by Jared C. Cramer
As I approach nearly ten years worshiping in the Episcopal Church, including nearly five as a priest of the church, I’m struck by what first drew me into the church as someone in his young twenties. Though I was raised in an evangelical tradition, it was one that emphasized both the early church and the importance of reason, study, and intellect in the practice of the Christian faith. The more I studied in my undergraduate and graduate work, the more I found myself drawn to a more ancient expression of Christianity, one that didn’t view the early church merely as an historic curiosity, but instead as a group to whom we were organically connected. I began to realize that certain ideas I had been told were “catholic innovations” growing up—ideas like the Presence of Christ in Communion, a hierarchical structure, the veneration of saints—these were actually important concepts in the church from her earliest centuries.
For the past five years, my priestly ministry has been deeply shaped by a group known as the Society of Catholic Priests in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. The Society began in England in the mid-nineties as a place for Anglo-Catholic clergy who also supported the ordination of women and of gay and lesbian Christians. It believed that the ideals of the catholic heritage of Anglicanism were not only essential, but that they needed a resurgence in the church today.
Five years ago, along with a handful of colleagues, the Society came to North America. Over that five years we have grown to count over two hundred priests, deacons, bishops, or vowed religious among our membership. We have hosted Annual Conferences in New Haven, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Plans are now underway for our Fifth Annual Conference in Philadelphia.
And, I must say, I believe the mission of the Society is a tremendously important one in the Episcopal Church today. We are not a political organization. Whereas our mother Society in England is still spending significant time fighting on behalf of our female and GLBT colleagues, we have a different context in the Episcopal Church. We absolutely embrace all those ordained to Holy Orders in our church… but our true charism moves beyond that. We have two twin aims: the cultivation of priestly spirituality and the growth of catholic evangelism.
Originally, the founding membership of the Society wrestled with the role lay people might play in our life. We decided in those first years that the focus should be on honing our identity and providing a place for deepening the spirituality of our clergy. However, we also increasingly discovered the gifts lay people were bringing to the aims of priestly spirituality and catholic evangelism. Many of us have lay spiritual directors who keep our ministries centered on the person and teaching of Christ. All of our conferences have had presenters who were lay academics, enriching our understanding of the church and of what catholic evangelism might look like in the twentieth century. People like Dr. Derek Olsen, a leading lay voice in the church on questions of liturgy and the church, along with being a contributor to Episcopal Café, have brought profound depth to our Conference experiences.
The Society is certainly not simply a “gin and lace” group—our discussions have focused on questions regarding church planting, the faithful practice of hearing and making confession, healing ministry, and beauty in the church. Of course, there is still a bit of gin and lace among us—we are, after all, a society of Anglo-Catholics—but the center of our existence is much deeper than that.
As we have developed and grown, the question of lay involvement has been more pressing and has resulted in a significant change for our 2013 Conference. Registration has opened to include lay and ordained guests, those who may be interested or curious about the Society, but who are not members. With speakers ranging from former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold to gifted author and retreat leader Martin Smith, we are hopeful that we will indeed be joined in Philadelphia by a broader group of Episcopalians and members of the Anglican Church of Canada.
It’s sort of cliché these days to say that the Episcopal Church stands at a crossroads. As some of the debates of the latter twentieth-century begin to subside, we will need to ask how modern Anglicans will define themselves. We are absolutely a church that welcomes all, that affirms and celebrates the gifts of all baptized Christians, regardless of gender or sexual orientation… but can we be more than that?
What might it mean for us now to move more deeply into the spiritual practice of the church? What might it mean for us to seek, through sacrament and piety, to find old and new ways of conforming ourselves to the mind of Christ? How might the riches of our theological and liturgical heritage bring a new sense of beauty and the divine to the lives of twenty-first century North Americans who are unsure what good, if any, the church has to do in the world?
Many of the members of the Society, myself included, believe that we are on the cusp of a new revival in the Episcopal Church. The membership of the Society skews particularly young, as our strongest growing segments are seminarians and clergy under 35. Our conversations are filled with experience of younger people entering the church, looking not for a political sermon (whether from the right or the left) that merely confirms what they already think, but instead looking for an experience with the Divine Mystery.
Yes, I do believe that we are on the cusp of a possible new revival in the Episcopal Church. As we engage in the work of restructuring, as we seek to re-imagine what Anglican Christianity looks like in North America, I believe that by diving deep into our rich heritage we can reclaim a way forward that invites us into a way of life that is more than individual wants, needs, or preferences.
And I hope, I dearly hope, that all baptized members of this church, whether lay or ordained, who want to explore what this vision might look like, will join my sister and brothers in the Society in Philadelphia as we explore the Catholic Future of the Episcopal Church.
More information on the Society can be found online here.
Information on the Fifth Annual Conference is here.
The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, MI, and as dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan. He is also on the Provincial Council of the Society of Catholic Priests. His reflections on life and ministry can be found at carewiththecure.blogspot.com