The Torwood Excommunication: What did Excommunication Mean?

Charles II was not the first Scottish king to be excommunicated. Long before him, King Robert Bruce was on the receiving end of papal excommunication. Yet, the excommunication of Charles in 1680 had far less impact as it was not recognised beyond Cargill’s followers in the Society people.

Before examining Donald Cargill’s actions at Torwood in September, 1680, a quick definition of what excommunication meant is probably in order. According to chapter thirty of the Westminster Confession (1647):

‘Church censures [such as excommunication] are necessary for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren; for deterring of others from the like offenses; for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump; for vindicating the honour of Christ, and the holy profession of the gospel; and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the Church, if they should suffer his covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.’

After admonition and suspension from communion for a season, excommunication was the third step, or culmination, of church discipline. It was intended to bring about repentance in the individual, rather than consign them to ‘perpetual ruin’ and damnation, although if one died outside of the church you would be damned.

The sentence was applied to impenitent individuals who had refused to recognise lesser crimes such as ‘drunkenness, excesse, be it in apparel, or be it in eating and drinking, fornication, oppressing of the poore by exactions, deceiving of them in buying and selling by wrang met and measure, wanton words and licentious living tending to slander’. An individual would usually repent before excommunication was used.

It was not meant to apply to more serious crimes such as ‘blasphemie, adulterie, murder, perjurie, and other crimes capitall, worthy of death … because all such open transgressors of Gods lawes, ought to be taken away by the civill sword.’ However, where the civil magistrate had failed to act in such severe cases, it could be deployed by the Kirk.

Excommunication was designed to be the last step in a lengthy disciplinary process. According to The First Book of Discipline, if an individual did not ‘signifie his repentance’ by the end of the process, ‘then ought he to be excommunicated, and by the mouth of the Minister, and consent of the Ministry, and commandement of the Kirk, must such a contemner be pronounced excommunicate from God, and from all society of the Kirk.’

It had serious social consequences for the individual.

‘After which sentence may no person (his wife and family onely excepted) have any kind of conversation with him, be it in eating and drinking, buying and selling; yea, in saluting or talking with him, except that it be at commandement or licence of the Ministerie for his conversion, that he, by such meanes confounded, seeing himselfe abhorred of the godly and faithfull, may have occasion to repent and so be saved.’

A sentence of excommunication was also to be ‘published universally throughout the Realme, lest that any man should pretend ignorance.’

It also reached into the heart of the family, as excommunication also applied to any newborn children of the excommunicate:

‘His children begotten and borne after that sentence, and before his repentance may not be admitted to Baptisme, till either they be of age to require the same, or else that the mother, or some of his speciall friends, members of the Kirk, offer and present the child, abhorring and damning the iniquity, and obstinate contempt of the impenitent.

If any man should thinke it severe that the child should be punished for the iniquitie of the father: let him understand that the Sacraments appertaine to the faithfull and their seed; but such as stubbornly contemne all godly admonition, and obstinately remaine in their inquitie, cannot be accounted amongst the faithfull.’

Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.

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~ by drmarkjardine on December 30, 2011.

One Response to “The Torwood Excommunication: What did Excommunication Mean?”

  1. […] most serious disciplinary weapon in the armoury of the Presbyterian church. For what it meant, see here. Cargill had acted either alone or possibly with the tactic agreement of Robert MacWard’s […]

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