by two parishioners along with an completely unfounded accusation of child abuse. I’m not sure I excommunicated the couple, but I did advise them that they were “barred from receiving Holy Communion at this altar until such time as [they] apologize for that statement and promise to amend [their] negative behavior in such a way as to work for the benefit of this parish.”

    Doing this within the first four months of accepting my new call and a week before Holy Week was not my definition of a good time.

    3. How should an excommunicated person be reconciled with the church?

    Well, in my case it was requiring an apology and promise. It was also to entail a year-long “sabbatical” from leadership positions. They decided to leave the church rather than be part of a parish with me as the rector. They did, however, issue required apology for the accusation and I did notify all parties (vestry, LEMs and bishop) that they were now welcome to receive Communion should they choose to return.

    So, there’s probably a longer answer than you were looking for.

  3. Scott Gunn says:

    Penny, yes, and that Archbishop is going to win the Golden Halo.

    Rev Ref, I don’t envy your experience of #2. And as long as it’s a last resort, I don’t disagree with what you’ve written in #1. Please do comment again sometime — long answers are great!