Ecclesiosogy– the theology of the Church– is hugely underdeveloped and neglected, despite being almost as practically important as ethics. Why that should be so is an interesting question in itself. Why are theologians attracted to the topics (e.g., the Trinity) that have the least application to any decisions we make? They like to answer the questions that are above their pay grade. Of course, that almost answers the question. We all do this, in politics as well as religion. We like to address the Big Important questions on which we have zero responsibility, instead of the Applicable questions whose answers would tell how we’d have to change our own, personal, lives— and, worse, would result in us telling our friends and fellow-citizens that they are living their lives wrong and displeasing God. For the past 200 years at least, it’s a lot safer to disagree about the nature of the Trinity than to tell someone he is morally bankrupt if he doesn’t remarry the wife he divorced because she was so irritating, or if he doesn’t start going to church. I’m not that brave, and neither are theologians or pastors.
But I have digressed already. Let’s talk excommunication. What does the word mean? It means for the Church to bar someone from taking the sacraments. The person is still allowed to come to church services. He is still required to come, in fact— though once he is excommunicated, the Church’s punishment supply has run low, and what this means is that the Church tells him he must attend, and warns him that his penalty in Hell will be heavier if he does not. By “the Church”, I mean the local church authorities here, and I do not mean any particular denomination such as my own or the Roman Catholic. The Roman Catholics have done the best job by far of addressing ecclesiology, in literal sense of addressing it, of spotting issues and writing down rules, explanations, and theories, and I just recently came across their explanation somewhere– the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Excommunication or Heresy, probably. I should add that the Roman Catholics do the best job of addressing ecclesiology, of knowing to ask the questions, but the great majority of their doctrines are seriously wrong, due to basically flawed theory: the Church is always right, outside of Rome there is no salvation, works matter more than faith, priests and monks are special, it’s okay and normal to meet low rather than saintly standards, sacraments have magical power, etc.
Again, I digress. It’s humorous enough that I’ll let it stand till a revision some day. But we have gotten to the idea that excommunication means exclusion from Communion, the taking of bread and wine at a church service, but not exclusion from the service itself. What is “the service itself”? To be precise, the service itself includes Communion, but it is broader: it also includes the sermon, bible readings, singing hymns, praying, making offerings, and listening to music.
What has happened to church life after covid-19? You don’t meet together physically with other Christians, but you still have the sermon, bible readings, singing hymns, praying, making offerings, and listening to music. You don’t have Communion. You have been excommunicated.
Does this matter? Here is where high-level theology meets ecclesiology and does get practical. I myself do not have well-developed beliefs about Communion. I wish I did; it is just that it is a hard subject and not relevant enough for me to try to figure out, and I have a sense that maybe it can’t be figured out— that it is a Mystery, using that word in its technical sense. What is enough for everyday purposes is that the Bible and Tradition seem to tell us that Christians should gather together and eat bread and wine in a special way on certain occasions, and that this is such serious stuff that nonbelievers and believers currently in sin, out of respect for God but also for their own protection, should not be allowed to participate. How often this should be done, why it is so serious, whether it is mandatory, exactly who counts as a believer for this purpose, what recent sins should block you, and so forth are finer points.
My church does not hold Communion every Sunday, just every two or three weeks. We are calvinist, and so we hold that in Communion we are not eating the literal flesh of Jesus and doing something crucial to salvation, as the Catholics hold, or that this is an unimportant though nice remembrance ceremony, as anabaptists hold, but something in between: Communion is the eating of just bread and wine, but God is present in a special way, different from the rest of the church service, and the sacrament is something we’re commanded to do, something helpful to the Christian and dangerous to the unbeliever.
So, it seems it is not a problem to skip Communion for a month or two, but it IS a problem to skip it for a year or two.
I need to get ready for online church now, so I will have to stop here and come back later.