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Article 33 — Of Excommunicate Persons, how they are to be avoided

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Posted by Michael Nazir-Ali, 6 Apr 2017

Michael Nazir-Ali unpacks the teaching of the 39 Articles on church discipline and reconciliation.

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.

The discipline of the medieval Church had grown out of the godly, if severe, practices of the early Church in restoring sinners and apostates to its fellowship. In the course of time, however, it had not only become extremely burdensome but also casuistical and corrupt. The Reformers were, understandably, wary of such legalism and excess of discipline, especially if one could buy oneself out of any discipline that was imposed! They raised their voice against such corruption and abuse of discipline, but not discipline itself.

The Anglican Reformers were critical of Rome’s excessive discipline at the time but the formularies all recognise the necessity of sufficient and godly discipline in the Church.The Book of Common Prayer, for instance, in the rubric at the beginning of the service of Holy Communion, sets out the possibility of the ‘lesser excommunication’ or suspension from receiving Holy Communion for those who are ‘open and notorious evil livers’ and/or have somehow wronged their neighbours, without making restitution.The Ordinal also charges those being ordained priest or consecrated bishop ‘to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word’.

Aside from Article 33, to which we shall presently come, Article 26 famously teaches that ‘the unworthiness of the ministers hinders not the effect of the Sacrament’. It also declares that such unworthy ministers should be disciplined through due process. Martin Davie in his commentary on the Articles, Our Inheritance of Faith, helpfully lists a number of canons in the Canons of 1604 which prescribe discipline. He points out that these canons distinguish between the ‘lesser excommunication’ i.e. suspension from receiving Holy Communion and the ‘greater excommunication’  which would carry heavier penalties. Present day Canons of the Church of England reflect such discipline without, perhaps, distinguishing so clearly between the different kinds of excommunication.

This brings us to the somewhat uncompromising wording of Article 33. In the background here is the authority given in the New Testament to the Church and her leaders to ‘bind and to loose’, to ‘forgive and to retain’ sins (Matthew 16:13-20, John 20:19-23). The specific passage alluded to in the Article seems to be Matthew 18:15-20 where, if an errant brother does not listen even to the Church, he is to be regarded as a Heathen and a Publican.

This in, its Jewish context, would have meant one with whom there is no spiritual or social intercourse. Such teaching is, of course, reflected in what St Paul says about the treatment of someone in a state of grave sin (1 Corinthians 5:1-13). The Article, then, seems to be going beyond the communion rubric and to be referring to a ‘ greater excommunication’.

As the Reformation historian, James Atkinson, has shown in his Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism, one of the issues which Luther confronted was how the commuting of a disciplinary penalty passed from the whole congregation to the pastors and bishops and from thence to a rapidly centralising papacy. Neither Luther nor the Article is denying that there are those in the Church who have legitimate authority to impose and to relax discipline. Unlike some In the Radical Reformation, the mainstream Reformers did not deny what the Article asserts, that the penalty of even the greater excommunication might be relaxed by ‘a judge that hath authority thereunto’.

This is, in fact, the most important element in Church discipline of any kind: the aim to bring the offender to repentance and, eventually, to restoration. In this sense, all discipline must be motivated by love and the desire to see the offender return home. For this reason also, unless there are serious fears for the safety of others, no one under discipline should be prevented from attending divine worship and from listening to the word of God read and preached. Whether 1 Cor 5:1-5 and 2 Cor 2:5-11 are about the same or different persons, the aim in both accounts is the salvation and the restoration of the offender to fellowship with Christ and with his body, the Church.

It is in this light that the controversy in the early Church about those who had apostatised in a period of persecution, is to be read. The consensus, as it emerged, was that they could be received back after due discipline, to be determined on a case by case basis, had been exercised. Any church worthy of that name should have procedures both for determining what discipline is required for this or that offence and for the restoration of the penitent.

We should not forget a special category of those who are to be avoided: those who hold or teach false beliefs or who deny apostolic authority (e.g. Romans 16:17-18, 2 Thessalonians 3:14, Titus 3:10, 2 John 10,11). That is to say, there can be doctrinal as well as moral reasons for excommunication. It should be a matter of huge disappointment to faithful Anglicans that the General Synod of the Church of England, whilst agreeing a disciplinary procedure for clergy on moral issues, refused to do so for matters of doctrine, thus leaving the Church with only antiquated and extremely expensive processes for dealing with discipline on doctrine.

This is especially disappointing because the clergy are involved: that is, the very people who have the responsibility of preaching the Word ‘in season and out of season’ (2 Timothy 4:2). Both 1 Timothy and Titus show how bishops and presbyters are to hold and teach the Faith in its wholeness. From St Cyprian we know that the early Church was hostile even to the ministry of those bishops and clergy who had apostatised under persecution. How is doctrinal fitness to exercise episcopal or presbyteral office in the Church of England to be determined in the absence of any process?

The new liturgies of the Church of England do not mention excommunication and the present Canons only mention suspension from Holy Communion. Yet the Book of Common Prayer remains the doctrinal and liturgical standard for the Church of England — and its references to discipline, suspension from Communion, and excommunication as such remain in force and should be taken seriously by both clergy and laity.

Because of the establishment of the Church of England, excommunication also originally carried with it a number of civil exclusions and penalties. Until the early 19th century excommunication was a common penalty for contempt of both ecclesiastical and civil courts. This is, rightly, no longer the case with civil litigation but the Church continues to have responsibility for its own discipline.

As E.J. Bicknell points out in his well known work A Theological Introduction to the Thirty–nine Articles of the Church of England, ‘we need a fresh recognition of the holiness which is required of Church members.’ This is not a counsel of perfection nor a demand for a perfect Church, but it takes seriously the need for faithful discipleship and acknowledges that membership of the Church carries definite obligations. This is also true a fortiori of those who have responsibilities for teaching, preaching, and leading.

The present crisis in the Anglican Communion has arisen from a refusal to exercise godly discipline whether for individuals, office holders, dioceses, or even provinces. We must have prayerful, biblical, and robust structures of effective discipline in place at every level of church life. Otherwise, churches as well as the Anglican Communion as a whole will lurch from one emergency to another. This is deeply damaging for the faithful, in their growth in faith, hope, and love, and for the Church as an institution that is effective, consistent and credible.

In its own austere way, Article 33 shows us a painful but necessary part of church life. We need not use its language but its intention is biblical and asks sharp questions about the state of discipline in the Church today. Have we any answers to give and provision to make?

Michael Nazir-Ali is the Director of OXTRAD, and a former Bishop of Rochester. He also contributed a chapter on the Anglican Communion to our book Feed My Sheep.

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