Chapter 27: the abbot’s care of the excommunicated


The abbot must show great concern for the wayward brother

How do we deal with failure?

I am always amazed when a football team doesn’t do very well and the Manager is called to resign or step down. There was a period a few years ago when it seemed like the moment a team lost a game they’d change their Manager! The same is true in politics. Sometimes these removals from roles is for the best but other times it is a knee jerk reaction to the experience of ‘failure’.

Failure is not allowed in our culture. It is a sign of weakness and our survival depends on us “winning” (as Charlie Sheen put it). The problem is, of course, we’re not perfect… not even me (particularly not me!) Sooner or later we’re going to make a mistake and if we live in a climate of fear about failure it becomes increasingly stressful the more you have success because the more you succeed the higher the stakes are and the further you have to fall.

I want to reflect on a very local issue for me for a moment.

The Leader of the City of York Council, Cllr. James Alexander, has been in post since 2011 and has been on a mission to deal with long standing issues in the city. One of these long standing issues is congestion. Being a small city with historic walls surrounding the central area and a large amount of pedestrian precincts for tourists and shopping, our roads in York get clogged very quickly. There are some who could use public transport more (or cycle) allowing many necessary drivers to get where they need to go in the city. The problem is, no one is willing to admit that they don’t need to drive.

To attempt to do something about it, James Alexander, after discussion, instigated a trial to close Lendal Bridge, a prominent transport passageway across the River Ouse. It was always going to be controversial and it was always going to be complicated to communicate the change but the Council faced an onslaught of criticism. There were some (like myself) who had no strong views either way but were willing to see the trial through and ride the wave of discomfort experienced in any sharp change. The criticism did not cease and many people were penalised with the fine used to police and enforce the restriction.

Cynics went out in force to accuse the council, and James Alexander personally, of attempting to increase their pay packets by gathering the money accumulated by the fines. Everyone had a personal story of why they needed to drive through the zone at a given time and the fine was a sign that the council were heartless and un-compassionate.

At the end of the trial, the cynics and opposers had managed to sustain their complaint and continued to demand a retraction of the restriction. The council decided to extend it further and promised to revisit the issue. There was strong opposition on the grounds that the way the council had enforced the restriction was unlawful and the council reversed their decision, opening the bridge for traffic.

James Alexander had failed! The only just action was for him to leave office with his head down and admit that everything he thinks and does is wrong. His opponents could then, in the glory of being right step in and take on the role of power.

I have to admit a personal interest in this. I respect James Alexander. I don’t agree with all his choices. I could name some of his failings and mistakes but I have always felt that he has deep desire to serve the people of York and to keep promises he made in an election. I also happen to like an opponent of his, the previous head of the council, Lib Dem councillor Andrew Waller. Andrew and I sit in many meetings together and continue to work together. So James’ failure is Andrew’s success.

After the re-opening of the bridge the council agreed to repay the fines, after advice from an outside agency was involved. This was the ultimate admission that the whole closure was a mistake and must have been deeply embarrassing for James and his councillors. I was more upset, however, when his opponents were not satisfied with his embarrassment but wanted his resignation. It was never just about this particular issue it was about the annihilation of an opponent!

Mistakes are made. Failures happen. I am reminded of an interview with Russian theatre director, Lev Dodin when he said,

Failure… leads to quite artistic things, because if you are not afraid of failure you can try, you can experiment, you can search for new ways, whereas when you are afraid of failure you wouldn’t do it, you would do it the way you did it yesterday… (Lev Dodin in conversation with Robin Thornber at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 23rd April 1994, Michael Stronin (tr.), cited in Maria Delgado and Paul Heritage (eds.), ‘In Contact With The Gods?: Directors Talk Theatre’ (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996) p74)

In an interview, James Alexander admitted his mistake and explained he was trying to solve a problem that continues today; that of congestion. He asked for the alternatives to eleviate this problem and promised to search for the solution. The interviewer was not satisfied and pressed him to acknowledge his embarrassment further and even decide to resign.

I felt for him. Over the last two years I have got to know James a little bit and I know how much he cares about his work. I get tired of cynics. Cycnicism is yet another sickness our culture suffers from. It is addictive and damaging. It kills hope and encourages bitterness and resentment. It stems from a competitive spirit which engulfs us and brings nothing but death. There are some in the city of York who seem to be particularly cynical and spiteful. The way people speak of public figures is violent and horrible. The pressure felt by many of those who try and serve the citizens is immeasurable and I feel for them. I long to be able to help them in their distress. No one deserves the sort of treatment they receive at times.

Imagine that every time you make a mistake people turned round and dismissed you, stopped talking to you and forced you to give up parts of your life. Imagine that you upset a partner and you were forced to leave your home and children. Imagine if you upset a colleague at work and were forced to leave your job. It is easy to get rid of someone who has succumb to weakness or made a mistake. This is an easy punishment but this is not excommunication!

In this chapter it is made clear that excommunication is aimed to be a temporary state where the abbot can give his utmost care for a member of the community who is struggling. This is not about enforcing more embarrassment and pain. It is not about taking some strange pleasure in rubbing salt into a wound. This is about caring for ‘the sick’.


The church is for sinners

St. Benedict quotes Matthew’s gospel,

those who are well do not need the physician, but those who are sick. (Mt 9:12)

In their chapter on the Church in ‘Red Letter Christianity: living the words of Jesus no matter what’ (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2012), Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo quickly begin talking about hypocrisy,

[SHANE:]Here’s what I’ve come to realize: people do not expect Christians to be perfect, but they do expect us to be honest. The problem is that much of the time, we have not been honest. We’ve pretended to be perfect and pointed fingers at other people.

[TONY:]While Saint Francis recognized the church’s failures and hypocrisies, he still saw it as a community of faith where Christ could be encountered. When young people say to me, “I can’t be a part of the church because the church is full of hypocrites,” I always say, “That’s why you are going to feel right at home among us.”… In the end, we’re all hypocrites.

I’m always struck by the issue Jesus tackled lots: hypocrisy. He does not condemn the Pharisees. He never sought to destroy them or eliminate them; he always sought to name the issue – hypocrisy. The Pharisees were not un-saveable, beyond redemption; they were sick like everyone else and Jesus named their sickness. Jesus loved and respected them and wanted to see the Pharisees flourish. Jesus says that many of the Pharisees are close to the Kingdom of God (Mk 12:28-34).

It is easy to dismiss failures but harder to live with them because when we see them being forgiven and redeemed by God and are forced to ask,

Can I too be forgiven?

It is easier to condemn than to hold and seek healing. It is easier to end suffering with a quick decision than wait and seek surprising hope. This is my ultimate issue with the Assisted Dying Bill; it’s easier to die than to hope. I do not blame those who suffer great pain to want it all to end ‘now’; I know that desire to succumb to the abyss for it surely is a comfort compared with the searing pain of this life. If you look around you and there is nothing to live for why bother? Why continue?

I’ll finish on a painful and personal truth: I often ask if it would not be better just to end my life. What a mess the world is in. How much pain I cause without even knowing it. All my attempts at improvement fall and I am weak. If there is no hope of me achieving the perfection which is demanded upon me then I should end it all now. I feel this in the darkest points of the night. I feel the desire of the countless number of people who look at this world and the failures of us all and think we should just end it all now; why wait?

It is not compassionate to agree and encourage that action. Compassion is acknowledging that thought, feeling that pain and the reality of that desire but, to be Christian is to proclaim hope. To look at the world through a different lens. The lens of Christ says it is worth holding on. It is worth the wait.

I was deeply struck by Lord Falconer’s response to the church requesting a Royal Charter to look into the issues raised by the Assisted Dying Bill. Falconer is quoted as saying, that the matter must be discussed urgently.

Why rush? The same was said two years ago in General Synod about women being allowed to become bishops; in the impatience of a motion we rushed it and it fell. Now, after time and facilitated discussion a better, strong case is formed and led to healthy commitment to one another.


Yes it’s easy to push ourselves and others into the abyss of rejection and loss but that is not what God does to us. He judges us but commits to the healing and redemption as well. He will not reject nor abandon us in our weakness, hypocrisies or failures. He knows that failures shape most of what we do and that fear is crippling. He speaks hope of renewal and new life to us; that is the Christian message.

For my friend James Alexander I say, ‘Do not be afraid. God gives you a second chance and you’re still loved.”

To those struggling in the temptation of making a clean break and retreating from those they have disappointed or let down, either through moving or death, I say, “Do not be afraid. God is the Good Shepherd and he will find you, wherever you run to, and he will comfort you and restore you.”

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon us sinners.

Come, Lord Jesus.