Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Excommunication and Redemption

Holy Week

I decided to cut this out of my essay. There wasn't room. Thoughts, anyone?

Finally, we come to the question of how to face the problems that arise when living closely with real people in the context of Eucharistic practice. For people who seek to embody a serious commitment to shared life as the Church, ongoing practices of forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation must be learned. For those times when individuals or groups are at variance with one another and refuse to reconcile, or someone sins against the common life of the Church in a way such as Paul dealt with in the Corinthian church, it is helpful to discuss the redemptive role of excommunication.

We have said that the Eucharist is an eschatological observance that welcomes Christ as judge to align the community with the ultimate restoration of Creation. The Church is called to strive for organic unity and to care for one another, and those who refuse to share this responsibility stand under judgment. It is often supposed that excommunication an act of ultimate exclusion that declares someone to be unworthy to be part of a community. This reflects a misunderstanding of its purpose: excommunication is a way of taking love and sin deeply seriously. It is a discipline that continues the rite’s work of “dislocation:” the Eucharistic discipline does not allow us to cover over our sins against one another, as our acts of betrayal, evasion and abandonment in the community are given ultimate significance as failures to “discern the Body.”

Excommunication is a final resort meant to give testimony to the breech in relationship that already exists, and serves as a prelude to healing and reconciliation; only in such cases can it be redemptive rather than vindictive, and be what Cavanaugh calls “an act of hospitality.” This is why the possibility must be maintained even in a consumer society where anyone can simply leave and take up with another congregation. The very existence of excommunication as a discipline makes it clear that each communicant is actually important enough, and their actions matter so much, that their place in the church is a matter of concern to the entire community. The community may only impose discipline out of respect for the individual’s baptism, whereby the value of a person’s new life in Christ and unquestioned place in the life of the community is taken completely for granted. This keeps the discipline from being merely an act of shaming.

Rather than being a kind of retribution, the act itself must express the core unity of which we have been speaking. Rowan Williams has phrased the matter this way:
“We are part of a body whose failures are our common failures. It is always a temptation to say ‘We are the true church, they have abandoned us’ and yet even as we make necessary disjunctions and separations, there is a point at which we must remember in our prayer, this is our suffering; this is our loss, we are together in sin as well as in grace.”
If excommunication is a valid discipline rather than an act of destructive exclusion, there must always be a real relational cost involved to all concerned, with the restoration of offending members as the unquestioned goal. Excommunication is a way of judging ourselves so as to avoid the judgment of God. It cannot be prescribed for periodic offenses against love; such occurrences are to be expected. It would only be acceptable for persons who in the face of the community’s pained rebuke continue to engage in destructive patterns of behavior. John Colwell offers a helpful distinction: “only when such acts can no longer be deemed inconsistencies, only when the continuity of a person’s life has become discontinuous with the gospel narrative, does a claimed Christian identity become incoherent.” Any proper Eucharistic discipline seeks to bring the entire community in greater coherence to its basic truths.

Ultimately, an ongoing practice that recognizes the continual expiation of sins and the need for forgiveness and reconciliation in human relationships will give us “the means to acknowledge [our] blunders as part of our own story, but to see ourselves in a story where even our blunders are part of an ongoing grace, that is, are forgiven and transformed for ‘our good and the good of all the church.’”


William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 243.
Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens, 129
Rowan Williams, "One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church"
John Colwell, Living the Story, 185
Stanley Hauerwas, "Character, Growth and Narrative in the Christian Life," in The Hauerwas Reader, 249.

See also

Unity and Exclusion
The Minimum


Matthew Francis said...

Thank you, Kyle. This is very well-phrased, and full of charity and life. If this is what you cut out, I'd love to see what you left in!

Anonymous said...

Seems spot on to me, I commend you.

What is interesting though is excommunication and the almost uniquely Protestant idea of splitting away and forming a new church, which tends to happen when people are put out of one church, they just form another one and often declare their former church to be illegitimate or inauthentic, which has massive problems for Christian holiness. For instance: the church is holy - can you split from a church, start a new one, and still consider yourself to be a part of the body of Christ and to be holy? It's a really serious issue that I don't think we really appreciate.

So as far as excommunicating someone goes, it needs to be made clear that they are out of the Church (capital C) period, it's not just an invitation to start a new church. This also raises questions about where ecclesial authority lies etc, but I'd be in danger of rambling. Any other thoughts on the matter?

Kyle said...

Thanks, Matthew!

Steven, I think you're dead-on. I wouldn't consider excommunication a local deal, but definately a catholic deal. And if a group of people can't figure out how to be Christians together for the long haul, that's a major failure in being Christians.


Jared Cramer said...

given your caveats, it works for me.

James Church said...


I will ask you to excuse me for copying this link into your comments. I cannot help but see the similarities between your own writing and something I put together a month or so ago. But I wonder what you think?

Kyle said...

Hey, it's good. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.