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.
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.