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Title IV Case Pits Obedience Against a Passion for Racial Justice

The Diocese of Virginia is embroiled in an extraordinary Title IV disciplinary case in which a white priest’s commitment to reparations for slavery conflicts with his bishops’ commitment to the sacrament of Holy Eucharist.

Cayce Ramey | LinkedIn photo

The Rev. Dr. Cayce Ramey “has abandoned the priesthood, and he should be deposed,” declared the Rt. Rev. Gayle Harris, a retired suffragan bishop from Massachusetts, who now serves as an assistant bishop in Virginia. She is one of two Black bishops who testified against Ramey at a two-day ecclesiastical trial at diocesan headquarters in Richmond, which was livestreamed via Zoom. The witness list also included two white bishops, a seminary dean, a prominent theologian, and others.

At issue are several alleged canonical violations related to what Ramey describes as “a Eucharistic fast.” The church attorney in the case, who is the equivalent of a secular prosecutor, described the fast this way: “In 2022 the Respondent refused to receive Holy Communion himself and did not celebrate Holy Eucharist or administer it to others, stating that he would not do so again until there is clear proof of repentance and amendment of life in the Episcopal Church regarding white supremacy and racial injustice.”

Throughout the hearing and the dozens of pretrial briefs that preceded it, Ramey and his supporters focused on the theological and moral underpinnings of his actions. The bishops and church attorney focused on whether those actions violated Ramey’s ordination vows, along with other alleged canonical infractions.

Like every other Episcopal priest, when Ramey was ordained he vowed to “be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them,” and “in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work.”

Ramey is a former rector of All Saints Sharon Chapel in Alexandria, Virginia, and now describes himself on LinkedIn as a self-employed “anti-white supremacy consultant.” His passion for racial justice — which even his detractors acknowledge is sincere — stems from his visit in 2017 to Ghana, which has a sister relationship with the Diocese of Virginia. While in Ghana, Ramey toured Cape Coast Castle, a slave-trading fort, where an Anglican chapel was built immediately above the male slave dungeon.

“The site of the first Anglican celebration of Holy Eucharist in Ghana, was directly above hell on earth,” Ramey wrote in a pretrial document. “Men stood in the dungeon, surrounded by and on top of bodies and blood, while an Anglican priest and a congregation of worshipers received the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” The visit moved him to pursue a doctor of ministry degree at Virginia Union University, a historically Black Baptist school in Richmond. He completed the degree in 2022.

“I have felt called to a prophetic voluntary fast, refraining from celebrating or receiving Holy Eucharist,” he wrote. “I was ordained into a part of God’s church built on the wealth, power, and privilege gained from the enslavement and ongoing oppression and exploitation of Black people. … How then can I administer the sacraments at the whites-only lunch-counter-altar built on top of the bodies and blood of people our theology enslaved?”

Gayle Harris | ENS photo

Harris, who traces part of her ancestry to enslaved people from Ghana, testified movingly about her own visit to Cape Coast Castle. She said the visit deeply touched her soul, and described several pictures she had taken that illustrated the cruelty of the place.

Her tone changed abruptly when she was asked about Ramey’s actions. “I am insulted and offended that the pain of my people has become … a platform for someone to deny the Eucharist — the sacramental ministry that we are given as priests,” she said, while sitting about 10 feet away from Ramey. “It says to me that this person should not be a priest.”

Harris testified on March 7, the second day of the hearing. The Rt. Rev. Wendell Gibbs, the retired Bishop of Michigan, who also is Black, testified the prior day. TLC did not witness the first day of testimony, but two priests who did reported that Gibbs was similarly vehement in denouncing the Eucharistic fast.

Two white bishops also testified on the first day: the Rt. Rev. Susan Goff, who led the Diocese of Virginia on an acting basis during the relevant period, and the Rt. Rev. Elizabeth Bonforte Gardner, who served alongside Ramey in a partnership of four small churches in Virginia before she was elected Bishop of Nevada in 2022.

Goff, after months of discussions with Ramey, filed ecclesiastical charges against him in 2022. In his closing argument, Church Attorney Brad Davenport summarized part of Goff’s testimony.

“Bishop Goff tried to work with him and give him ample time to come around, but he didn’t and still doesn’t,” Davenport said. “She said, ‘How do you square the vows you made when you were ordained with this decision?’ This is January 2022, almost a year before she filed her Title IV complaint. He had all that time to think about what his bishop was telling him.”

Davenport continued that in November 2022, “Father Ramey said he wouldn’t voluntarily … renounce his priestly vows — orders — and would not celebrate the Eucharist until he feels called to do so by the Holy Spirit. That’s a quote: until he feels called to do so by the Holy Spirit. His bishop said he put himself outside the doctrine, discipline and worship of the church, and by neglecting the sacrament, he was neglecting his priestly vows.” At that point, Goff initiated a formal complaint, “which she was required to file by the same canons that he was disobeying,” Davenport said.

Two of Ramey’s former wardens testified, and largely supported the priest. There also was testimony from the dean and a professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, both of whom taught or advised Ramey when he studied for his master of divinity degree, which he completed in 2012.

The Rev. Katherine Sonderegger, chair of systematic theology at VTS, steadfastly backed Ramey and urged that he not be sanctioned. She said prayer and study led to his conviction that “he should recognize that the church has not properly discerned the body of Christ — and that he as a priest, and particularly as a white man of privilege, should in repentance undergo a fast from his sacramental commission and authority — right? — In order to call particularly this diocese and the white members of it to a deeper obedience and repentance.”

Sonderegger’s boss, Dean Ian Markham, also taught Ramey at VTS. “I admire him in so many ways, and commend him for his passion and commitment to social justice,” Markham said. But “I think once you decide you don’t want to provide the Eucharist to others, then to all intents and purposes, you’re saying I don’t want to be a priest.” He said “it’s a bit like a soccer player refusing to kick a ball.”

The trial is being conducted under provisions of Title IV of the canons of the Episcopal Church — a legalistic and labyrinthian set of rules that is a bit longer than the Book of Deuteronomy. Title IV proceedings, in their early stages, are geared toward settling matters privately among the parties whenever possible. But when the multi-stage process is unsuccessful in “promoting healing, repentance, forgiveness, restitution, justice, amendment of life, and reconciliation among all involved,” the dispute suddenly becomes very public. It has now culminated in a public Hearing Panel that looked very much like a secular court trial, except it opened and closed with prayer.

There is no timetable for what happens next, but experience in Title IV cases suggest that it will be weeks before the Hearing Panel issues an opinion. The panel will rule on whether Ramey violated the canons, and if so, what if any sanction should be imposed. With certain restrictions, either side can appeal an adverse decision.

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