Sunday, August 27, 2017

On (Wedding) Photography: A Clergy View

My parents at their wedding in 1952; one of only two
photos from inside the church itself.

Earlier this summer, a wedding photographer posted a complaint on Facebook about a church where he photographed a wedding.

The minister, he wrote, “tells me I'm not allowed to move around even though I assured him I'm discreet, unobtrusive and understand the ‘sacredness’ of the liturgy.”

At “secular” weddings, he went on to say, the officiants “usually come greet me and assure me I'm free to roam around and ‘will get out of your way during the kiss so you can get the couple nice shots.”

Ministers “need to be educated on the role of art & media in communicating the ‘sacred,’” he added.

As someone who has done some wedding photography, I was interested in his thoughts. But I also wondered: What would my clergy friends think?

But first, a bit of history. 

Wedding photography dates back to the 19th century. Due to the bulky nature of cameras, couples had to go to studios for posed pictures.

Fast forward to the 1940s and 50s, when cameras were more portable. Wedding photography became was more common, but it was still mostly posed shots.  

My own parent’s wedding from 1952 is a good example. 

There are many posed shots, but only two images from the wedding: One of the bride and her father coming in, the other of the couple coming out, both taken from the balcony. There are none from the ceremony itself.  
By the 1960s and 70s, that had changed. Wedding photography became wedding photojournalism, recording the whole event for posterity. And that is where we are today.

So what do clergy think of the state of wedding photography? 

“Individual rabbis may have differing levels of tolerance for photographers at the wedding ceremony, most likely depending on their past experiences of interference or distraction,” says Alan Green, senior Rabbi at Shaarey Zedek.  

I know of no formal prohibition of photography at Jewish weddings,” he adds.

For Green, there is “no conflict between the holiness of the occasion and capturing it on camera. In fact, I think digitally preserving those very special moments only emphasizes their sacred character, as they may then be re-encountered and relived for many years (and generations) into the future.”

James Toews, pastor at Neighbourhood Community Church in Nanaimo, B.C., feels a bit differently. He is, he says, “always polite to photographers, but my inner voice thinks of them like flies that buzz around,” he says half-jokingly.

“Making a big fuss about them makes things worse, but they can be annoying.”

For Marvin Dyck, pastor at Crossroads Mennonite Brethren Church in Winnipeg, wedding photographers “are doing it right” when he doesn’t notice them.

Dyck tells photographers to “please be discreet. This is a worship service. Try to stay out of the sight lines between the congregation and the couple.”

If the photographer forgets, “I deal with it the same way that I deal with all the other unforeseen glitches in a wedding ceremony. Namely, they become part of the memory about which we smile afterward.”

When Jeff Loach, pastor at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Nobleton, Ont., started in ministry 25 years ago, he had very tight rules about where and when photos could be taken.

He has “loosened up a bit today," he says. "No flash between the end of the processional and the beginning of the recessional, videography must be stationary and not in sight of the congregation as it looks forward.”

For him, the photographer must not take the focus off of God. “Do what you want without flash, and remain invisible.”

“I am forever trying to remind people that this is a service of worship first and foremost,” he adds, noting that the focus "is not on the bride and groom, but on the Lord who is uniting them.”

If the professional photographer is “truly professional, it’s not distracting,” he says, adding that in 99% of the weddings he’s done he hasn’t had any problems.

As a former wedding photographer, I understand how important it is to respect the sacredness of the moment. But I also knew how important it was to the couple. 

In the end, it’s all a matter of mutual respect, between both clergy and photographers.

From the Aug. 26, 2017 Winnipeg Free Press. The title is a play on the title of Susan Sontag's seminal book on the topic, On Photography.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Anglican or Alien? Priests Ponder Wearing of Vestments

As someone who didn’t grow up in the Anglican Church, I can’t tell an alb from a surplice from a chasuble from a stole.

After attending an Anglican church for a few years now, I am more familiar with those clerical vestments. But I still couldn’t pass a test on what each one was—or what they represent.

For people like me in England, it soon may not matter.

The Anglican Church in that country recently decided to let priests wear “lay garments”—normal clothes—rather than traditional vestments while conducting services.

One reason given for the change is how British society as a whole is more casual in its dress.

But another reason was because of how non-churchgoers—young people in particular—might be put off by the ornate robes; seeing people wearing them may make them look alien and disconnected from modern day life.

Whether or not that’s true, there’s no doubt that most Canadians today wouldn’t be familiar with Anglican clergy vestments.

Vestments have their origin in the ordinary street clothes from Roman times. In the Anglican Church, they are worn by bishops, priests, lay readers and others involved in the worship services.

While they make the wearers stand out to people unfamiliar with vestments, their role is actually to obscure them—to put the focus on the ministry they are providing, and on to Christ.

How do Anglican clergy in Canada feel about vestments? I posed that question to a few of them.

“I’m not aware of any national directives of what [clergy] should wear or not wear,” says Donald Phillips, the Bishop of Rupert’s Land.

“There is no written code in the diocese. It is assumed that priests know what to wear [the standard priestly wear],” although “nobody says they have to wear it. But it’s understood.”

For Phillips, vestments provide an appropriate sense of “mystique or solemnity,” although he acknowledges there might be “some wisdom” in what is happening in England.

“People have drifted away from church,” he says, adding that churches need to be more welcoming of newcomers. “But I’m not sure dispensing with the vestments will change that.”

Paul Johnson, Rector and Dean at St. John’s Cathedral—the mother church for the diocese—prefers to always wear them: the alb, stole, cassock, surplice and chasuble.

“I like to wear vestments for the symbolism,” he says. “It’s a visible reminder of what we believe, similar to the stained glass windows.”

He does dispense with the chasuble, a heavy poncho-like garment, in July and August, however. “It’s just too hot, and the cathedral isn’t air conditioned,” he says.

For him, staying with the traditional “is a good place for me, and it’s what the congregation expects.”

Jamie Howison is the priest at St. Benedict’s Table. St. Ben’s, as it is known, offers a looser and less formal style of Anglican worship. What’s his take on vestments?

“Not only would I go without vestments, I do soon a semi-regular basis,” he says of what he wears for presiding over communion at house services, family camps, retreats or for the church’s child friendly service.

For him, it’s “all about context.” Vestments in a house communion or at camp “simply feel overdone and really rather overly-earnest,” he says. But for the regular Sunday evening worship service, “they fit.”

For him, an apt analogy is mealtime. Some days “it’s grilled cheese sandwiches and soup at the kitchen table, and some days it is a more formal celebratory meal,” he says.

For the former, “paper napkins and ragged placemats are fine, but for the latter you set the dining room table with linens and use your best serving dishes, and you quite probably dress differently as well.”

At a practical (and tongue-in-cheek) level, vestments means he “never has to think about what I will wear to church”—unlike ministers in other traditions, who have to worry about their clothing choice each Sunday.

On a more serious note, “every time I put that stole across my shoulders I am aware that it symbolizes the ‘yoke’ of my work and vocation,” he says. 

“What a privilege, and what a marvelous burden.”

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Of Israel, Palestine and Threats of Physical Harm

Over my 14 years of writing a faith page column for the Winnipeg Free Press, I have received a number of responses criticizing the things I have written.

Ninety-nine percent are respectful, decent, and thoughtful. I always reply, addressing the issue at hand and thanking writers for taking the time to reach out—and encouraging them to submit their thoughts to the letters to the editor. (Few do.)

There’s almost no way of telling what will spark someone to write. Sometimes you think a controversial column will generate responses, but nothing comes.

Other times, you think nobody will care and the e-mails pour in.

But there is always one issue that I know will generate reaction: Israel-Palestine.

No matter how balanced or neutral I try to be, I know I will hear from people who condemn me for not being 100 percent unequivocal in support of Israel.

Who are these people? A few Jews, but almost always people who identify as Christians.

Most of them are reasonable, using the Bible to show me the error of my ways.

But others want to let me know how bad a Christian I am for even suggesting the Palestinians just might have some good points to make about their experience. For them, that is clear evidence of my anti-Israel bias.

I reply, as always, thanking them for their responses. And then I forget about it.

But not this time. For the first time in my column writing career, I have been threatened with violence.

In the column, I wondered whether sacred places like these were really worth fighting and dying over.

I thought it was a neutral kind of piece, criticizing both Israelis and Palestinians for using geography against one another.

A few people wrote in reply, two Jews and a Christian Zionist. The comments were respectful, suggesting I could have done more to promote the Israeli point of view.

But one person was different. He called and left two messages on my phone. I was out of town, so didn’t get them until many days later.

In the first rambling message, he began by casting doubts on my faith and intelligence for not taking the Israeli side.

He went on to describe the Palestinians as a "deadly, ugly people."

He then “cursed" me "in Jesus name” for not supporting Israel.

Not a big deal, I thought; I've been told before I will burn in Hell for my opinions. But this was the first time I was cursed.

His second message came about 15 minutes later. This time, things went darker. He wanted, he said, to come and “kick my teeth right in.”


It’s been about 50 years since I was last threatened with violence. Back then, it was a schoolyard bully when I was about 10 years old.

And now here it was happening again.

I have to say that, this time, his words struck home. Did he really mean it? Would he show up at my house one day? Did he know where I live? Was my family safe?

Or was he just blowing smoke?

It’s probably just an empty threat, I told myself. Just an angry man spouting hate and anger.

Or maybe there was another motive. Maybe he was trying to intimidate me, to make me reluctant to write about this topic in the future.

If that’s the case, he is mistaken. I will write about Israel and Palestine again, if the topic is relevant.

But I would be lying if I don't say this will be in the back of my mind, or that I won't wonder if a stranger might turn up at my door one day with malice in mind.

Since this was my first experience with a threat of physical violence, I reported it to my editor. 

When this happens, he said, they tend to ignore it unless they believe a real threat is posed. If that's the case, it is reported to the police.

Israel-Palestine, he added, is a topic that brings out the worst in people "no matter what we say or write.”

Like I said before, it’s probably nothing. But it certainly caught my attention. It makes me wonder about the kind of people who say such terrible things.

Especially when so many of them say they are Christians.

Monday, August 7, 2017

We Need More Peace, Fewer Sacred Spaces

It’s hard to imagine religion without sacred spaces.

These sacred spaces can be hills, mountains, rivers, caves, cities, trees and buildings—temples, mosques, cathedrals, and other places of worship.

For believers, these places are sacred because something religiously significant happened there, usually hundreds or thousands of years ago. 

Visiting these places is an opportunity to draw closer to God or the divine, to find inner peace and fulfilment, or to experience something deep and supernatural.

For others, however, they are reasons to fight and kill. Instead of promoting peace, they are sources of conflict.

That’s what’s happening now in Jerusalem, over the Al-Aqsa mosque.

The mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, is located on what Jews call the Temple Mount—the holiest site in Judaism—and what Muslims call Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary.

Muslims believe that the Prophet Mohammed was carried on a flying horse from Mecca to Al-Aqsa during his miraculous night journey. While there, he prayed with Abraham and Jesus on the rock that is now said to be inside the Dome of the Rock, whose golden roof dominates the Jerusalem skyline.

For Jews, it is the site of the first temple, built around 1,000 B.C. It was destroyed 400 years later by the Babylonians. In the first century B.C., a second temple was built; it, too, was destroyed in A.D. 70 by the Romans.

Over the past 50 years, the site has been a source of tension between Palestinians and Israelis. It is said the Second Intifada, which saw over 4,000 people killed, was sparked by a visit to the mosque by Ariel Sharon, then a candidate for Prime Minister of Israel.

This summer, the site has been the source of unrest and conflict after Israeli authorities restricted Muslim access to the mosque following the murders of two Israeli police officers. In response, Palestinians gathered to pray, and protest—mostly peacefully—in the streets surrounding the area.

Of course, the conflict is over more than what people believe happened on the site centuries ago. Israelis view it as a matter of security and safety, while Palestinians see it as part of the larger effort to control and humiliate them.

Both sides can justify their actions. But I still wonder: Are these principles worth killing and dying over? I posed that question to a Palestinian friend.

He agreed that any deaths arising from the unrest were terrible, but said answers are “not so easy when everything has been taken away from you.”

He noted that, over the centuries, Palestinians have welcomed and incorporated people from many nationalities and faiths—Arabs, Turks, Berbers, Greeks, and Jews, among others.

“Those who came as pilgrims and refugees, found space on the land. But an occupation is a different story.”

This is indeed a different story, for Israelis and Palestinians alike. The Al-Aqsa mosque today stands for much more than a holy place. Both sides, each for their own political reasons, seem to be looking for more confrontation rather than calm.

(And lest Christians think they are above this sort of controversy, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre proves otherwise. The Church, which is said to contain the tomb of Jesus, is administered by six Christian groups under a centuries-old agreement. They squabble constantly over who is responsible for what part of the church, sometimes resulting in fist fights between monks. So bad are the relations between them they don’t even trust each other with the church keys; a Muslim family opens and closes the church each day.)

As for me, my mind keeps going back to the prophet Isaiah, who delivers a message from God about sacred spaces.

As for me, my mind keeps going back to the prophet Isaiah, who delivers a message from God about sacred spaces.

In chapter 66:1-2, God says through the prophet: “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is my resting place? 

All these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine. But this is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word.”

I don’t know about you, but I think the world would be better off if we had more of those kinds of people today, and maybe fewer sacred spaces.