The liturgy of excommunication was designed to be as intimidating as possible. A dozen priests would meet after dark, by candlelight, perhaps in the crypt of the church, summoned by their bishop. They would ring a bell in anticipation of the death knell that would one day announce the end of life itself. In the Middle Ages, bells were understood to have special powers to ward off evil. Some bells were even baptised. But at this ceremony, the ringing of the bell was a terrifying warning to the excommunicated: death is always close and if you die outside the bosom of holy mother church, you will be delivered to the fires of the enemy.
The charge against the accused was read. The attending priests would shout “Fiat, fiat, fiat. Amen” – Latin for ‘let it be done’. A book of the Gospels was dramatically slammed shut and the priests would blow out their candles and then throw them to the floor. This is how they did cancel culture back then. It was a lot more stylish than some lazy mob pile-in on Twitter.
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But its purpose was very much the same: to cut off the accused from the body of the faithful. It meant that other Christians — apart from your spouse and children — were not allowed to talk to you. No one was allowed to join you “in eating or drinking, in buying or selling, in prayer or greeting”. Your social network was immediately to abandon you. It also meant that you were denied the sacraments of the church. And if you died while under the sentence of excommunication, you could not be buried within consecrated ground. With excommunication you were cancelled, not just in this life but in the life to come.
And, as with Twitter, it was of the utmost importance to communicate the sentence of condemnation to others. The notice of excommunication was read out in neighbouring churches and posted in public places. And those who broke the rules and spoke to the accused were threatened with the censure of the church.
Napoleon was excommunicated. From Elizabeth I to Fidel Castro, all manner of people fell under the church’s most powerful curse. And in the 20th century there were a succession of unfortunate priests in Latin America who were excommunicated for preaching too liberal, too political a theology.
Though there were different sorts of excommunication and it changed quite a bit over the years — increasingly becoming more of a legal business from the 12th century onwards, for instance — its purpose was always the same: to get the person concerned to change their ways in order to return them to the church. Though it was often abused, theologically speaking the purpose of excommunication was always remedial, medicinal even, and never simply a punishment.
And this theology was rooted in some of the deepest instincts of the Judaeo-Christian tradition: that redemption must always be possible. Indeed, it is perfectly credible to read the big picture narrative of the Bible as being one long response to, and reflection up, the original cancellation of Adam from the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:23). St Paul, for example, regarded Jesus as the second Adam come to undo that first curse whereby humanity was cancelled from paradise. Paradise Lost always demanded a sequel.
This is where contemporary cancel culture differs from its medieval predecessor. To be charitable, it is not that cancel culture does not have remedial intentions. The more thoughtful proponents do sometimes insist that a recognition of error, an apology and commitment to change will allow the wayward soul a return to communion within the bosom of true believers. The problem is: there’s no way to achieve this. There is no agreed upon process whereby forgiveness is managed and distributed. And that is because cancel culture is little more than the hyper-puritan morality of Twitter. It doesn’t have a church, or anything equivalent to church rules. Its celebrity priests come and go and do not have the power of forgiveness of sins. And that is because Twitter — and its damnable ‘moral’ progeny, cancel culture — has an entirely horizonal organisational structure.
Back in 2006, two Stanford University MBAs, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom wrote a fascinating account of how horizonal ‘leaderless’ organisations work. Called “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations” it explained that the power of the starfish is that it doesn’t have a centralised neurological centre and so can regenerate when damaged. Chop off the head of a spider and it is dead. Chop off the leg of a starfish and it grows a new one. This was the sort of organisational structure employed, for example, by the Occupy movement. There were no leaders, no central administrative structure. And those who wanted to negotiate with Occupy found this especially frustrating. There was no one to sit down in a room with and negotiate.
Cancel culture is an excessively horizontal phenomenon. And that means that the cancelled have no one to whom they can repent so as to be assured of forgiveness. At best, the life of the penitent would be a continuous round of ongoing apologies as the cancelled are forced repeatedly to abase themselves before the ever changing court of Twitter. Some might accept that the person has properly repented. Others might not. But without any sort of official version of who is in and who is out, redemption can never be guaranteed. The curse will remain upon you forever. Or the suspicion, which amounts to the same thing.
Medieval excommunication was often misused. In 1304, the parishioners of Newport Pagnell were all excommunicated by the Bishop of Lincoln for not telling him where Sir Gerald Salvayn’s lost falcon was being hidden. And, of course, it was often also used as a tool of political power.
But at least with excommunication there is a way back. And not just as some theoretical possibility. Those who were excommunicated were not stopped from attending church. Indeed, they were still required to do so. They were refused the Eucharist, and no one could talk to them. But their presence was nonetheless important. Because forgiveness was always held out as a possibility.
Once the sinner has repented, the priest (or bishop or Pope in the more serious cases) declared absolution. And upon receiving absolution, the penitent can participate in the full life of the church once again. It doesn’t matter if some people don’t like it, or suspect their motives as less than sincere. It’s not a democracy. They have been officially uncancelled. And there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents than over 99 righteous people that never needed to (Luke 15.7).
One of my favourite hymns praises God for being “slow to chide and swift to bless”. In cancel culture, it is the other way around. Indeed, it is not just slow to bless: it is incapable of doing it. Cancel culture per se has been around a long time. But what is new about its current iteration is that — being suspicious of authority — the culture of condemnation has dismantled all the moral infrastructure by which forgiveness might be accepted and promulgated. That is what makes it such a nasty, pernicious doctrine. When you have been cancelled, you are lost forever.