Thursday, March 14, 2019

Facing God Together – Thoughts on Orientation in Liturgical Prayer

Before I begin, I need to make something very clear. Because I'm going to say some things about the priest celebrating ad orientem (facing east or, more accurately, facing the same direction of the people), but I don't want people to misunderstand how my views on this question impact my own approach as a priest in the parish. 

The church where I am currently honored to serve as rector is a church where the altar is pulled away from the wall. The custom in this congregation for quite some time is for the priest to face the people during the Great Thanksgiving. That is, the priest stands behind the altar facing the people as all pray together for Christ to become present with us once more through the Blessed Sacrament.

I think it is important to be clear that I find it tremendously unlikely that at any point in my priesthood, including in my current cure, I would ever “fight the battle” to put the altar back against the wall. Indeed, when altars were pulled out from the wall it was all too often done in a violent act, without a deep engagement with the people of God. It was the will of the priest, trained in the ideals of the Liturgical Movement, which reigned supreme. People were told that this was the way things should be. 

Thankfully, our General Convention has apologized for the way in which we handled putting the ideals of the Liturgical Movement into practice in the Episcopal Church, specifically in the way that authorizing the 1979 Book of Common Prayer created some wounds among those who had loved the 1928 Book of Common Prayer

I don’t believe battles should be fought in churches over questions like altars and fonts (at least, if battles can be avoided). These should be great places of uniting with one another—not contests of wills. 

(As an aside, I have often found it fascinating that clergy fought for pulling altars away from walls—something that  is required nowhere in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer—and  yet, by and large, did not fight equally hard for the creation of full immersion baptismal fonts—something that is explicitly the preference of the prayer book. I think it says something about what priests value that they fought over where they stood during Holy Eucharist but did not fight over the how to celebrate the sacrament of initiation for all Christians… but I digress.)

If I ever served in a church that did decide to change the location of the altar or the custom of which direction the priest faced during the celebration of Holy Eucharist, it would be a change that the community made together after prayer, study, and conversation. 

Because who I am as a priest rests not only upon the broader church which ordained me into this but upon the people of God who I am called to serve in my current cure. Any authority I have derives from their gracious gift of choosing me to be their presider. 

People like to think of the mid-to-late 20th century, particularly the 60s and 70s, as the great decades when our church threw off the bonds of clericalism and that finally priest and people were placed on the same level. With a decade of priestly ministry under my belt, one-third of the way through my career, I am increasingly doubtful that this actually happened.

Sure, priests stopped being called father—because it was only father then—and instead chose to be called by their first name. Altars were pulled away from the wall and the laity were invited to participate fully in so many aspects of Holy Eucharist. But these things did not end clericalism, they just sent it into more subtle and unseen places.

After all, I have known priests who bristle at being called father or mother and yet still exercise their ministry in profoundly clerical ways (like, for example, insisting people call them by their first name when a parishioner or colleague might have a piety that prefers titles). There are several ways in which priests who don’t wear clericals and insist on their first name can still allow their own opinions and preferences to run roughshod over the gathered community. There are plenty of priests who don’t wear clericals and eschew titles but who also feel very confident placing their own personal beliefs ahead the decisions of the broader church when it comes to issues like communion without baptism. 

So, let’s be clear. Clericalism will likely always be one of the besetting sins of the Christian church. Where you place the altar and where the priest stands and who the priest faces… None of this will actually fix clericalism. Clericalism is best addressed through good formation, modeling of healthy ministry by bishops and those in authority, and priests being serious about saying their prayers and becoming more like Jesus.

And yet, I do increasingly have a desire to say a few words about where we place the altar, where the priest stands, and the direction the priest faces. I do want to say a few words about the ancient tradition of celebrating Holy Eucharist with the priest facing the same direction as the gathered community, all gathered together in front of the altar of God.

One of the reasons I want to say a few words about this because of a change in my own parish that happened last year. Through generous gift from a family in the church (and then several other families were inspired likewise to contribute‚, we renovated what had been an old narthex and turned it into a small chapel for the saying of the Daily Office and the celebrating of weekday Eucharist. We call it the All Souls’ Chapel because of the columbarium which now rests within the walls and of the commitment that we have in that space to pray for all the faithful departed.

Because it is a very small space, the altar stands against the wall. It is a beautiful small granite altar, one that was originally in the chapel of the cathedral of our diocese, before we sold the cathedral to a mega church. It had spent some time in the garage of a former member of the cathedral and then made its way to our church because of a gift from our parish administrator that was matched by a generous gift from our previous bishop. 

When I say the words of the Great Thanksgiving at our weekday celebrations of Holy Eucharist, I stand in front of the altar with the people only a few feet behind me, all standing in front of the single row of chairs.

The first time I celebrated Eucharist in this new space, I got a little verklempt. I was overcome with this sense of the people of God standing behind me, supporting me as I sought to preside faithfully over this holy prayer. When they said the words that are assigned to them in the Great Thanksgiving, it was as though I could feel those words pushing against my back, holding me up, enabling me to stand. I felt more one with them than I have ever felt celebrating facing them.

I often feel like so many of the debates over the question of which direction the priest faces during Holy Communion entirely miss the point. 

In the early church, the question was not whether or not the priest faced to the people or the people faced the priest. In the early church, what was essential was that you prayed facing east, looking expectantly for Christ to come again. In the early church, all those gathered—priest and people—faced the same direction. (In what follows, I’m going to try to summarize some of the masterful work of Uwe Michael Lang—you can read his essay on this question online here, or better yet, buy the book.)

The practice of facing east was based upon the ancient custom of Jews in the diaspora who would always face Jerusalem when they prayed. For most Jews in the diaspora, Jerusalem was to their east and so that is the direction they would face. The Hebrew word for east is mizrah, and ancient synagogues in Europe and the Mediterranean were built with an orientation to mizrah, to east. The mizrachrefers to the wall of the synagogue that faces east, the place where the rabbi nad other lieaders would sit. Even when the temple was destroyed and the glory of God, the shekinahhad departed from the Holy of Holies, Jews continued to turn toward Jerusalem, hoping for the Messiah who would come and gather up God’s people.

And so early Christians faced east, first because it was for many of them the direction toward Jerusalem, but then also because of their belief that Christ would come again in the east, the direction of the rising son. Early Christians faced east when they prayed in longing expectation for Christ’s return believing with all your heart that Jesus did not leave us alone and that he would come upon the clouds finally to make this world right through God's love. And in Holy Eucharist, facing east, Christ then would indeed come to us again in simple bread and wine, reassuring us that Christ was present with us in this holy sacrament even while we yearn for his return at the end of time.

As Louis Bouyer notes in Liturgy and Architecture, the oldest Syrian churches from the fourth century were built with the apse facing east, with the altar paced either directly in front of the east wall or slightly forward from it. There was a bema, a raised platform in the middle that was adapted from synagogue worship and from which the readings would be done and the prayers offered. Then, the bishop and the clergy would move eastward to the altar for the liturgy of Eucharist, with the people and celebrant all facing east, all facing the altar together. 

The debate about facing east during prayers in the early church usually comes from early Roman basilicas, where the entrance was oriented toward the east and the altar was in the west (which means that in those churches, for the priest to face east also meant the priest faced the people, who were then facing west). Bouyer suggested that in those churches all would instead face the open doors at the east, with the rising sun coming in, during the Eucharistic prayer. Others doubt this, because it seems unlikely that the people would turn their backs to the altar. In Liturgie und Kirchenbau, Klaus Gamber suggested that the people stood on either side of the altar and so when they faced east with the priest, the altar would have been to their side. Others find this hypothesis likewise unlikely. In the end, we simply do not know for sure and there are good arguments on all sides (no pun intended!).

During the first millennium of Christianity, before the divisions between east and west, all Christians faced east together during prayer. It was not until modern times that the idea arose, first in Roman churches, that the priest and the people should instead face each other. Still, to this day, the vast majority of eastern churches have the priest and people face the same direction during the Eucharistic prayer. The only exceptions are those churches that have been influenced by the Roman rite and culture. 

And though the Liturgical Movement and the Second Vatican Council which came out of that movement believed that having the priest and people face each other during the Eucharistic prayer, that assumption is now increasingly called into question by scholars in the Roman tradition and outside the Roman tradition. It is also important to note that the Second Vatican Council actually did not require celebration facing the people, as is commonly assumed. Our own 1979 prayer book, which is considered by many to be one of the pinnacles of the Liturgical Movement assumes a celebration that is done with the priest facing the altar—and not necessarily the people—for the Great Thanksgiving (see the rubric on page 361 after the sursum corda, which says "Then, facing the Holy Table, the Celebrant proceeds.")

Lang, who I cited earlier, has argued strenuously that the tradition of all facing the same direction is one that should not have been discarded so quickly. Rather, it should be recovered in contemporary liturgy. He quotes Christoph Schönborn who talks about how signs and gestures and movement are all essential for "incarnating the faith." He then gots on to argue that "the constant face-to-face position of priest and people expresses a symbolism of its own and suggests a closed circle." Even the Protestant sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, notes that when the liturgy is celebrated with the priest and people facing each other, "this new position makes wonderfully clear that the sacred being that is worshipped exists not outside the gathered community but rather inside it. It is a powerful symbolic reversal." 

I know that this reversal cuts to the heart of what some liturgists and clergy longed for in the second-half of the twentieth century—a sense of a God who was truly present within us. But I do wonder if much of what occupied our attention as Christians in the twentieth-century helped foster a perception of God within us to the extent that we worshipped what we liked and lost our sense of the presence of God outside the community, outside the walls of our churches, inviting into a transcendent reality that will always be more than what we can confect in the closed circle of congregational worship.

Furthermore, scholars, clergy, and laity alike have all increasingly noticed that the priest and people facing each other has had an unintended side-effect. Though the goal was for the liturgy to become more communal and less hierarchical, the opposite happened. Whereas the focus point had been the altar and the transcendent God beyond that altar who meets us in the sacrament, by shifting the priest to that position on the other side of the altar, the priest now becomes the focal point. 

This is particularly ironic for Anglicans, who have not generally held to the Roman understanding of the priest acting en persona Christi, standing in for Christ as the host of the meal at the table. For us to have the priest in that position is to import some very significant ideas about Eucharist and the priesthood that have not been core to our own theology in the same way that they have for the Roman church. 

The priest now as the host of the meal, faces the congregation across the altar. This means that the priest no longer blends as easily into the grand liturgical action. Now the priest's facial expressions, where one sets one's attention through the eyes, the choice of manual actions with the hands, all of this is on display for the people of God—even though none of this should be the focal point of the liturgy. 

It is in this context that an approach to presiding has developed where the personality of the priest can entirely overcome the liturgy in ways that are both unhelpful and contrary to our understanding of the true goals of Christian worship. As the great Hans Urs von Balthasar argues,
An element lacking in good taste has crept into the liturgy since the (falsely interpreted) Council, namely, the joviality and familiarity of the celebrant with the congregation. People come, however, for prayer and not for a cozy encounter. Oddly enough, because of this misinterpretation, one gets the impression that post-conciliar liturgy has become more clerical than it was in the days when the priest functioned as mere servant of the mystery being celebrated. Before and after the liturgy, personal contact is entirely in place, but during the celebration everyone's attention should be directed to the one Lord.
Thus, celebrating facing the people can often be done in a way that more resembles watching a cooking show than it does the sacred prayers of the faithful gathered around the table.

Even such a noted Anglican luminary as Louis Weil argued in a lecture I attended that celebration facing the people only makes sense if the entire liturgical space is redesigned so the people truly are gathered around the altar. That is, in architectural spaces that have the altar in the center of the space with the congregation gathered around it. If your liturgical space remains the gothic arrangement of long nave, followed by chancel, and then altar, then Weil said one would be better off remaining with an eastward style of celebrating so as to avoid the priest becoming the center point of the liturgy.

Now, like I said when I started, though I hold these views quite seriously, I would never fight this battle in a congregational context. Other clergy who agree with me on the importance of the priest and the people all facing the same direction may disagree with my choice here—and I wish them well in their work. At this point in my ministry, my attention as a priest is occupied with other matters that I think are more important to our congregation's attention—seeking to articulate a welcome that makes the church more diverse, getting people to stop calling Republicans or Democrats evil, encouraging people that devoting time to spirituality is well worth the effort, etc.

However, I will keep talking about this, because I do think it is a conversation worth having in the church. And someday, who knows, my own community here in Grand Haven—or some other community I serve in the future—may raise their hand and suggest we reconsider the orientation of our prayer and our liturgical space. I look forward to leading this conversation at that time, exploring together, as priest and people, how the direction we face in the liturgy has in impact upon the way we understand God, ourselves, and our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

In the meantime, I will continue to celebrate facing the people on Sundays—but I will also do it knowing that I must be very careful and very intentional in ensuring that the focus point is not me, that every liturgical choice and action should draw the attention of the people to the Christ who becomes present for us once more upon the altar, and not upon the presider who lead's the people's prayers asking God to make it so. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Confessions from the Church on Ash Wednesday

My column in today's issue of the Grand Haven Tribune.

“You have something on your forehead.”

Today, Christians around the world will likely have someone come up to them at some point and say just that, noticing the dark smudge on a forehead. The reason, of course, is because today is Ash Wednesday — the day that marks the beginning of the season of Lent.

Many Christians — and many preachers for that matter! — have noticed the odd incongruity of the practices surrounding Ash Wednesday. In many churches, the Gospel reading includes Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 6: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.” Then, we all come up to the altar rail to have our faces disfigured by a smudged ashen cross — proclaiming to the world that we are fasting.

And let’s be clear, if the ashes any Christian receives upon their forehead are worn as a symbol of pride in their piety, they should indeed wash those ashes off straightaway rather than fall victim to the sins of pride and self-righteousness. However, if the ashes upon your head make you look a bit silly, if they make others inquire after your spiritual life curiously, if they provoke within the wearer the willingness to say openly and honestly, “I wear these ashes because I am a sinner and, through God’s love, I’m trying to do better” — well, then I think the ashes might indeed serve a deep and important purpose.

Because far too often the church pretends to be a place where everyone has it all put together. Rarely do individual Christians stand up and repent of their sins. Even more rarely does the church as a corporate body stand up and repent of her sins.

It reminds me of a story Donald Miller told in his book, “Blue Like Jazz,” when the Christians in his group set up a confession booth in the midst of a gloriously hedonistic university festival. Revelers would giggle and go inside, only to have the Christians present confess to the revelers the sins of the church and to ask their forgiveness. People would leave struck and confused, completely unused to hearing religious people say they have been wrong, and to say so in specific ways.

I participated in something similar a few years ago at the Grand Rapids Pride festival. I attended with a group of other Christians who wore T-shirts proclaiming, “I’m sorry.” We were there as a public witness, a public apology for the way the church has harmed and demeaned LGBTQ people — those with faith and those without faith.

Some people looked strangely at the priest wearing a T-shirt saying “I’m sorry,” thinking it must be a trick. But many people came up with tears in their eyes and said, “Thank you. I’ve been in such pain from being kicked out of my church, or told I’m disordered, or being told my love for my partner is a sin.” I gave each of those people a hug, telling them the church had gotten this wrong for a long time, and I wanted them to know that I apologized on behalf of the church. I apologized for my own failures in this area, when my own thinking was more rigid and narrow.

This is the sort of thing I think ashes are about on Ash Wednesday. The ashes Christians wear are not a symbol of our deep spirituality — or at least they shouldn’t be. The ashes are a public apology for the sins we have committed, the times we have failed to make manifest the love of God to our neighbors, to our enemies, to the world itself.

And I do believe the church has much to repent. We need to repent of our treatment of LGBTQ persons, treatment that has caused countless suicides and resulted in innumerable shattered faith relationships. But there is more.

We need to repent of our preference for those who look and think like us, resulting in Sunday being the most segregated time of the week.

We need to repent of our complicity in economic systems that rely upon people making starving wages so that we can have cheaper products and more comfort at home.

We need to repent of being more concerned with keeping a specific institution running than with being the bodily presence of God’s love on earth.

We need to repent of enabling leaders in the church to abuse and harass, and of not being willing to do the hard work of supporting processes that keep the vulnerable safe from the powerful and predators.

We need to repent of our silencing of the voices of women, of how long they have been kept out of places of authority, and how the loss of their voices among the clergy has diminished the whole body of Christ.

We need to repent of approaching the tragedy of abortion with language that has made untold women feel they are murderers, instead of people who were often faced with equally horrible choices and who needed a loving support while they made those choices.

We have much to repent. That’s what those ashes mean to me.

You might see me out on the street today, wearing my strange priest clothes, a funny hat and a big cloak, offering “Ashes to Go.” I do this so that people can be invited into this season whether or not they can attend a service, whether or not they have a church home. But I do this as well because, at the end of every rite, after I’ve imposed ashes and we’ve prayed together, I ask the person who stopped to “Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner.”

I stand on the street because I need your prayers as I seek to be more faithful to God’s love in my own life.

The church often needs your forgiveness as much as you need God’s. This is what Lent is truly all about. God’s love is waiting for all of us in this Holy Season, but we must have the courage to turn to God and say, “I’ve done wrong. We’ve done wrong. And we are ready to change.”

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

What 'Rent' Taught Me

My column in today's issue of the Grand Haven Tribune

The first time I saw the Broadway musical “Rent,” I was on a trip to New York City with the other thespians from Grand Haven High School. I remembered this experience with the partially live production of “Rent” that aired on Fox-TV at the end of last month, a production that often moved me to tears.

I loved all that the theater programs in both middle and high school opened me up to as a teenager, and I had very much looked forward to my first visit to the big city. We saw a handful of shows while we were there, but the one that stood out to me and changed me forever was the evening we saw “Rent.” If you’re not familiar with this show, it is a loose adaptation of Giacomo Puccini's opera “La bohème.” It follows a small, eclectic group of artists who live in the East Village as they seek to make sense of life in the midst of poverty, drugs and the growing HIV/AIDS crisis.

As a young, conservative, evangelical teenager, this show was my first exposure to LGBTQ persons who didn’t seek to hide or cover things up. Some of the couples in the show are same-sex and some are opposite-sex, and that’s just the way the story goes.

One of the couples, Collins and Angel, were particularly compelling to me. Collins is a part-time professor of philosophy and an anarchist. He meets Angel, a street drummer and drag queen. They connect that over the fact that they both have AIDS when Angel tenderly cares for Collins after a mugging. Their love for each other as they seek to overcome difficulty, their shared dreams for a different future, and Angel’s heartbreaking death make their narrative one of the strongest threads running through the musical.

The song that impacted me then most deeply, I think, is “Will I?” It is sung at the end of an HIV support group gathering, as he sings about his fear of losing his dignity as he dies from AIDS. He sings, “Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?” and the other members of the group join in singing with him, his fear also being their fear.

I was taught in church, of course, that all of these people were unrepentant sinners and that much of their struggle and suffering was because of the moral and ethical choices they had made. Thus, though this was all sad, what they really needed was to repent and find Jesus. That’s what I was taught.

But the cold arithmetic in that theology entirely evaporated as I watched this show for the first time. I cared less about whether or not they were sinners and more about their struggle to claim some sense of dignity. These seemed like people who were remarkably good deep within, and at that time in my life I lacked the theology to articulate why.

I believe “Rent” was the beginning of the unraveling of my simplistic view of morality, as I began to understand that what matters most are people and the rule of love. Jesus himself said all the law and the prophets hang on love of God and love of neighbor — my understanding religion had cut people off as unworthy because of the law and, thus, this reading of the law, failed in the task of helping me love my neighbor.

Seeing “Rent” was also the beginning of my own construction of a positive understanding of goodness, mission and evangelism — one that began to realize that the characters didn’t need Jesus. First, they needed food. They needed somewhere safe to live. They needed medical care. Most importantly, they needed to be seen with dignity — and that requires real relationships, not simply evangelism. Indeed, many of them could actually teach me just as much (if not more) about Jesus than I could ever teach them.

Quite frankly, I needed these characters to evangelize me. Thankfully, they did.

Much of the conversion experience I had watching “Rent” parallels the need Christianity still has to repent of the church’s behavior and response during the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Those suffering from AIDS were ostracized in society and especially in the church, with those who had the disease being labeled as sinners due to their sexuality or their drug use. Some Christians went so far at that time to proclaim that the disease was God’s punishment for homosexuality. In 1987, Jerry Falwell said, “AIDS is a lethal judgment of God on the sin of homosexuality and it is also the judgment of God on America for endorsing this vulgar, perverted and reprobate lifestyle.”

Even at the highest levels of our government, President George H.W. Bush said nothing as the death toll continued to rise. When he did speak, he said people needed to change their behavior. He opposed needle exchange programs that could have saved lives and passed massively inadequately funding for research in this growing health crisis largely because so many of the victims were seen to be culpable for contracting the disease. It was almost as though they were an expendable part of society.

“Rent” taught me how religion can blind you to seeing people, really and truly seeing people as people with inherent dignity and worth, ironically enough. It taught me that God’s love can exist in a variety of forms and that I, as a Christian, had some repenting to do. In the two decades since that trip, I’ve certainly changed. I’m now honored to serve in a church where we joyfully celebrate our LGBTQ members. I’ve had the privilege of officiating at a handful of same-sex weddings, both for parishioners and for community members. And, as a priest, I know very clearly that it does no good to preach at people when you ignore their basic needs of survival.

“Rent” taught me that what Jesus demands of me is love. That I truly love people. And I hope that as the legacy of this musical continues to grow, wider portions of the church will also find themselves convicted for their continued ostracization of LGBTQ Christians, their continued patronizing approach to the poor, and their continued finger-wagging at those struggling with addiction, telling people they just need Jesus when they also could probably use some excellent addiction-related mental health care.

I hope that wider portions of the church will find themselves convicted, will repent of their own response to people, both during this crisis and today. And I hope we will all be willing to learn anew what love truly demands of us.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The human costs of the current shutdown

My column in today's issue of the Grand Haven Tribune.

When many people are asked to think of those who work in the federal government, the first thing that comes to mind are those elected to serve in the federal government. So when a government shutdown occurs, people often do not realize the massive pain that it causes among the actual average civil servant.

The average federal worker earns $51,340 per year. That’s a pretty good middle-class salary, but that’s by no means a guarantor of financial security when you are all of the sudden forced to go without a paycheck. And there are many federal workers who don’t make that much and are even still required to work.

Workers in the Transportation Security Information have a starting pay of around $16 per hour and an average salary of just over $40,000 per year. However, under government shutdown rules, they are required to work even though they will not receive pay.

All told, there are 800,000 federal workers who are currently not being paid. That’s 800,000 people who do not know when they will receive their next paycheck. There is no indication that the government is reopening anytime soon, and so the anxiety is only growing among these dedicated civil servants.

And, make no mistake, that’s what the average federal employee is — a person who has chosen to work in the government even though they would often make more money in the private sector. However, these people have a passion for the common good and so serve our country in a variety of agencies.

During my first two years of ordained ministry, I served in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. Our parish was filled with federal employees and I found them to be some of the most sacrificial, dedicated and committed people I had ever met.

The average American has less than $4,000 in savings and 57 percent of all Americans have less than $1,000 in savings. And yet, for each of these federal employees, there are mortgages and rent that are due every month. There are groceries to buy and utility bills to pay. The Office of Personnel Management has sent out sample letters employees can use to send to landlords and creditors asking for leniency during this shutdown, but those letters will rely on the goodwill of those who receive them.

In the 1981 government shutdown, President Ronald Reagan (a strong opponent of government unions) acknowledged the “temporary hardship” the shutdown would have on workers. In 2013, when the government was shut down under President Barack Obama, he wrote an open letter to those affected: “None of this is fair to you,” he wrote, adding, “You and your families remain at the front of my mind.”

However, President Donald Trump has yet to say anything publicly that acknowledges the massive hardship this shutdown is on federal employees. The closest he came was a tweet last week when we wrote, “Do the Dems realize that most of the people not getting paid are Democrats?” Aside from being an entirely unproven claim, his tweet also betrays a partisan disregard for the human cost of not getting a paycheck.

Some may argue that Congress should cave into the president’s demands for $5 billion for a border wall, that the cost that is being born by federal employees is worth that agreement. But let’s be clear, the president is holding the livelihood of 800,000 people hostage so that he can get this wall, and 56 percent of Americans oppose the border wall and even more than that (58 percent) believe Trump should withdraw his demand for wall spending.

One of the most common ways undocumented immigrants enter our country is actually with a legal visa at a legal port of entry. They then overstay their legal visa. Ironically enough, the Cato Institute has found that as the amount of border fencing increases, the number of people entering the country legally and then overstaying illegally also increases. That is, the increase in border fencing has only changed the manner in which people enter our country illegally.

Furthermore, border fencing has had the unintended impact of making it harder for undocumented immigrants to return home. In 1996, when our country’s experiment with border fencing was just beginning, University of Pennsylvania sociologist Douglas Massey found that the majority of those who entered our country illegally would leave within one year. Thirteen years later, with triple the number of border agents and 650 miles of barrier, the likelihood of leaving within one year had dropped to almost nothing.

So, our president is holding the livelihood of 800,000 federal employees hostage for a border security plan that will not actually work. The money he wants to spend on a border wall could instead be spent on increasing funding for our overflowing immigration courts, it could be spent on all kinds of areas which would actually have a positive impact upon immigration reform on our country.

A compromise of some sort must be reached. A great compromise — one that would actually appeal to a majority of our country — would be a return to the offer that was on the table last year: funding the wall in exchange for protection for dreamers, those in our country who were brought here as children. But the president has rejected even that offer yet again because he says it would make him look foolish.

The dedicated civil servants in our country deserve better than to be held hostage over a policy proposal that studies have shown is unhelpful and that a majority of our country oppose.

And immigrants to our country — both those who come legally and those who come without documentation, fleeing violence and poverty — deserve better than being used as chips to appeal to a right-wing nationalist base.

We, as Americans, can do better than this. We must do better than this.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Making room in December for the faith of everyone

Below is my column in today's issue of the Grand Haven Tribune.

The addition of a Latino ministry has brought many rich experiences to our congregation here at St. John’s Episcopal Church. We’ve been blessed by more multicultural experiences, including the ways different cultures experience and engage with the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. All of us, Anglo and Latino alike, have formed bonds across many of the divisions in our culture, enriching and enlarging our perspectives. Preaching and celebrating Holy Communion in Spanish every Sunday at 12:45 p.m. has brought my Spanish to new levels. And the food — oh, the amazing food we eat when we come together.

I’ve been thinking about the blessings of this experience a lot over these first few days of Advent, here at the beginning of the church year and the end of a calendar year. Though much of society celebrates the days from Thanksgiving to Christmas as the Christmas season, the tradition of the church is actually slightly different.

The four Sundays before Christmas are known as the four Sundays of Advent. Not simply an elongation of the Christmas holiday, the Season of Advent exists as a time of preparation for the celebration of Christmas. Its roots are traced to St. Martin’s Lent — a period of fasting to prepare for Christmas that used to begin on St. Martin’s Day (Nov. 11 — so, apparently there is some backing to starting to think about Christmas before Thanksgiving!). Later, the period was shortened to the four Sundays before Christmas and took the name “Advent.” However, in the Ambrosian and Mozarabic Rites of the Catholic Church, Advent still actually begins on the sixth Sunday before Christmas, the Sunday after St. Martin’s Day.

Various Christian traditions observe Advent differently, but most are united in the idea that it is not just four extra weeks of celebration before Christmas Day. Rather, the season of Advent is a time when we prepare for the coming of Christ, when we seek to “make room” for the Advent of God into our world, into our lives.

One of the essential aspects of our Latino ministry was that our congregation had to learn what it would mean to “make room” in our congregation for new people from a different culture, many of whom spoke a different language. We were clear from the front that we didn’t just want a separate Spanish-speaking congregation. Rather, we wanted our new Latino members to find themselves at the heart — “el corazón” — of our community. That means we had to think differently about Sunday schedules, about how to ensure key moments throughout the church year could be fully celebrated by people of both cultures and languages.

We’ve sought to be intentional about what it means to be invited into something different. So, this Saturday at 6 p.m., we’ll have a Las Posadas party at our church. This Latin-American tradition replicates the journey of the Holy Family, seeking to find room at the inn but being turned away. It includes the singing of special carols, especially “Peregrinos” or “wanderers” — a back and forth between host and guest, with the hosts playing the role of innkeeper and the guests the role of the Holy Family — before a celebratory meal.

Next Wednesday at 7 p.m., we will have a Solemn Procession and Eucharist in honor of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe — a vision of Mary that appeared to a poor native Mexican and which was first ignored by the church hierarchy, until Mary filled the poor man’s cloak with roses in December and left an imprint of her image upon the cloak itself.

And, on Christmas Eve, in addition to our Family Eucharist at 5 p.m. and our Solemn Eucharist with incense at 10:30 p.m., we will have a Spanish-language Eucharist at 2 p.m.

A lot of this has been new to our members. (It has been new to me, as well!) But we have sought to be curious and not afraid to hear how others may experience God differently than us. We’ve been blessed as we have made room for one another and the faith of everyone — Anglo and Latino alike — has been tremendously deepened.

I truly think this is what Advent is all about, after all — making room. When Christ was about to come among us in the baby in Bethlehem, no one wanted to make room for a traveling family and an unwed mother. That’s why they sent them to the stables, where a pregnant teenager cried and screamed as she gave birth on dirty hay surrounded by animals. But God came nonetheless, even though no one really wanted to make room.

There are all kinds of places in each of our lives where we probably don’t want to make room, where we prefer comfort and consistency. December tends to fill rapidly with parties and shopping until the days after Christmas Day finally seem like a welcome break. But I’d invite you to ask if there are some ways you can stretch in these next weeks. Are there some places in your life where you can open your perspective, open your life, so that God may show up in ways you might not expect?

Partisan division is at near record levels. Crowds of people fleeing poverty and violence are at the very gates of our nation. Here in the sleepy Tri-Cities, many continue to struggle with anxiety and depression. Suicides always peak this time of year. There are still not enough affordable places to live in our community. LGBTQ persons often find themselves needing to hide their identity if they want to show up at church on Christmas, much less at the family table with a partner.

None of this is OK. We shouldn’t paper it over with tinsel and bows.

God will come among us, nonetheless. But if history is any indicator, it will be easy to miss God’s coming if we don’t prepare first.

So, see if you can make a little more room — in your life, in your family, in your church, in your community and in our country. See if you can make a little more room for what the love of God is trying to do. I guarantee you will not regret it.


The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Jesus Calls Us to This: An Argument in Favor of the Methodist-Episcopal Full Communion Proposal, "A Gift to the World"

In October an updated version of the United Methodist and Episcopal Church Full Communion proposal was published, entitled, A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness. You can read the proposal itself online here.

As I suspected, there has been much hand-wringing by several of my colleagues who are distressed by a move to full communion with the United Methodist Church and who believe that this proposal is  theologically flawed.

On Facebook, when I bemoaned that once again I seem to be in favor of something many of my friends seem to hate, one person asked me to share why I support this movement and, specifically, the proposal for full communion which now exists. I started writing a comment, but that quickly got too long. Instead, I want to offer this reflection.

Prolegomena—In Favor of Ecumenism
The first thing to say is that I am a strong advocate of ecumenism. I spent six years representing The Episcopal Church on the Faith & Order Commission of the National Council of Churches. That work remains some of my favorite work I have yet done as a priest. I withdrew from that appointment when the National Council of Churches reorganized because it seemed the Faith & Order work that would be done going forward wasn't the best fit for me. At the same time, I still believe the NCC and other ecumenical bodies are doing important work.

I believe this for two reasons.

First, division in the body of Christ is a sin for which we must all repent. Even though the great Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, was not always a full-throated supporter of the ecumenical movement, he insisted that division and schism were not the Christian way and that work needed to be done to heal that division. He was not a supporter of women's ordination when the question came to the Anglican Consultative Council, but after it became a part of The Episcopal Church he knew of an American priest who left the church and joined a dissident movement over they issue. Ramsey was massively opposed to this entrance into schism and told his friend just that.

While the church remains in a divided state, no one part of the church can claim a full and true catholicity.

Second, I have seen in my own ministry the fruits of ecumenical work. I have seen congregations from the Lutheran and Episcopal churches who have come together and been able to discover vibrant and faithful ministry. In my own parish, I have been tremendously enriched by our Priest Associate, a Lutheran pastor who has helped me grow in my first decade of priestly ministry. The coming together of our churches, the interchange of our ministries, through the Full Communion agreement we have with the ELCA has been a tremendous gift to us as a church.

I also believe that the way in which ecumenism takes place, we can never merely ask one church to adopt another practices or beliefs. Rather, the riches of the ecumenical movement has been the discovered convergence through difficult theological wrestling. The primacy of baptism in the 1979 BCP is a great example of the way in which ecumenical conversations surrounding baptism led to a refining of our own understanding and practice in the Episcopal Church.

To return to Ramsey, we have to remember that the church is not yet fully and perfectly that which God is calling it to be. As Ramsey wrote in The Charismatic Christ,  “So the sacramental order of the Church witnesses to its historical givenness and witnesses also to its growth to-ward a future plenitude when, partly within history and partly beyond history, the Church will become perfectly what it is already.”  This idea of combining the historical givenness of the church with its future growth toward plenitude was not Ramsey’s own creation. Here he notes his debt to the work of Yves Congar who had envisioned Christian unity not as a process of “returning to Mother Church,” but rather “as the converging of all Christians upon a goal which will be a Church different from any now visible yet in continuity with the Church as once founded.”

So, I believe in ecumenism and I believe good ecumenism will not only enable each tradition to bring the riches of its history to other communions, but it will also result in the growth, change, and movement towards greater faithfulness in those traditions.

Now, to the proposal itself, and my own reasons for supporting it.

We Share Core Doctrine
One of the fundamental questions with which anyone must approach questions of full communion relationships is whether or not you believe the differences between two churches are church-dividing issues. That is, is the difference of perspective so significant that it warrants us living in continued schism. Over the course of bilateral ecumenical conversations, those leading both of these conversations have come to the conclusion that our difference are indeed not church-dividing issues. That does not mean our difference are not important or that we don't need to have further conversation. Rather, it says that these differences do not rise to the level that we should live in division from each other.

This is undergirded by the theological statement Sharing in the Apostolic Communion, issued over twenty years ago as the result of international dialogue between the World Methodist Council and the Anglican Communion. At that time, the document noted that we share the core doctrine of the Christian faith and do not need further doctrinal assurances from one another.

Some people have strangely claimed that the United Methodist Church doesn't affirm the Nicene Creed. This claim is based upon a movement to have it formally added to the Book of Discipline, a moment which died in committee for reasons no one can articulate. However, we should remember not only the point above (where we have already said we agree on core doctrine), but we should also remember that the United Methodist Book of Discipline gives its own requirements for full communion, one of which is "a mutual affirmation of one another’s membership in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church 'described in the Holy Scriptures and confessed in the church’s historic creeds'" (¶431.1).

We Share in the Historic Episcopate, locally adapted
This has been one of the major sticking points of those outside the conversation. There are some Episcopalians who continue to insist that the historic episcopate must, by definition, include the manual transmission of apostolic authority through the laying on of hands through the centuries. I would commend to those who hold such an understanding (one that I believe to be anemic and theologically and historically deficient, by the way) John Burkhard's excellent book Apostolicity Then and Now.

Burkhard is a Roman Catholic theologian and his book did tremendous work in articulating a nuanced understanding of apostolicity that is based upon the best of Scripture, theology, and church history. He cites authorities no less impressive than Joseph Ratzinger to advocate for an understanding of apostolicity that is more than the strict historical apostolic succession. Apostolicity must be seen within the context of the apostolicity of the whole church, including origin, doctrine, and life—historic succession can be one aspect of that apostolicity and it is far from a guarantee of that apostolicity.

Furthermore, those who insist that the historic episcopate must include apostolic succession have no argument upon which to base their claim. The phrase itself is notably absent from the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. Indeed, its absent from the Book of Common Prayer itself! It was virtually unknown in Anglican circles before the Oxford Movement of the nineteenth century—and even then, was never broadly shared or affirmed officially in any way. Our church has never made apostolic succession the basics of any of our ecumenical dialogues. And lest Anglicans get too high on their horses with this question, let's remember that it was a strict understanding of this question that led Rome to call our own orders invalid because of the loss of strict manual succession in the Edwardian times.

Furthermore, this document does not eliminate the role that historic succession plays as a part of the historic episcopate. All future episcopal consecrations will include at least one Episcopal bishop, along with a Morvaian and ELCA bishop. Thus, over time, the Methodist church will also now share once more in the historic succession—even as they already currently share in the historic episcopate, adapted for their own churches needs and ministry.

I would also note that Tom Ferguson has rather strongly argued that the insistence upon apostolic succession is not only problematic historically and theologically, it has tremendously unfortunate sexist and racist overtones that need to be acknowledged.

We Affirm the Ministry of Four Orders
Once again, there is a strange claim by some that Methodists to not affirm the three-fold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon. I find it unsurprising that those who make this claim ignore that our prayer book is clear that there are four orders of ministry, and that the ministry of the baptized is the first order in the Outline of Faith.

Both TEC and the UMC have worked through a revival of the ministry of deacons. I find any criticism of the UMC revival to be a significant amount of pointing out specks of dust and ignoring the plank in your own eye. In our own church we are still struggling through this revival, evident in the massively different expectations, formation processes, and practices surrounding the diaconate. It was not until I was the Chair of the Commission on Ministry that I fully realized how very little the average Episcopalian—including the average priest!—truly understands about the history and theology of the diaconate.

The UMC has not held onto the practice of the transitional diaconate (that is, one is ordained a deacon before being ordained a priest). But, once more, we need to be clear that this was not the practice in the church for centuries. There are theological and practical reasons both for it and against it, but it cannot be seen as a church-dividing issue unless we plan to divide ourselves from the early church! (And, furthermore, the UMC official statement on this question states clearly that Christ is present in the elements.)

The UMC has chosen to use the word "elder," that is the translation of Presbyter/Priest, in its own articulation of the one who is ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. However, it is clear that the office itself is the same. Sure, most UMC elders probably don't have the same understanding of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist as I do—but I know a lot of Episcopal clergy who don't as well. Once more, since the Elizabethan settlement Anglicanism has allowed for room for disagreement on this question. We cannot reject their elders as inauthentic without also rejecting the orders of many of our own colleagues and entering into a quasi-Donatist world where the validity of sacraments becomes a question of each person's personal views.

The way in which the episcopate has been historically adapted (one of the specific allowances of the Quadilaterial) in Methodism is instructive. Here I will quote from the document itself,
Following the American Revolution, The Episcopal Church adapted the office of bishop to its new missional context: bishops were elected by representative bodies (Diocesan Conventions) and exercised oversight in conjunction with clergy and laypersons. After the American Revolution, Methodists also adapted the episcopal office to the missional needs of their ministerial circumstances and settings. Early Methodism adapted the office of bishop as an itinerant general superintendency, and the name of the largest Methodist body incorporated the word: Methodist Episcopal Church, reflecting this choice of episcopal governance. The United Methodist Church includes among its antecedent denominations the Methodist Protestant Church resulting from a merger in 1939. The Methodist Protestant Church incorporated the Methodist episcopacy at that time as it did not have the office of bishop in its structure. In 1968, The United Methodist Church was created through the merger of the Methodist Church with the Evangelical United Brethren Church, which also had bishops, at which time the churches’ episcopacies were brought together into a unified whole. 
In The Episcopal Church and The United Methodist Church, bishops are consecrated by other bishops and ordain presbyters/elders and deacons. They exercise oversight in a specific geographic area—the diocese or annual conference—and in conjunction with clergy and lay persons.
Sure, there is also an apology on the Episcopal side for the ways that some in our church have claimed that Methodists don't have valid orders. But that seems like a pretty good thing to apologize for, given the ecumenical consensuses that have been reached at this point in our life.

Some have very oddly claimed that there is a big problem because the UMC do not understand the ministry of bishop and presbyter to be distinct ministries.

Well shit. I suppose this person never read a lick of early church history, wherein the terms episkopos and presbyter are used interchangeably in Scripture and the monepiscopate (as we know it) gradually developed as the primary presbyter in the area, with the added authority to ordain other presbyters.

In our own church, bishops and priests are not entirely distinct ministries. After all, the prayer book is clear that the bishop functions as the primary presbyter at celebrations of Eucharist and Baptism. The ministry of a bishop is inextricably bound up with the ministry of the priest. They aren't distinct in our own church.

What Really Hangs People Up
You know what all this leaves us with? Grape juice or wine.

Seriously.

Methodists use grape juice and Episcopalians use wine. Each do this for important theological and historical reasons. However, let's also be clear, lots of Episcopalians actually use port—a fortified type of wine that wouldn't have existed in the first century. There are also Episcopal churches that do use grape juice—a nonalcoholic fruit of the vine that did not exist in the first century. An extreme condemnation of any of these modern variations of fruit of the vine is historically anachronistic and delves into the odd Roman insistence upon technical specificity (very out of step for our Anglican tradition), which goes so far as to articulate what percentage of wheat must be in bread for it to be called bread.

Do I prefer the use of wine? Absolutely. In fact, in our parish we use actual red wine—you know, that tastes like the sort of wine you might drink at dinner.

But to return to the refrain of this entire essay, is this a church dividing issue? God, I hope not.

Sure, this full communion proposal will have problems. We'll have things we will need to work out. Most significantly, the UMC is currently wrestling with the place of LGBTQ Christians in their body. I hope we'll all join in praying for our brothers and sisters in this struggle—knowing that we didn't do all of that wrestling perfectly or well in our own church.

But I sure hope this thing passes. Because Christ prayed passionately for his followers to be one. And as for me, I see it to be my call as a disciple of Christ to work toward that end, not against it.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Questions for Huizenga and answers from Davidson

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below.

It has now been over one year since the citizens in Michigan’s Second Congressional District have had an opportunity to meet with their representative in a public forum.

There may be a significant reason why Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, is so hesitant to show up in a public forum in his own district.

After all, it was at a town hall in February of last year that the citizens of our district were introduced to the person who is now running as his opponent, Dr. Rob Davidson. For a good 15 minutes, Davidson and Huizenga debated on the question of health care.

After that experience, many who were in attendance encouraged Davidson to run against Huizenga for Congress. And that’s what Rob has been doing.

He has been out meeting people and knocking on doors. The sheer number of public events he has held has been unheard of in our district. On Aug. 27, Davidson challenged Huizenga to a series of seven debates, one in each county which makes up our district. It was all crickets from the Huizenga office, but Davidson plowed ahead — eager to engage with the citizens of our area. On Sept. 10, instead of the hoped-for debate with Huizenga, Davidson hosted a town hall meeting to a standing-room only crowd in Holland. He held a second town hall on Sept. 29 in Kentwood.

Rep. Huizenga has had ample time during congressional recesses to meet with his constituents. However, in the absence of a public forum, he appears to spend his time primarily cultivating his donor base. He has not given us, the citizens in the Second District, the opportunity to ask him questions in public about the choices he has made while supposedly representing us in Congress.

If I had the opportunity to ask Rep. Huizenga some questions, I would have a few that immediately come to mind. Why does he talk so much about how it is Congress who makes laws for immigration and then fail to actually do anything productive to solve our broken system and protect families? Why did it take him weeks to speak out against the policy of forced family separation? Why did he support the president’s original ban on refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries? Why is it that he has accepted over $1 million in corporate dollars, including a significant amount from banks that are not even in our district? How is he ensuring we don’t lose the regulations put in place after the Great Recession to protect our country from risky decisions in the financial sector? Why hasn’t Huizenga worked for common-sense bipartisan gun reform, advocating for policies that enjoy broad support across the political spectrum, including universal background checks and red flag laws that keep firearms away from domestic abusers?

And the question I have that hits particularly to home is what exactly is he doing to fix our struggling health care system? Sure, he sought to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but when the American Health Care Act replacement failed, it seems he has not done much else. While Congress has been in a state of inaction, health care premiums continue to rise. West Michigan Christians who serve on church boards have seen first-hand how the continued increase in health care premiums for clergy and lay employees has continued to make it harder to devote a congregation’s financial resources to the important ministry to which we are called. As a committed Christian himself, I’m curious how Huizenga is working to alleviate this burden which every congregation, church board and pastor feels.

It has been reported that Rep. Huizenga has finally accepted Dr. Davidson’s invitation to debate. Our own Grand Haven Tribune secured this agreement, with a debate planned for Oct. 30 — one week before the General Election. Another debate is planned earlier, on Oct. 15 in Newaygo County. I suppose there is nothing like waiting to the last minute.

No matter what political views you hold, if you are able to attend one of these debates, I would encourage you to do so. If not, try to find a way to engage them online. Listen to what each candidate says. Ask yourself who will better represent all the residents of our district.

And Rep. Huizenga, if you’re reading this, maybe try holding at least one public town hall before the election so that your constituents can ask you the questions that will be on their hearts and minds when they go to the polls Nov. 6.