Back at that post at the Ivy Bush I linked to the other day, one of the people behind that Methodist petition against Bush clarified that she wasn’t actually pushing for excommunication:
I would never keep anyone from communion. Jesus never reserved his table for the righteous.
I’m talking about membership in a Methodist church, which used to mean some level of commitment toward living a Christian life. I’d like to bring the Methodist church back to that understanding of membership.
Hm. What does denial of membership entail, then, if he can show up, worship, and take communion along with everybody else? They won’t accept your offering money? Won’t send you their newsletters? This keeps getting murkier.
Later in the thread, Heather makes this observation:
Both Hauerwas and Yoder note that excommunication is never intended to be permanent. Originally, in the first century, people were excommunicated with the desired end result to be reconciliation. It was to bring people to repentance and change.
This jibes with how I was reading Matthew 18. Thanks to events in the intervening centuries, words like “excommunication” and “heresy” tend to conjure images of burning people at the stake. But that seems not to have been the case in the apostolic era. Paul advises excommunications at various points in his letters, but he advocates no further punishments.
She also writes:
Taking this question further, can excommunication even be effective anymore? This is when there was one church–there were no denominations. So, to be cut off from the church was to be cut off from the Eucharist and the fellowship of believers. In today’s society, they can just pick another denomination that is more accepting of their actions (SBC, anyone?). So, while I would like to see the church take a stand against their actions (and any and all who have supported the war in any way), I don’t know how effective excommunication is, today, and if it even really sends a message.
It’s a good question. In fact, it may be because of ecumenicism that people like Methodists are so reluctant to deny communion. It’s one thing to say you aren’t a Methodist, but another to say you aren’t in the Body of Christ. To take that authority upon yourself is to effectively deny that any other denomination is part of the Body.
Nonetheless, there must be some reason why Bush is a Methodist, and not something else. So if the Methodists were to chuck him out (whatever that entails exactly), it would force him and probably a lot of other Methodists out there to think about that reason, and how important it is to them. The only modern excommunication story I’ve encountered was in a biography of Conrad Hilton, the hotel mogul. He was a devout Catholic all his life, but in a fit of temporary insanity he became one of the many husbands of Zsa Zsa Gabor. Since they’d both been married before, they couldn’t take communion. They continued to go to church and participate in all the rituals, except that one. Hilton never exactly repented of marrying her, at least not in the book, but he did say that the excommunication along with Zsa Zsa’s profligate self-indulgence made the marriage unbearable. They divorced, and he did not remarry until after his first wife’s death.
It is, of course, different with Protestants than with Catholics. But especially in mainline denominations like Methodism the experience seems to be similar, in that people grow up in them and regard them as reliable institutions in life, like libraries and public schools. And I suspect that many people disobey their teachings not because of real theological differences but because they ignore them. What if one of those institutions started expressing opinions about your moral behavior? Would that make a difference to you? And what would it mean to the institution if it started defining itself publicly like that?
Finally, in a comment to my earlier post Lee remarked:
… we (meaning we Protestants) can’t agree on what beliefs and/or practices are essential to the faith, and so have a hard time defining what puts someone outside of that consensus. And the temptation will always be to define our pet political views as “essential.” My own personal inclination, I think, would be to regard historical essentials of the faith to be non-negotiable (divinity of Christ, the Trinity, etc.), but allow for greater latitude on moral questions, especially where that involves applying moral principles to concrete issues like a particular war.
I tend to agree. As I’ve written here before, the identity of God seems like the most basic starting point for a religion, because you can’t really be part of the same family if you can’t agree who your father is, if you know what I mean. Protestant churches tend to go in one of two rather frustrating directions: fundamentalist churches try to dogmatize everything, so no disagreement is allowed, while liberal churches seem to reverse Lee’s priorities, and make moral questions non-negotiable while leaving issues of God more open-ended.
I must say that the latter always kind of baffled me. When I see things like Spong’s twelve theses, or the eight points of progressive Christianity, or the Unitarian Universalists in general, I wonder how such a vague and pluralistic notion of God yields such implacable moral and political opinions. (Apparently the same thing happens with Quakers, according to Joe.) How is it that the Christian Unitarian and a Buddhist Unitarian and a pagan Unitarian all come together to agree that, say, abortion should be legal and discrimination against homosexuals is wrong?
I know what Telford would say: they actually do worship the same god, and that god is liberalism. I don’t know, since apart from my brief sojourn to All Saints I haven’t been to churches that were that far left, but I have to wonder. It does sound as though, on an unspoken and perhaps unconscious level, there is dogma under all that pluralism. And, perhaps, as much inclination to whup you if you misbehave.
Jake pointed out in a comment to the same post that no two people have exactly the same view of God, which is certainly true. But some people are definitely farther away from each other than others. And perhaps some people who use different names are speaking of much the same thing, whereas others who use the same name are speaking of different gods. There are no clear boundaries to this, and yet there is something that keeps so many people miles apart.