Thursday, March 31, 2016
Re-Communicate Robert Bentley
If you haven't heard, Alabama is embroiled in a gubernatorial sex scandal. (I've been trying not to listen, but, since it's not football season, it's the only thing anyone is talking about.) Yesterday, my colleague Seth Olson asked what I would do if Governor Robert Bentley were a parishioner here at St. John's. My first thought went to the "Disciplinary Rubrics," which are found in the Book of Common Prayer on page 409. Quickly thereafter, I changed my thinking and began to wonder why the Episcopal Church wouldn't be the perfect place for a scandal-laden public official. And then I got to Sunday's gospel lesson. This post is about all three.
I don't know whether the Governor and his former advisor/alleged mistress have been kicked out of their Baptist church or the whole Southern Baptist Convention or something else entirely. I don't know how the Baptist Church works, but the pastor of First Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa is reported to have said to his congregation that neither Bentley or Mason is a member there anymore. Maybe they voluntarily resigned. Maybe they were impeached. Again, I don't know how that works. But I do know a little bit of how that is supposed to work in the Episcopal Church.
We don't kick people out of the church. We ex communicate them. Before I was ordained, I thought that ex communication meant kicking someone out of the church. But it isn't as simple as that. In our tradition, we believe that, when we are baptized into the church, we become inseparable members of the Body of Christ. That baptism cannot be undone, nor can it be redone. It is what it is. Once a member, always a member. For example, if you renounce your faith and spit in the preacher's eye and scream at him, "I don't want to be a Christian anymore," we still can't tear up your baptismal record. No one can undo your place in the church any more than he or she can convince God not to love you. It just doesn't work that way. But we can--and, in fact, must--withhold Communion from someone if that person and his or her behavior have become an impediment to Communion itself.
Here's what the first part of those Disciplinary Rubrics say: "If the priest knows that a person who is living a notoriously evil life intends to come to Communion, the priest shall speak to that person privately, and tell him that he may not come to the Holy Table until he has given clear proof of repentance and amendment of life." Notice these words: knows, notoriously, evil, shall, privately, clear, proof, repentance, amendment. Almost every word is significant. The priest shall say. It's not a choice. But only if s/he knows. And knows what? That a person who is living a notoriously evil life intends to come to Communion. And how will s/he approach that person? Privately. And what will the instruction be? That the person is not allowed to come to communion until a clear proof of repentance and amendment of life has been given. Remarkable!
So...are you coming to Communion on Sunday? Do we need to speak? Do I need to call my bishop and speak to him? Who is not affected by these words? Who gets to decide all of that? God? Me? You?
Again, I have no illusion that Governor Bentley is looking for a new church home, and I certainly would be surprised if he found his way to the Episcopal Church, but I must say that he would be welcome--not only as a member but, if it were my parish, also as a Communicant. I know of no theological tradition that embraces as completely as ours 1) the depravity of human nature, 2) the unlimited love of God for human kind, and 3) the call of Jesus Christ to follow him as a transformed, redeemed disciple. We balance all three. We do not preach sin without forgiveness, and we do not preach forgiveness without transformation.
To this end, consider what will happen behind locked doors in Sunday's reading from John 20. Jesus will encounter the fearful disciples and offer them peace. One of them denied him three times. One of them refused to believe that he had risen. All the rest had run away in their master's moment of need. They were hiding in fear and shame. And what does Jesus do? Does he wait for them to come and find him and say that they are sorry? No. He finds them--even behind locked doors--and offers them peace and forgiveness, and he tells them to do likewise. Shouldn't we listen to Jesus?
If any public figure caught in a scandal wants a place where he or she can be accepted as a sinner in need of forgiveness who is called to follow Jesus in a new life of grace, the Episcopal Church is a right place for that. I don't know whether Robert Bentley's sins have made him "a person who is living a notoriously evil life." I do know that the public has ex communicated him. Facebook posts and newspaper columns and water-cooler chit-chat about the sanctity of marriage and the broken public trust and the need for change have cut him off from our secular, social communion. It's a mess of politics and morality that attracts the swarm of sharks that is self-righteous humanity. But I choose to believe that, simply by walking through the church door, Governor Bentley would be demonstrating the repentance and amendment of life necessary for readmittance to Holy Communion. Yes, that's a choice, and maybe it's naïve, but, which one of us is any better than he? Who among us is not, in the eyes of the one "to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid," a notoriously evil sinner in need of forgiveness?
Governor Bentley, we've all screwed up. I give thanks that my screw-ups haven't found their way to al.com. I pray for you and Mrs. Mason. If you want to follow Jesus, you'd be welcome to follow him with us. We are all sinners in need of forgiveness, and that's what God has offered all of us in his son Jesus.