A Jewish-Christian marriage ceremony, a Washingtonian article, and a Reflection on Modern Culture

The Rev. Ken Howard, a Jewish Christian and an Episcopal priest, blesses Elena Taube (another Jewish Christian) and Paul Bailey under an improvized huppah at the Washington National Cathedral.

The Rev. Ken Howard, a Jewish Christian and an Episcopal priest, blesses Elena Taube (another Jewish Christian) and Paul Bailey under an improvised huppah at the Washington National Cathedral.

By Ken Howard

Late last year, I performed a Jewish-Christian marriage ceremony at the Washington National Cathedral (that’s me in the kippah and tallit on the right – I’m a Jewish Christian myself). Elena Taube and Paul Bailey, the prospective bride and groom, were a delightful couple. And the service was great fun (especially the part where I snuck a huppah into the Cathedral, disguised as my tallit… Yep, we bad).

Editor’s Note:
In response to those who have asked the difference
between the terms “Jewish Christian” and “Messianic Jew,”
the meanings are roughly equivalent:
a Jewish follower of Jesus Christ (Hebrew: Y’shua ha-Mashiach),
who believes that following Jesus as the Messiah (or Christ)
does not negate his Jewishness.
My preference for the term Jewish Christian
has more to do with clarity than meaning.
More on this topic is available in my two books,
Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them

Excommunicating the Faithful:
Jewish Christianity in the Early Church

Earlier this week, Washingtonian Magazine published pictures of the wedding in its “Real Weddings” section. I thought it was great fun seeing the pictures in print. As usual, I posted them on Facebook, where a colleague observed an interesting omission. See if you can pick find it in the list below, copied directly from the original article…

Ceremony: Washington National Cathedral

Cocktail Party Venue: National Cathedral School

Reception Venue: The Mayflower Renaissance Washington, DC Hotel

Photographer: Susie & Becky Photography

Bride’s Gown: Custom designed

Groom’s Tux: Calvin Klein

Hair: Get Gorgeous Hair & Makeup By Zia

Makeup: Pakito Internacional

Event Coordinator: Washington National Cathedral, Schelle Be Done, The Mayflower Renaissance Washington, DC Hotel

Cake: Fluffy Thoughts Cakes

Florist: Washington National Cathedral, Blanca Zelaya, and Bergeron’s Florist

Caterers: Flik International and The Mayflower Renaissance Washington, DC Hotel

Transportation: ABC Limo Service

Videographer: Michael Brazda Films

Music/Entertainment: Washington National Cathedral organist, Violin Dreams, and Night & Day

Did you find it?


Yup! The list included the names of everyone involved in preparing for and carrying out the event, right down to the person who baked the wedding cake (which was beautiful and quite tasty, I must say), with one omission: the officiant who presided over the ceremony…me.

Now, I really don’t crave publicity. What I enjoy is the pre-marital work with the couple, and helping them make choices about which prayers and readings from Scripture best express the their thoughts, prayers, and dreams about their marriage and their future life together as a couple. Seeing the pictures in the Washingtonian was fun, but for me they were the “icing on the cake,” as it were, rather than the main course.

But as I reflected on it, I did think my colleague had a point: not about about the ceremony (which was a profound and joyful event), nor about the couple (Elena and Paul were involved with me in the preparing themselves and the ceremony for the better part of a year), but about the culture. In modern culture, faith is relegated to an afterthought, if thought about at all. Nowhere is this more evident than in modern weddings, where the officiant and the church are often booked last, after the Caribbean island honeymoon reservations and the cruise ship. In that context, it makes a certain upside-down sense, doesn’t it? I mean, who remembers the name of the captain of the cruise ship, right?

It’s also become more and more evident during the marriage ceremony itself. I’ve had wedding coordinators attempt to advise me on which stole I should wear (so as not to clash with the bridal gown). I’ve had photographers kneel in the aisle, stopping the procession, just to get a picture-perfect “here comes the bride photo” and try (unsuccessfully) to step behind me during the vows in an attempt to get an “over-the-shoulder” (my shoulder) shot of the bride and groom exchanging rings [I banished him from working in my church again]. I’ve even had a wedding in which the bride’s mom set up not one, but two video cameras to capture the blessed day “for posterity,” which made the shy bride so anxious that when she walked down the aisle, as she passed her mom, she projectile vomited and fainted (to this day, the couple still watches the video and laughs, having defeated Momzilla’s plans). My point is that, as the culture has shifted, some weddings have developed the “who’s she wearing” feel of the red carpet at the Academy Awards, than a sacramental act.

Oddly, while separation of Church and State is an issue that provokes controversy in almost every other area of public life, weddings seem to be the one public act that gets a pass. Yet over the 20 years I have been ordained I have become more and more theologically uncomfortable with acting as an “agent of the state,” in performing marriages: a role I cannot play in any other area. Another reason my quasi-public official role discomforts me is that is it obscures what for me is the most important role I play in the ceremony: pronouncing God’s blessing upon the marriage. And more importantly, it obscures the real role the couple play in the marriage. Theologically, neither I nor the State perform the sacrament of marriage. Rather, the couple themselves perform the sacrament with their vows.

That’s why more and more, I am suggesting that the couple first go get married at the Justice of the Peace, then come to the church for what we call “the blessing of a civil marriage.” Because then the couple know what real reason they are coming to the Church to receive: the blessing of God and the prayers of their community of faith.

Time for a searching and fearless moral inventory of our church

Maryland Bishop Charged With Manslaughter

Makeshift floral memorial on the spot where bicyclist Tom Palermo was struck and killed.

The Rev. Ken Howard

On Saturday, December 27, the newly installed Suffragan Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, Heather Cook, was involved in a hit-and-run accident in Baltimore, in which she struck and killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo. In the weeks following the incident, various facts – as well as much speculation – emerged about Heather’s earlier DUI arrest, potential weaknesses in the search process which resulted in her election, and whether she had been drinking at the time of latest accident. Last Friday, January 9, she was formally charged with vehicular manslaughter, driving under the influence, texting while driving, and leaving the scene of an accident. She turned herself into authorities and was sent to the county jail to await arraignment. Those who are familiar with Maryland law say that, since the facts of the case are not in dispute, a conviction seems likely, as does jail time. Still, we must allow the justice system must run its course, and pray that justice is served…and tempered with mercy.

There have been many calls for prayer for all connected to this tragedy – Tom Palermo, his wife and children, Heather Cook, the Diocese of Maryland – from the Bishop of Maryland, the Presiding Bishop, my own Bishop of Washington, and many others. The response has been enormous and continuing: prayers for justice, prayers for mercy, prayers for forgiveness, prayers for accountability, and most off all prayers of profound solidarity in grief, in sorrow, and in loss. I join in them and I bid you to join in them as well.

Yet not even our most fervent prayers can change the fact that a man is dead, a wife is left without her beloved husband, and two children will never know their father. There is no way to measure the magnitude of their loss; no way to quantify the senselessness that occasioned it. A trust fund for the children has been established (the Palermo Children’s Fund), and I encourage you to give to it. By doing so we can help assure their education, but nothing we can do can make up for the loss of a father. And my guess Heather will struggle for the rest of her days with feelings of guilt for actions and consequences that cannot be undone. I cannot imagine the anguish I would be feeling if I were in her shoes.

The Bishop of Maryland, Eugene Sutton, a friend and colleague of many years, has pledged a review of search and selection process that resulted in the election of person with continuing uncontrolled alcohol problems. I trust he will follow through on that pledge and carry out its recommendations. At the denominational level, The Episcopal Church has inhibited Heather from acting as a bishop and has begun an investigatory process which will likely result in her being stripped of her ordination.

All of these things are healthy. All of these things are necessary. But in-and-of themselves they are not sufficient. If all we do as a church is pray and pay and make changes in one diocese’s search procedures – as important as these things are – we will have failed to seek the full redemption to which this tragedy calls us.

Some of the lessons we can learn from this tragedy are simple and straightforward. Don’t drink to excess. Don’t drink and drive. Don’t drug and drive. Don’t text while driving. Don’t leave the scene of an accident. Don’t keep secrets.

But what about the deeper and less obvious lessons?

In the last few weeks I have been involved in several online discussions about this tragedy. Much of it has focused on those involved in this specific case. Many important questions have been raised about Heather Cook and the Diocese of Maryland, which called her to be their Suffragan:

  • Did she or her diocese seek her elevation to bishop too soon after her 2010 DUI, before she was sufficiently established in her sobriety?
  • Assuming she deserved a second chance, was she and/or her diocese sufficiently transparent about her history, so that those who voted for her election could understand and support the risk they were taking?
  • Did she or her diocese put adequate safeguards in place to protect and maintain her sobriety, and to ensure their mutual accountability in that endeavor?

These are all good questions. And they deserve to be addressed. But if we only ask them of her and the diocese that elected her, we will have failed to fully redeem this tragedy.

Indeed, just as AA calls upon those following the 12 steps to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of ourselves,” those of us who follow Jesus Christ must open ourselves to the same level of fearless self-critical introspection and examination at every level. Individual followers and leaders, guilds and committees and the congregations of which they are apart, dioceses and synods, national churches and denominations, and the whole Church (indeed following all 12 steps wouldn’t hurt us). We have to begin to ask ourselves provocative and uncomfortable questions – questions like:

  • Do we strive to maintain a balance between acceptance and forgiveness on one hand, and transparency and accountability on the other? Or do we view them as mutually exclusive and tend to err on one side or the other?
  • Do we view differences or dissent as a sign of disfunction and avoid discussing them (either by avoiding those with whom we disagree or by changing the subject)? Or do we welcome differences as a sign of God-given diversity. and discussion of them as an opportunity to for Holy Spirit to teach and transform all of us.
  • Do we fall into what Jim Fenhagen (former seminarian dean and former rector of a Diocese of Maryland congregation) called the “unholy bargain,” in which the rector assures his congregation that they are “good people,” while they pretend to respect his authority? Or do we contract with each other name these unhealthy dynamics and subtexts whenever and wherever we find them.
  • Do our aspirancy, screening, discernment, education, and training processes for those who sense a call to ordained vocation produce healthy, assertive, servant leaders willing to take risks, learn from failure, ask tough questions about “the way things are done?” Or do they screen them out in favor of passive-aggressive, control-oriented leaders, who are risk averse, hide their mistakes, and “go along to get along?”
  • Do we elevate to the episcopacy, as my mentor Verna Dozier used to say, “too many people who want it too much?” Or do we look for candidate who, as the Bishop Ordination service says, must be “so persuaded” to accept the call? (BCP, p. 517)
  • Do our disciplinary processes allow us to prevent unhealthy behavior before it starts or intervene while there is still a chance for correction and a return to healthy functioning? Or do we tend to use them to dissociate ourselves from those who have publically embarrassed the church by getting caught?

It is not easy to ask such questions of ourselves and of our institutions. They do not lend themselves easy (or even consistent) answers. In fact, they may lead us to deeper and more uncomfortable questions, or to answers that may disrupt “safe” but unhealthy ways of being and doing church that have taken us generations to settle into and may require additional generations to fully break out of.

Yes, the Church is the body of Christ, and as such, God can work through us to transform the world. Yet, we must never forget that the Church is also a human institution, subject to every human weakness, error, and sin – including willful blindness – and as such, is capable doing great harm…even evil.

At its start almost two decades ago my congregation, St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, affirmed a vision credo which states our aspiration to be “A Place to Belong! A Place to Become!” In the days since this senseless tragedy, not a day has gone by that I haven’t given thanks for those two mutual callings, because, taken together, they define the tension that the we in the Church must maintain to keep the body of Christ healthy. “A Place to Belong” requires acceptance, forgiveness, and LOVE. “A Place to Become” requires transparency, accountability and LOVE.

Indeed, one might say, “the greatest of these is LOVE.” Not mushy affectionate love, not make me happy love, but the kind of LOVE that the crucified and resurrected One taught us. And that kind of LOVE might best be defined as forgiveness and accountability in dynamic tension, held within a relationship of mutual commitment.

That kind of LOVE is not easy, but hard. In fact, it’s beyond hard. Without the love of Christ surrounding us and filling us and flowing through us, we are unlikely to have sufficient desire, let alone capacity to LOVE like that.

Yet that’s the kind of LOVE to which our savior has called us.

Which makes it a blessing that God doesn’t require us to be successful, only faithful.

As always, I offer these thoughts and questions, I not with a sense of self-righteousness, but with a deep sense of my own shortcomings and sin. I cannot be certain that I would do better than she did. I came to the realization years ago that given the right set of circumstances, there is no sin that I am immune to committing.

Ken Howard is the Rector (Episcospeak for “senior pastor”) of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Germantown, Maryland, a parish of the Episcopal Diocese of Wasington. He is the author of “Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them,” “Excommunicating the Faithful: Jewish Christianity in the Early Church,” and to the forthcoming book, “Church-X: Experimental Christianity for a Church Beyond the Event Horizon.”

In a previous career iteration Ken was director of a drug and alcohol crisis intervention hotline and coordinator of a DUI program for the Virginia Beach, Virginia Community Services Board, coordinator of community substance abuse prevention for the Chesapeake Virginia Community Services Board, and training director for the Virginia Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation, and Substance Abuse Services. 

Related Articles

Forgiveness and Accountability Not Mutually Exclusive – by Ken Howard

The Right Questions – by Mike Kinman

A thoughtful pastoral letter – by Anjel Scarborough

Forgiveness & accountability not mutually exclusive in aftermath of fatal hit-and-run accident

By Ken Howard

As is often the case with popular reporting on “religion” issues, Michelle Boorstein’s article in the Washington Post (“Bishop accused in bicylist [sic] death raises question: Who’s qualified to be clergy?” – December 31, 2014) somewhat missed the mark. Still, it has sparked a needful conversation.

It seems to me that the central question is less about clergy qualifications (or more to the point, automatic disqualifications) than it is about how the Church approaches (or more to the point, avoids) dealing with potentially conflictual issues before they become public.

The article, like many discussions of this issue I have heard in the days since the accident, presents the issue in either/or terms. Should Bishop Cook’s previous D.U.I. conviction have automatically disqualified from episcopal office? Or not? Should Bishop Cook be held responsible for her actions? Or should she be forgiven?

Too much of the conversation around this incident seems to have come from the mistaken assumption that forgiveness and accountability are mutually exclusive choices. They are not. Because forgiveness and accountability are two discrete decisions about two separate issues. Being forgiven does not relieve us from responsibility for our actions any more than making amends for our actions forecloses forgiveness.

I hope the family of the victim may some day find it in their hearts to forgive Bishop Cooke, for their sake as much as hers. I hope she will be able to accept that forgiveness if it comes and that she will come to the place where she can forgive herself. Still, forgiveness is not a once-and-done proposition, but a repetitive process that will span both their entire lives, as they deal with their feelings of loss and she deals with her feelings of guilt.

On the other hand, Bishop Cook’s acknowledged actions in leaving the scene of an accident in which she had likely fatally injured someone is such an egregious and irreparable lapse of judgment, moral responsibility, and basic human compassion (not to mention, a serious crime), that I cannot see how she could continue in the position. I say this not with a sense of self-righteousness, but with a deep sense of my own shortcomings and sin. I cannot be certain that I would do better than she did. I came to the realization years ago that given the right set of circumstances, there is no sin that I am immune to committing. If I were in her shoes at this point, I would hope for forgiveness, but accountability would require my resignation.

Too much of the conversation has focused on issues of individual responsibility and accountability while avoiding issues responsibility and accountability at the systemic level. It seems to me that the church as a whole (not just the Episcopal Church) is so conflict-averse that it focuses more on avoiding public controversy than it does on healthily confronting issues. While I understand the discomfort involved in addressing conflictual issues and the desire to avoid it, giving in to that impulse never helps, but always makes things worse by allowing them to fester and grow and escalate. And ironically, in the end, the issue almost always erupts publically anyway.

It is worth noting that the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and Bishop Eugene Sutton are doing all the right things in response to this incident. Bishop Cook was placed on administrative leave and a statement issued almost immediately. I understand that the Diocese will be reviewing not only this incident but also its own internal processes. These are all healthy responses. And while the police are investigating the causes and the criminal aspects of this tragic accident, it is worth reminding ourselves to take care to avoid speculation, judgments, and conclusions about things we do not yet know.

Still one has to wonder whether in the church as a whole our internal dynamics don’t get in the way of prevention and early intervention in situations like these. Is it possible that we place too much emphasis on deference to authority? Is it possible that we place too much emphasis on ridding ourselves of those of us who fail big and publically, and too little emphasis on accepting and learning from smaller failures? Is it possible that we simply lack the stomach for the routine conflict of intervening while problems are still small and large problems are still preventable? Is it possible that our vocational discernment processes for aspiring clergy function like an overactive immune system, weeded out those who would ask tough but healthy questions about the church, and selecting instead for people who won’t rock the boat? These and more are questions worth considering.

So as we hold in our prayers the bicyclist and the bishop, and the families, friends, and co-workers of both, I hope we will also pray God that might redeem this tragedy in part by opening us a the institutional church to self-critical introspection, insight, correction, and healing.