Serving God — and time

Behind BarsJames Tramel, an Episcopal priest, delivers sermons to his Berkeley congregation four times a year. To do so, he places a collect call from the Solano State Prison. Tramel is a convicted murderer and is believed by church officials to be the only American inmate ordained as an Episcopal priest.

The Los Angeles Times‘ Steve Chawkins wrote a lengthy profile of Tramel, using his story to explore issues of repentance, redemption and forgiveness. I stole the Times‘ headline for this post. The California Board of Prison Terms previously recommended Tramel be paroled but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed the decision on the grounds that Tramel still posed a risk, according to the story. Parole has been recommended again and Schwarzenegger will rule on it March 24:

For Schwarzenegger, who has stressed the aim of rehabilitation in the prison system, the case poses difficult questions: How can redemption be measured? If becoming a priest in prison isn’t a sign of rehabilitation, then what is?

The piece tells the whole horrible story around the murder, which was physically committed by another man. Tramel was in prep school, getting ready to attend the Air Force Academy, when he went looking for trouble with a friend, who stabbed a homeless man 17 times. Tramel agrees that he was responsible for the death of the man.

It may be easier to believe Schwarzenegger is just a harsh leader who doesn’t understand forgiveness, but I do wish the reporter would have explained his opposition to parole. It really leaves the story imbalanced. Having said that, however, I thought this passage was very well written:

By Tramel’s account, it was another death that changed his life.

In August 1993, he was working in the Solano prison hospital, sitting up with an inmate suffering from stomach cancer. The man talked about how much he wanted to see his kids.

“At around 1 a.m., the nurse told me his lungs were filling with fluid and he was going to die,” Tramel recalled.

The two talked through the night of life and death.

“With really still eyes, he looked at me and said, ‘James, what do you believe?’”

“I took a deep breath,” Tramel said, “and told him what I’d been afraid for some time to claim — that Jesus is the son of God and had died for our sins, and loved us immensely and was ready to forgive us.”

Tramel held the inmate’s hand. He wasn’t a priest then, or even a deacon, but he improvised a baptism. Then the man died.

Tramel decided to enter seminary and spent five years on his coursework. His thesis is on the redemption of convicts, and how far prisons have veered from their religious roots. The priest told his parole officials that he sent letters to relatives of his victim but that he knows he’s not entitled to forgiveness from them. While the prosecutors who put him away believe he should go free, the victim’s family feels otherwise. This nicely captures the family’s sentiment:

Whether Tramel has found God is irrelevant, [Aunt Bernice] Bosheff said: “It’s not for me to know. But I wouldn’t go to his church. This man is going to offer me Communion and tell me that my sins are forgiven? I don’t think so.”

While Tramel is not officially a clergy member in the prison, Chawkins paints a picture of the religious services he provides fellow inmates. When Schwarzenegger rejected parole, he pointed to the crime’s random brutality, among other things, according to the story. Again, it would have been nicer for the reporter to dig a bit harder to paint a more balanced picture of the disagreement. But it is still a story with great quotes and huge religious themes, including this one that he closed with:

“I know that we Christians can sometimes be dreamy idealists, but as a Calvinist I think I am quite realistic about human sinfulness,” wrote Don Compier, a former professor at Tramel’s seminary. “I’m not easily fooled. James has passed my test.”

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  • TK

    Tramel’s story is very compelling. I’m a big believer in prison reformation, but not of a lightening of the original sentence based on any spiritual or moral changes to the prisoner. The point of the Holy Spirit in bringing us to faith and sustaining us in that faith is for us to be able to enter heaven. Even our guardian angels are charged with the protection of our souls and not necessarily our bodies. Tramel is obviously where God wants him. He should serve his sentence to the end.

  • Mollie


    He’s already served the bottom range of his sentence — he received 15 years to life.

    I think he’s been in there for 17 or 18 years or so.

  • TK

    Sorry! It is a long article and I got caught up in other parts. Perhaps then I made your point that the reporter should have spent more time on Schwarzenegger’s opposition to Tramel’s parole.

  • Richard

    I’m a friend of Rev. James Tramel’s and a colleague of his in the Diocese of California. He’s now serving is 21st year of the sentence.

    To summarize the disagreement over his parole, the Governor cited last year, in his decision to reverse the Parole Board’s decision:

    * the brutality of the crime
    * two times in which Tramel was attacked while in prison and he defended himself (once in 1990 another in 1999)- both incidents are well documented. In 1990, Tramel was attacked for accidently “cutting” in line at a water fountain. He defended himself until prison guards arrived. In the 1999 incident, Tramel was attacked by two inmates and only raised a token defense by shielding his own face. He was found guilty of hitting one of the inmates once in the face, though no prison guards saw the altercation. Inmate witnesses have offered declarations that Tramel hit no one.
    * unsubstantiated accusations that Tramel attempted to escape from the Youth Authority in the early days of his incarceration
    * two times Tramel showed up 15 minutes late for work
    * the opposition of the victim’s family to parole
    * general disbelief about Tramel’s own account of the crime, although the District Attorney in charg of the case believes Tramel’s account is accurate and matches court records from his trials.

    For these reasons, the Governor found that Tramel still posed a threat to society last year.

    The Parole Board, on the other hand, has now found Tramel suitable twice on the basis of time served, his remorse for the crime, and his impressive rehabilitation.

  • Daniel

    TK raises an interesting question I don’t know the answer to. I know that mainline and progressive Christians (and Jews) place value on rrepentence, redemption, and forgiveness. I also know these traits play a key role in the African American evangelical faith experience. What I don’t know is whether white religious conservatives place as much of an emphasis on this issue.

    Given the deafening silence of white Evangelicals when it comes to the death penalty and other criminal justice issues, I wonder whether I am missing a narrative on redemption and forgiveness?

  • Mollie


    Is it deafening silence you (don’t) hear? Or is it different views?

    I am Lutheran and we permit a variety of thought on the issue but we do believe in something called Two Kingdoms doctrine. Basically, it’s the idea that there is separation of church and state. On the church side, you have churchly affairs — preaching of the Word, administration of the Sacraments, etc. If someone sins, he repents and receives forgiveness.

    And then you have the State side. And on THAT side, it’s the job of the State not to forgive but to punish. So if someone, say, rapes and brutally kills 10 young children and then has a conversion experience . . . the church may forgive him but the state has the responsibility NOT to look into hearts so much as exact justice.

    Now, that is a huge oversimplification of the idea, but basically we see forgiveness and redemption as responsibilities of the church and punishment and administration of justice as being in the zone of the state.

    There can be overlap, and there always is, of church and state. Also, confessional Lutherans may have different ideas about whether capital punishment is ethically administered and whether the state has the right to enact it.

    Now, as for other criminal justice issues, I can tell you that many Lutherans care a lot about them. There is the Lutheran pastor in Wisconsin who fought hard to permit inmates to receive the sacrament — something that had been denied to them until just a few months ago. And others are working on improving prison conditions, etc.

    Anyway, it’s just a good idea to consider whether people are being silent or whether the media doesn’t know how to characterize their views and therefore ignores them.

    Which reminds me — in the story I linked to above, I note that sacramental element of wine is still not permitted in California State Prisons.

  • TK

    I can’t imagine how race or color has anything to do with repentance, redemption and forgiveness. Please explain.

    In this country, when a crime is committed I can expect to serve the time on the books at that moment in history. I am also, apparently, at the mercy of the govenor of my state. Coming to faith by the workings of the Holy Spirit saves my soul, brings about a change in my behavior and may even lead me to do many good works, but may never influence anyone to forgive me. Fair? Probably not. That’s life on this sinful earth.

  • TK

    Richard, thanks for the information. You are a good friend to him by helping us understand his case better.

  • Daniel

    Anyway, it’s just a good idea to consider whether people are being silent or whether the media doesn’t know how to characterize their views and therefore ignores them.

    My point.

    As a Catholic, we have a fairly clear view on the appropriateness of the death penalty and whether it is immoral. Catholic teaching includes the specter of reprentance and redemption and forgiveness. I guess I don’t see those themes in how the white religous conservatives beyond Catholics view these issues.

  • Daniel

    I can’t imagine how race or color has anything to do with repentance, redemption and forgiveness. Please explain.

    The African American experience in the U.S is much more closely intertwined with the criminal justice system and persecution than in it is for white Americans. One need only attend a Black church to see how issues of redemption and forgiveness–especially when it comes to crime–are described in a very different context and understanding then you are every likely to hear at a traditioanlly white church.

  • Michael

    Interesting observation by Mollie. I would add that as a member of the OTHER Lutheran church–the mainline one–you would be much more likely to hear discussions of forgiveness and redemption in the public sphere and more open opposition to the death penalty. in that way, Daniel, we are likely closer to Catholics than we are to Mollie’s Lutheranism.

  • TK

    Daniel wrote:”The African American experience in the U.S is much more closely intertwined with the criminal justice system and persecution than in it is for white Americans. One need only attend a Black church to see how issues of redemption and forgiveness—especially when it comes to crime—are described in a very different context and understanding then you are every likely to hear at a traditioanlly white church.”

    Sorry, I’m just not getting it…

    Confused in Minnesota

  • Michael

    I think what Daniel is saying that because Blacks often see themselves as victims of the judicial system and incareceration, Black churches often focus much more on depemption and forgiveness because of the intersection with justice (or the lack of justice).

  • tmatt


    On what grounds is the Missouri Synod not mainline and the positions taken by, I assume, the ELCA are now “mainline”? Or, are you using the term in a historical sense?

    The seven sisters — the oldline denominations — are now actually quite marginal when compared to the mainstream of those who ATTEND churches in America these days. And even their growing parishes in the embattled seven sisters are often conservative or moderate (and thus all the battles).

    So is mainline a loaded word? Or merely a historical one?

  • Harris

    So is mainline a loaded word? Or merely a historical one?

    It is certainly used pejoratively in some circles, not unlike the use of “fundamentalist” in other, perhaps mainline circles.

    If we consider that churches are not only worship centers, but historical communities, as well as deriners of a certain canon of interpretation — their theology, then mainline is hardly a loaded word. It describes a set of communities, significant in present size, and historically entwined with civic institutions of the dominant culture.

    As to the Missouri Synod, they faced a significant decision in the 60s and 70s about how the immigrant church would integrate within American society. The church of mid-century was broad-based and home to a stunning array of intellectual achievement from Arndt and Gingrich of lexicon fame, to the great historian Jaroslav Pelikan, to Martin Marty. That church chose a narrower path, away from the broader themes of civic and cultural engagement that is the hallmark of the mainline church.

    That of course raises yet another interesting story, which of the evangelical churches will pick up tghe mantle of broad civic and cultural engagement — ie. becoming “mainline”. Or will all such moves be seen as a move away from spiritual authenticity?

  • Michael

    I would argue Mainline is both loaded and historical. It used, as you have, to be dismissive and suggest they are marginal and bloated, kind of like referring to the MSM. It is used by others to distiniguish themselves–and arguably be dismissive–of conservative, evangelical and fundamentalist denominations.

    While historically the Missouri Synod may have been Mainline, it is has moved much further away from the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists who are more commonly called the Mainline. In that sense, the ELCA is much closer to those traditions while the Missouri Synod has become more like fundamentalist and Orthodox churches.

    Unquestionably, they mainline churches have moved to the margins. But so has the Missouri Synod–which is losing members at similar rates as the ELCA–and arguably even the Orthodox churches which have not produced numbers to show growth in membership and, in fact, has produced some numbers that suggest major losses in membership.

  • Mollie

    Interesting discussion, and one in which I would love it if people would substantiate their claims of membership loss or gain. It’s very easy to write that the LCMS is losing at a rate similar to ELCA but better to provide a link substantiating that so that other folks can check it out, etc.

    In any case, it is a bizarre oddity that ELCA and LCMS share the Lutheran mantle. They are both Lutheran but their differences are centuries old and so by the time these two different sets of “Lutherans” arrived in America, they were doctrinally significantly different. I think it might be helpful to have a quickly dashed off little bit of context for this discussion since even within these relatively large groups (ELCA and LCMS, not to mention all the smaller synods), there are interesting disagreements. I can not speak to some of what’s going on within ELCA, although I’ve been studying it much more recently, but the absolute best book I can recommend for understanding the LCMS’ understanding of itself is written by non-LCMS historian D.G. Hart and is called The Lost Soul of American Protestantism.

    It isn’t just about the LCMS but all of those “lost” Protestants that don’t fit in on what used to be called the mainline (usually politically left) or those on the non-denominational or generic Protestant politically conservative side. The book notes that historians and reporters have failed to see that there is more to American Protestantism than the two-sided coin usually presented for analysis. The book talks about confessional Protestant groups in a formal sense, those groups that have rejected American-style pietism which focuses on personal conversion, temperance-style piety and political activism and embraced doctrinal rigor, uphold the clergy relationship, emphasize sacraments, etc.

    There are two struggles within the LCMS, one that has passed and one that is currently being waged. These struggles have occurred later than most other church bodies because, frankly, we were insulated from American influences by language and cultural barriers.

    Anyway, the one that passed was the one where — whatever other fallout might have occurred (re: Pelikan, etc.) around the same time — was about whether to follow academy trends on Biblical errancy, historical revisionism, and the changing of church practices (such as the role of women in the church) because of societal changes, etc.

    The LCMS, unlike so many other church bodies in the era of the 1960s and 1970s, had a lay movement that essentially kicked out the element that wanted to adopt revisionist ideas about Scripture. It was not a complete cleaning out, in that many of these clergy went underground and are still active, but it was pretty effective.

    The SECOND battle is whether to follow that politically-active element of American Christianity on the right and its generic Protestant influences. Those who want to sort of join forces with the generic Protestants place much less emphasis on the traditional liturgy, the sacraments, etc.

    It is this second battle that is going on now. It is fierce and probably it is mostly fierce because after the battles of the 1960s and 1970s, lay and clergy sort of felt they had done what they needed to do in terms of retaining the Synod from what they considered harmful American influences.

    I honestly have no idea how this battle will resolve itself and hope it can be resolved in the best manner possible.

    And for full and obvious disclosure, I’m one of the LCMS that believes that Lutheran confessional distinctions should be preserved and that the historic liturgy should be preserved and that it is wrong to embrace American-style generic Protestantism.

    And this is why I keep bringing up the idea that reporters should not ignore those groups that emphasize the liturgy, doctrine, creeds, confessions and sacraments of the church just because they’re more difficult to write about and understand than the political activism of most American Protestants.

  • Michael
  • Mollie


    Thanks for the links.

    It is worth noting that the first link says that the ELCA lost 50,000 members in one year while the second link says that the LCMS lost 125,000 members in 32 years.

    You first wrote that the two groups were losing members at a similar rate. Based on the data to which you linked and the rough understand that the ELCA is about twice as large as the LCMS, the data would suggest the ELCA is losing members at a much faster rate than the LCMS.

    However, the urls you linked provide only data through 2003 or so.

    Just because I’m an economist by training, I have to mention that church data is very unreliable and difficult to compare. It’s based on self-reporting, which is just horrible. People typically have incentives to report up or down.

    But in most cases, we reporters have to work with this data because it’s the best we have.

  • Michael

    Just because I’m an economist by training, I have to mention that church data is very unreliable and difficult to compare. It’s based on self-reporting, which is just horrible. People typically have incentives to report up or down.

    I agree completely. It was a quick attempt to toss out some data. And unquestionably, self-reporting is very dangerous.

    What is evident, even if the losses aren’t comparable (and I think they are similar even over the long-term), is that LCMS isn’t gaining membership in this explosion of conservative Christianity. I think the same could likely be said about the Orthodox churches.

    Much is made of the sharp declines among the Mainline churches (there’s that word again), but less is made about the fact that they don’t appear to be flocking into the traditional, liturgical conservative churches either. The growths among Catholics are attributable to demographics more than anything else.

    If Mainline churches are becoming marginal, as Terry suggests, there’s no evidence that churches like the LCMS or the Orthodox churches (or even the conservative splinters of the Mainline denominations) are becoming more significant. They are still at the margins with the Methodists and the UCC.

  • tmatt


    Orthodoxy is growing rapidly in the number of parishes. The key is the transition from the old numbers (mostly ethnic parishes in which people did not attend all that regularly) to the new numbers (many, many missions driven by converts who tend to be much more activie).

    The statistic that I wish I could get — consistently — is one that tells us how many congregations in a given church experienced growth in the previous, oh, five years.

    I heard an amazing stat a few years ago that 85 percent of the parishes in ECUSA have 100 or fewer active members, which means that they struggle to even pay the salary of a priest.

    Has anyone else heard that stat?

    Amen to Mollie on church stats being a very shaky part of the Godbeat….

  • Michael

    Despite the growth in parishes within Orthodoxy, I’ve never seen any suggestion that it has resulted in an increase in membership but instead that membership has either remained stable or seen declines as steep as 13%.

    Again, the point being that the growth in conservative religious churches has not seem to have had an impact on liturgical, traditional, conservative denominations.

  • tmatt


    The most “mainline” of the Orthodox churches in America is the Greek. The most “convert” oriented in America is my own church, the Antiochians. It would be interested to compare the numbers on the two. The latter has grown from 66 to 250 parishes in the era of Metropolitan Philip. It is mighty hard to see the numbers declining during that time.

  • Michael


    As you and Mollie point out, this does go back to how we measure growth and the numebrs. An increase of about 200 parishes is a great achievement, but if those parishes have only 40 active members and are counterbalanced by sharp declines in larger, ethnic parishes, it still means a decline at a time when there is a flood towards Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches. And without data on whether those 40 members actually sustain. Churches have long created mission congregations and parishes to attempt to bolster their numbers and give the perception of growth.

    I started paying attention to this when reporters started talking about the mass exodus from Mainline and liberal churches and the explosion of Evangelical, Charismatic, and Fundamentialists churches. It’s a huge challenge for mainline churches, but I think it is also important to understand the phenomenon. These people aren’t apparantly running to just any tradition churches, but to a very specific faith experience.

  • Mollie


    Which numbers are you using to substantiate your claim that churchgoers “flood towards Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches”?

    Also, it would be good to account for turnover. Again, the data are awful in this regard but there are certain trends with evangelical and megachurches that play into this discussion.

    Basically, it’s just a much more volatile scene on the Evangelical front. There, churches tend to join together — and split — more frequently. They have extremely high turnover rates. Meaning, they may bring in shockingly high numbers each and every month but their growth is not sustained. I have some research that I found last year at the Library of Congress that supports this but I can’t find a link to anything online so if anyone wants to disagree or help me out with that, that would be great!

    In that sense, Terry’s stat about the OCA is interesting — since the Orthodox tend not to close down churches and invest a great deal in architecture. Then again, so do ECUSA churches . . .

    Anyway, in “seeker-friendly” churches, seekers are brought in and then sort of moved to the side while the congregational staff look for new seekers. Thus, high turnover rates.

    Another thing I found interesting in research was a Roman Catholic priest who credited high barriers to entry (and regular sacramental practices) for strong Roman Catholic identity. If you want a growing church with a great growth model, look at the RCs.

    Anyway, some churches have rather easier barriers to entry — seeker-friendly — which also make them relatively easy for people to step on out of. Other churches have very high barriers to entry — think Orthodox or those churches that require months of catechesis before permitting members to join. Those churches tend to see lower membership but much higher participation among those who do become members.

    So think also about how you define growth. Is it merely which churches get new people to sit in pews sporadically for 12 months before they go look for another church or drop out? Or is it tight-knit communities that focus on spiritual growth and consider numerical growth a byproduct?

    To keep this all on the media angle, it’s important for reporters to understand that not all subsets of Christianity think in business terms when modeling their communities. Certainly some do. And certainly some of those are doing well with profits — but that’s just not the way a huge swath of Christianity thinks.

    For many Christians, being faithful to the doctrines and practices of the church — no matter what the repercussions are — is more important than growth rates.

  • Michael

    being faithful to the doctrines and practices of the church — no matter what the repercussions are — is more important than growth rates.

    I totally agree. Of course, when the Methodists or Presbyterians say this, they are accused of being out of touch and an example of the liberal death of Protestantism. Their numbers are used to symbolize a larger political point about the growth of conservative churches.

  • Todd

    being faithful to the doctrines and practices of the church …

    I also completely agree.

    On the flip side, and as an argument against

    … when the Methodists or Presbyterians say this …

    isn’t it the case that in general the more liberal strains of the mainline churches are not being faithful to the traditional doctrines and practices of the faith? And isn’t this tension between the Orthodox and the Progressive the root cause of many of the internal problems associated with these churches?

    In the end, the reported numbers do not give the full picture, for even if they are accurate, they do not reflect the level of commitment that the congregation has towards being disciples of Christ. In my opinion, this desire of the congregation to live a godly life, and not the number of people who show up on a particular Sunday, determines the health of the church. I am sure that it is extremely difficult to get an accurate picture regarding this matter.

  • Micah

    And now, he’s being released on Sunday. The Governor has decided not to oppose his parole: