This post begins a series of reflections on the Eucharist. Next week, an argument against admitting the unbaptized to Holy Communion. 

By Stephen L. White

As a priest I would happily welcome President Trump to any service, but I would refuse to give him Holy Communion.

When President Trump is in Palm Beach he occasionally attends services at Bethesda-by-the-Sea Church, where he and Melania were married and where his son Barron was baptized. In the capital he sometimes attends services at St. John’s Church on Lafayette Square and at Washington National Cathedral, both of which are Episcopal churches.

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For a priest to refuse anyone Holy Communion is not only unusual but practically unheard of. Most view Communion not as something to be earned, but as a sort of medicine for the soul — something that will help us deepen and strengthen our relationship with God.

So, why would I refuse to give Communion to President Trump? Not because I think he needs no medicine for his soul, but because he is a notorious sinner whose biography — and sins — are quite well known.

The church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which is not only its standard for worship but also a compendium of its basic teachings and beliefs, contains on page 409 a little-known and hardly ever discussed direction, “Disciplinary Rubrics.” Here is what it says:

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.

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, or have at least promised to do so.

When the priest sees that there is hatred between members of the congregation, he shall speak privately to 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 stubborn.

In all such cases, the priest is required to notify the bishop, within fourteen days at the most, giving the reasons for refusing Communion.

There is no doubt that President Trump is well known, but what about the sins? From a Christian perspective the president’s transgressions are textbook and well beyond any debate, in nearly any denomination. The morality of lying knows no denominational boundaries; neither does racism nor misogny. The same holds for vicious attacks on opponents. Some Christian leaders have made a case that several of the president’s policies and decisions are not in keeping with Christianity, while other Christian leaders have supported them. But debatable policies are not, in my opinion, notorious sins, however much some faithful people may believe that certain policies violate God’s commandments.

When we think of God’s commandments, the Ten Commandments come immediately to mind, but for Christians Jesus made things a lot simpler. He said to be right with God we must love God and love our neighbor. According to this basic Christian understanding of right and wrong, words and deeds that dishonor God or cause harm to people are wrong. That is to say, such words and actions are sins. They rise to the level of “notorious sins” when done publicly by a famous person.

It is a matter of record that President Trump’s lies since becoming president run into the hundreds and (some claim) into the thousands. I cannot conceive of a reasonable Christian defense for lying. And many of the lies have been about grave matters and have caused great harm.

President Trump has a long public record of debasing women. The examples are well known and do not need to be rehearsed here, but for the record, the Access Hollywood tape qualifies.

Excusing racism and even implicitly encouraging racist words and deeds also qualifies. President Trump has a sad record in this area as well.

The numerous examples we have of vicious name-calling and degrading remarks made by the president are far from the teachings of Jesus. The volume of these attacks constitutes a mound of evidence that the president is notorious sinner.

On May 11, 2018, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry joined with 22 other Christian leaders to assert that the president’s America First policy — and all that it implies for immigration, the climate, race, the treatment of women, care for the poor, and “policies of political leaders who would debase and abandon the most vulnerable children of God” — is “a theological heresy for followers of Christ.” Heresy is a sin, and this particular heresy is what we might call a “collective heresy” since it includes so many serious violations that are not — or at least should not — be debatable among faithful Christians.

Some years ago I heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu say, only partly in jest, that God has low standards. Mind: he did not say God has no standards, just low standards. What he meant is that when we fail the standard of loving God and our neighbor, as we so often do, God beckons us to come back, to return, to make things right. And we can do that over and over, as often as we fail. But we must acknowledge wrongdoing. We must be truly sorry in our hearts and resolve to do better next time. I have never heard President Trump acknowledge any failure or shortcoming or wrongdoing.

During his candidacy, Trump said that when he takes his little sip of wine and eats the “little cracker” at Communion he feels forgiven. I’m sorry, Mr. President, but that is just not enough. If you are unable to see how many of your public words and actions have dishonored God and hurt your neighbors, then you have not met even the lowest standards of Christian living.

In the First letter of John there is this piece of psychological and spiritual wisdom: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” The truth is not in President Trump as far as I can tell, and that is why, it grieves me to say, I would not give him Communion.

But I’ll keep praying for him.

The Rev. Dr. Stephen L. White is a retired priest and former Episcopal Chaplain to Princeton University.

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Paul Zahl

This article should not have been approved for this site by “The Living Church”. It is a bridge too far, and highly offensive to many of your readers. Other sites maybe, but not yours. It is a bridge too far.

Betty Butler Cole

I agree with Paul Zahl completely. Not only that, but how can one sinner judge another sinner…. How can one man see into another man’s heart…How can one mortal being, priest, bishop, or pope, be so arrogant as to assume he can denigh a child of God the Eucharist. This article says more about you, sir, than the president. One should never keep a child of God from the Gospel, or from the flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ who came into this world to save sinners. I am very aware of the rubrics, but you sir, are… Read more »

Paul Zahl

“The Living Church” ought to retract this piece and offer an apology to your readers for having approved it for publication.

Mitchell Duce

“Not only that, but how can one sinner judge another sinner…. How can one man see into another man’s heart…”

Is that to suggest that no one should ever be denied communion? If so, you seem to be taking issue with the Book of Common Prayer’s rubrics themselves…

Zachary Guiliano

Please explain: What do you disagree with, Dr Zahl? Trump’s sins or excommunication?

Paul Zahl

The piece is simply too partisan-political for a broad and inclusive site like “The Living Church”. The word “divisive” can be over-used, I realize; but this article is actually, concretely divisive. If the piece were preached in an ordinary parish, a minority of members in that parish would almost inevitably feel scolded, if not un-churched by it, as there is probably a minority in most Episcopal parishes that voted for this President. The author of the piece is entitled to his opinion, of course. Moreover, there are other websites in which his piece would probably “fit” and not offend the… Read more »

Paul Zahl

P.S. There are not very many conservatives/traditionalists left in the Episcopal Church. — whether the terms refer to theology or politics, whether one means “Evangelical” or “Anglo-Catholic” or “Charismatic”. They — whatever “conservatives” remain — need to be protected and loved, rather than labelled or judged. Does the Church really want us to end up in a museum somewhere with the marker, “SPECIES EXTINCT”?

Betty Butler Cole

I think, sometimes, with articles like this one, our church is not quite so loving and inclusive as they attest! It appears, most times, our church is weeding out every conservative voice, as they embrace all other voices. The “museum somewhere with the marker, ‘SPECIES EXTINCT”….hmmm…perhaps, there is nothing our church would like more, than to “include us with love” in a back dusty corner of a museum…as they pat themselves on the back for their “inclusiveness”. I am NOT now, nor have I ever been, opposed to “voices of inclusiveness” in our church. I AM opposed to the judgmental,… Read more »

Betty Butler Cole

Thank you, Sir. My thoughts exactly. Blessings.

Chris Larimer

“If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.” Barak Obama. Is that a lie that would disqualify?

What about V. Gene Robinson who abandoned his wife for a same-sex lover, plunged the global communion into rancor & chaos, and was a serial alcoholic? Would he be denied communion?

It’s always a sad thing when a sinner is impenitent to the point of excommunication. But it’s sadder still that an article TRUMPING up one’s political leanings is passed off as a reflection piece on liturgical & pastoral ethics.

Charlie Clauss

Please keep in mind that this is the start of a discussion on the Eucharist.

Christopher SEITZ

One of the odd things is that this plays out against the backdrop of serious divisions inside TEC, leaving aside how it deals with individual communicants (would Trump even care if at an occasional visit at a TEC parish someone urged him not to take communion; he’s hardly a confirmed Episcopalian with a deep sacramental sense). Rather, we have Bishops radically opposed to one another over serious Christian matters, inside TEC, happily taking communion with each other, and seeing this rite as a kind of “last man standing.” “When all else fails, we are still taking communion together!” I’d rather… Read more »

Betty Butler Cole

One does not HAVE to be a “confirmed Episcopalian to have a deep sacramental sense.” His ever-changing heart and the power of God can be working in his spirit each and every day. We are taught there is always hope. We are taught to never give up. We are taught to love everyone, especially the sinner, for whom we all are. We are taught to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. We are taught to never “write off” anyone, for there is always hope and trust in the Lord. The bread of Heaven, the Cup… Read more »

Nicholas Heger

“but not those who are stubborn.”

Ahhhh….so….. 8 Christians get to have communion this sunday.

Maggie Cornelius

It appears that Rev. White misinterprets the proper execution of the Book of Common Prayer’s direction of the priest: it instructs the priest to speak to the sinner “privately” and advise amendment of life, not to publically shame the man by enumerating his sins on the internet and declaring that he doesn’t deserve the Eucharist.

I’d elect to take down this article, not for a divisive topic, but because it propagates pastorally questionable practices.

Ex-Episcopal

You guys probably don’t care, but you’ve lost a reader and subscriber. I’ve had enough of these type of articles and enough of Anglicanism. Too bad as well, because I really do like Mr. Christopher Wells.

But that’s all for me. I’m going Orthodox and happily leaving all this silliness behind.

Dear Ex-Episcopal[ian], I write from my perspective as only one of the editors working for The Living Church, but I feel secure in saying that nobody rejoices in losing any subscriber or reader. Nor do we live in fear of it, or allow the possibility of such a response to control our editorial decisions. Your fondness for our boss, Christopher Wells, is not germane. We’re fond of him too. Liking Christopher does not oblige anyone to like or agree with any given article that appears in the pages of TLC, on TLC’s website, or on Covenant. We have a Guest… Read more »

Maggie Cornelius

Dear Douglas,
I would argue that the proper response from the editorial team would be a full (article length?) justification for publishing this piece. Please see my comment above. I’ve also emailed your editorial team about this article and how it is antithetical to The Living Church Foundation as a Christian organization and as a Christian organization dedicated to Christian unity. I’m looking forward to hearing from your team. -Maggie Cornelius

Paul Zahl

If I didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, I would say that Boone Porter is spinning in his grave.

Bob

It continues to amaze me that those things that God has not given us authority over, we decide to take it anyway. Who do we think we are when we take upon ourselves, or go to some of our man made historical writings, to prove some point that we think is somehow new in 2019. It almost sounds like we’re trying to get back to the selling of indulgences. The only difference in that and this article, is that this priest is not getting cash in the pocket. I also wonder what he would do if the time that he… Read more »

Corey French

I agree with many of the other commenters that this piece is well below the standards that I expect from the Covenant blog. It effectively annexes the Holy Eucharist to the cause of partisan politics (despite a thin veneer of apparent moral concern). No one would deny that there are circumstances in which individuals ought to be denied Holy Communion. Indeed, there are arguably circumstances in which politicians (on both the left and the right) ought to be denied Holy Communion for their public actions. But this article prescinds from offering any real teaching or reflection on the nature and… Read more »

Maggie Cornelius

Very well put, sir! Next time The editorial team would do well to publish you as their next “guest contributor.”