One man’s story, wrapped in tricky facts

Fr-James-vesting.img_assist_custom-350x263Let me begin by expressing my deepest and most sincere sympathies for reporter Ron Cassie of The Frederick News-Post.

It’s one thing to be assigned a complicated feature story about a complicated subject — the conversion of a minister in one Protestant tradition into the oh-so-complicated world of Eastern Orthodoxy. But it’s something else to be handed a story as confusing as the journey of James K. Hamrick and his flock.

So let me start by saying that Cassie gets one big thing right — by allowing Hamrick the time and space to explain his decision. The problems in this story are almost all technical and historical. Let’s face it: This is complex stuff. Here’s the lede:

Last weekend, at a service at St. Basil the Great Orthodox Church in Poquoson, Va., Bishop Thomas Joseph ordained James K. Hamrick into the holy priesthood of the Western Rite Orthodox Church.

It was a moment Hamrick’s congregation in Lewistown has been waiting for since early spring. On April 10, his small flock at the former Charismatic Episcopal Lamb of God Church converted en masse to the Antiochian Orthodox faith, which includes both Western Rite and
Eastern Orthodox churches.

The problem is that the Western Rite Orthodox Church does not exist. Instead, the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America has a small Western Rite ministry or branch. Click here for more information on the history of that.

Note that this story also had to deal with complex issues linked to recent divisions within the Charismatic Episcopal Church — as opposed to charismatic congregations within the Episcopal Church. Or, wait, are we actually dealing with the International Communion of the Charismatic Episcopal Church? See what I mean? These kinds of problems cannot be avoided. Here’s another example:

After preparation, members went through the sacramental rite of chrismation into the Antiochian Orthodox faith. Further highlighting their transformation, the congregation adopted a new name: St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church.

This weekend, Hamrick will lead an Orthodox Sunday Mass for the first time at the church, marking the final step for the 45-year-old priest and his congregation as Maryland’s first Western Rite Orthodox church.

Actually, they were simply chrismated into Orthodoxy — period. I also need to ask someone in the Western Rite movement: Is the proper term “Mass,” or “Divine Liturgy,” as in the Eastern tradition?

Hamrick’s own story is told in very simple terms, even though it is quite complex, as well. He was born into the family of a United Methodist pastor, but pursued a career in law enforcement. In fact, as a bi-vocational priest, he still serves as assistant chief of police at the University of Maryland. This must create some interesting wardrobe issues.

Working weekdays in College Park and leading weekend services near his home in Thurmont, Hamrick is called a “bi-vocational” in the religious community.

“Other people sometimes call me ‘the pistol-packing priest,’ ” he said, with a laugh.

Handling the demands of both jobs, and what could be construed as inherent conflicts — the image of a peaceful nonviolent minister versus a policeman who may be required to deadly force — has never been an issue, Hamrick said.

“I see a lot of similarities, actually, in the two roles,” he said. “There is a similar sacred trust. Being a police officer is not contrary to my thinking of Christ as the Good Shepherd.”

But then the story has to head back to the complex issues of church history and government, in Orthodox and alternative Anglican environments. And what about Rome?

For practical reasons, he dismissed becoming a Roman Catholic priest. Being married didn’t rule him out automatically — previously married and ordained Christian ministers are sometimes admitted to Catholic seminaries — but he thought, if nothing else, the process would take an unreasonably long time given his circumstances.

Hamrick finally realized his beliefs were in more in line with the Orthodox Church, which split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054.

The key word there is “from” and you could assemble a football stadium full of church historians to argue whether Rome left the Eastern Church or the Eastern Church left Rome without coming to much clarity. For a glimpse of all of that, click here (West) and then here (East).

LambofGodCECphotoWait, there’s more:

Hamrick disagrees with the Roman Catholic concept of papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction of the pope; he prefers the somewhat less hierarchical Orthodox structure. He said, however, that he would like to see the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches reunite.

The Orthodox are “less hierarchical”? Not really. You can say that the ancient Eastern Churches are not united around a single core hierarchy, but that does not ultimately make the system less hierarchical. I would assume that a fine detail of Hamrick’s explanation was lost. But, hey, the story doesn’t say that the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul is the “Orthodox pope.” That’s a start.

As a reader noted, while sending in the URL for this report, it would have been good to have known if any parishioners did not want to make this move and stayed with the CEC and its blending of Protestant and Catholic streams of faith. I also wondered if the reporter was actually present at the service, since Bishop Thomas is not quoted. We also needed at least one sentence explaining the Eastern Rite, in order to help readers understand the unique history of the Liturgy of St. Gregory — which is a truly ancient Western rite.

But, as you can tell, I am trying to express sympathy for the task faced by this reporter. The key is that this new priest got to tell his story — which is surrounded by details so complex that I am sure that I have left a few things out that should be mentioned. The religion beat is complicated, folks.

Photos: From the website of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Bruce G

    St. Mark’s Parish in Denver uses “Mass”.

  • bob

    It doesn’t make things a lot clearer to have the WR be the subject and picture the new priest being vested in Byzantine vestments. The WR is verry complicated.

  • tmatt


    You’re right. I had not thought of that.

    Might that have to do with him being ordained into the ARCHDIOCESE itself?


  • Chris Jones

    “Mass” is the usual term for the liturgy of the Eucharist at Western-rite Orthodox Churches. In addition to St Mark’s, Denver as noted above, see also (among many others):

    St Michael’s, Whittier CA

    Holy Incarnation, Detroit

    Christ the Saviour Monastery, Hamilton, Ontario (ROCOR)

    Of course, the term “Divine Liturgy” is also used, particularly when referring to the specific rite being followed (e.g. “the Divine Liturgy of St Gregory”).

  • Darren

    I am a friend of Fr. James (I knew him from his CEC days), and from our conversations before the ordination, it seems that since the ordination ceremony was Eastern rite, his vestments for the ceremony were Eastern as well.

  • Michele Hagerman

    From my reading, there is *no* WR ordination rite. They have to be ordained in the ER, complete with ER vestments.

  • Chip

    Let’s assume that the new priest is the reporter’s source for all the questionable passages you point out. What is the reporter’s responsibility for checking what his source tells him? How should the reporter handled the newly-minted priest’s own mistakes about his new church?

  • Chris Jones

    From my reading, there is no WR ordination rite. They have to be ordained in the ER, complete with ER vestments.

    My understanding is that this is half-right. It is true that WR clergy are ordained in an Eastern-rite liturgy. But that is not because “there is no WR ordination rite” — the Latin Pontifical certainly includes ordination rites that could be used — but because there are no western-rite bishops. The bishop is the celebrant of the ordination liturgy, and he uses the rite to which he belongs: the Eastern rite.

  • tmatt


    Anyone who has ever been on the business side of a reporter’s notebook knows how hard it is to keep some of these facts straight. Sometimes you literally do not know what you do not know. Imagine a general assignment reporter trying to cover an intricate event about the bio-ethics, a complicated Supreme Court decision or, yes, a papal encyclical about faith and economics. Just because you hear the words doesn’t mean that you understand them or get them written down right.

    Trust me, any reporter who reads this blog can tell you stories that would make your hair stand on end.

  • JT Klopcic

    One other point: There is really no difference between the International Communion of the Charismatic Episcopal Church (ICCEC) and the Charismatic Episcopal Church (CEC). The CEC is the American branch of the ICCEC, and there is quite a lot of overlap in the leadership.

    Fr. Hamrick was formerly a priest in the CEC, and was never ordained within The Episcopal Church, as the article might imply.

  • tmatt


    OK, I see that now.

    Then what are the names of the different splinters that came out of the recent CEC split?

  • Ann Rodgers

    Now I know where to yell for help if I ever do a story on the Western Rite.
    My worst horror story along these lines doesn’t involve an error that I made, but one by the dreaded Headline Writer. I had written a story about a huge annual festival at a local Byzantine Catholic monastery. Somewhere near the the top of the story I described Eastern Catholics as resembling the Orthodox in their liturgy, but being under the authority of the pope (rough paraphrase of old story). The headline was something like “Orthodox converge on local monastery.”
    Only Get Religion readers may truly appreciate the hell I endured as a result of that headline.
    My paper, for some reason, never makes headline writers write the corrections for the ones they screw up. The reporters get stuck with that task. So I wrote the obvious for our correction column: “Byzantine Catholics are Catholic.”

  • JT Klopcic

    The two largest offshoots of the CEC in the USA that I know of are The Communion of Christ the Redeemer and The Missionaries of St John. There was also a Communion of Corpus Christi, but it has since dissolved. There are also a couple of one-man-ministries floating around, and the rest have found haven with one of the established bodies.