This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 33 states:
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.
It may help to begin with the definition of excommunication. This is how one becomes excommunicated in the Anglican Church in North America:
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/her that he/she may not come to the Lord’s Table until he/she has given clear proof of repentance and amendment of life. The Priest shall follow the same procedure with those who have done wrong to their neighbors and are a scandal to the other members of the congregation, not allowing such persons to receive Communion until they have made restitution for the wrong they have done.
When the Priest sees that there is enmity between members of the congregation, he/she shall speak privately to each of them, telling them that they may not receive Communion until they have forgiven each other. And if the person or persons on one side truly forgive the others and desire and promise to make up for their faults, but those on the other side refuse to forgive, the Priest shall allow those who are penitent to come to Communion, but not those who are obstinate.
In all such cases, the Priest is required to notify the Bishop, within fourteen days at the most, giving the reasons for refusing Communion. This is intended to give sufficient time for the repentance and reconciliation of the parties so involved.
Excommunication, thus, is the extreme end of church discipline. It is the last resort, the greatest warning that can be given: “if you continue as you are, you are effectively no longer Christian.” Based on this, Article 33 describes how an excommunicant is to be treated: “as an Heathen and Publican” or “as a Gentile and a tax collector,” quoting Matthew 18:17. The beautiful key word following this is until. Even at such a pronouncement the hope remains that the person will repent and be reconciled with God and the Church.
It is also interesting to observe that someone who has been excommunicated needs to be reconciled with “penance” and be received back into the Church by an appropriately-authorized “Judge.” This is because the excommunicant is effectively a non-christian, and thus must in a sense re-convert. Penance is here akin to the visible and active profession of faith a new convert makes, and being received by an appropriate judge (presumably a Bishop, since it is a Bishop who finalizes the excommunication in the first place) is akin to the new convert’s participation in the rites of Baptism and Confirmation. While rites like Baptism and Confirmation are once-for-all-time in a person’s life, sacramental confession and public apology are freely available throughout one’s life as means of reconciliation. The nature of the evil that separated the excommunicant from the Church in the first place will generally set the tone for the appropriate form of reconciliation: a “secret” sin like having an abortion is best dealt with quietly and privately, whereas a more “public” sin like a pastor having an affair is best addressed through a more public venue of apology and forgiveness.
One of the pastoral observations here, finally, is what this Article does not endorse. Excommunicated persons are not to be shunned, kicked out of town, heckled and shouted at by everyone. Rather, they are to be loved and evangelized like any other non-believer, in the hopes that they will come to (restored) faith in Jesus Christ and (re)join the Body of Christ.