In 2009, Washington National Cathedral completed the carving and installation of three limestone statues located above the sedilia[1].  The statues depict three people who were chosen for this honor because of the extraordinary manner in which their lives personified Christian virtues.  The three are John Donne, a 17th-century English poet and cleric in the Church of England; George Herbert, who also was a 17th-century English poet, orator and Anglican priest; and Howard Thurman, a 20th-century African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader.

The statues were designed by Chas Fagan, a gifted American sculptor, who not only renders his subjects in incredibly realistic fashion, but also incorporates thoughtful symbolism into his designs that captures some compelling aspects of the person’s life.

For example, Mr. Fagan depicted Howard Thurman in his preaching robes to convey his commanding presence as a preacher and orator.  Dr. Thurman is standing, leaning forward in earnest on the balls of his feet toward the congregation, as though conveying an urgent message of great importance.  In researching the life of Dr. Thurman, Mr. Fagan learned that a mighty oak tree was an important symbol to Dr. Thurman, a manifestation of God’s strong and enduring presence over the course of his life.  Thus, Mr. Fagan designed the lower portion of Dr. Thurman’s robes to appear like the base of an oak tree, with its muscular roots extending deep into the earth below.

When the time arrived to consecrate the statues, the National Cathedral was fortunate that a number of Dr. Thurman’s family and friends were able to attend and take part in the service.  However, the stone brackets on which the statues permanently sit are positioned more than ten feet above the sanctuary floor.  Hence, people are unable to fully see and appreciate some of the statues’ finer details.  After the consecration, since the family was unable to see and enjoy the fine details of the statue, I invited them to my office for a face-to-face encounter with the full-size plaster model that guided the carving of the stone statue.  Immediately upon seeing the plaster model, the family reacted as if Dr. Thurman had returned from the dead for a visit!  Joy beamed from their faces as they approached the piece and looked closely into his eyes.  They gently stroked his head and patted his back.  They posed for multiple photos and lingered to reminisce over fond memories of Dr. Thurman.  There seemed to be a reluctance to leave, as if doing so would break the sacredness of the moment.  Truly, it was a moving family reunion of sorts.

As Cathedral Conservator, I was fortunate to participate in each distinct phase of this artistic project—from conceptualization, to design, fabrication, installation and ultimately, appreciation.  What I observed is that inherent in the process of any “successful” artistic project (and by “successful,” I mean that the final work of art serves to enrich and inspire the recipient—not necessarily all recipients, but a significant number) is the mysterious transference of spiritual enthusiasm from subject matter through the artist to the recipient, with each participant in this process having a significant role to play.

First of all, the subject matter, be it one or more individuals or a specific event, must have a compelling story to tell—a story that transformed the world in a positive fashion at a historic place in time, while also having the capacity to continue doing so as long as the story is conveyed in an effective manner.

The artist then must discern the essential characteristics of the subject matter and devise an artistic expression that conveys the characteristics to the recipient with clarity, strength and inspiration.  In theological terms, the artist conceives a method to incarnate the passions of the subject matter and through creative skill, make them tangible to others observing the work in the present moment.

Finally, the recipient must be a willing participant in the process and not simply a passive consumer.  He or she must exert an effort to understand the subject matter and appreciate the work of art to enjoy the benefits.  And the benefits can be enormous!

Imagine transcending the limits of time and space to experience life in an earlier age, then to realize the similarities we share in the present age with those in the past.  Historic figures come to life; the passions that inspired them can come alive in us, enriching not only our personal existence, but the manner in which we continue to live and interact with others.  Truly, good art is more than simply an inanimate object.  It has the power and potential to be a transformative, life-giving experience.


[1] Sedilia is the traditional name for a grouping of three seats built into the thickness of the south wall of the sanctuary, adjacent to the high altar.  The seats are intended for the clergy who are leading worship.

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Years ago, a good friend told me about an experience that transformed his life, a provocative experience that, once shared, also transformed my way of thinking and shaped the direction of my vocational life to this day.

When my friend was a young man—a recent graduate of architecture school—he visited the Pyramids of Giza for the first time.  He found the enormous, ancient structures so awe-inspiring, so breathtaking that suddenly he found himself thinking, “If this is the answer, what then was the question?” 

Now, I am both a historical architect and an Episcopal priest, and often encounter quite a few ancient and awe-inspiring structures on my own.  When I do, my friend’s enticing question comes to mind.  A case in point – consider the magnificent great portal at Vézelay Abbey – a 12th-century, Christian monastic place of worship in the Burgundy region of France.  What was the question that inspired such a concrete, extraordinary answer as this?

To begin with, Vézelay was a Benedictine/Cluniac monastery with roots extending back to the 8th century CE.  By the 11th century, the abbey claimed to have the relics of Mary Magdalene, whom tradition believes was a close friend of Jesus of Nazareth and the first person to witness Christ’s resurrection.  Tradition also describes her as one whom Christ “healed of evil spirits and infirmities” (Luke 8:2) and consequently is revered by many as the patron saint of the penitent.  As a result, large numbers of people made the pilgrimage to Vézelay and asked for Mary Magdalene’s blessing; so many, in fact, that construction began in 1096 on a large basilica to properly accommodate the holy relics and the large crowds visiting the site.

While Vézelay was a pilgrimage destination in its own right, it also served as a starting point for one of the most revered pilgrimages in medieval Europe – the Camino de Santiago.  Second only to Rome and Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain was the shrine of James the Greater, an apostle of Jesus, and for centuries, Christians from across Europe made the pilgrimage to this sacred place in large numbers.  One of four major routes through France to Santiago began in Vézelay.

Vézelay also played a prominent role in the life of western Christianity for more than three hundred years, as it hosted a number of important historical events.  In 1146, the Second Crusade to the Holy Land was launched from Vézelay with Bernard of Clairvaux preaching to the inspired crowds.  A short time later in 1166, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, while exiled in France, used the pulpit at Vézelay to issue a threat to excommunicate King Henry II of England and his advisors as part of their ongoing quarrel.  Then in 1190, King Richard the Lion-Hearted of England and King Philip II Augustus of France met at Vézelay and from here launched the Third Crusade to the Holy Land.  And in 1217, Francis of Assisi reportedly founded the first French community of the Friars Minor at Vézelay.  Clearly, as the great portal was being designed and carved around the year 1130, Vézelay had established itself as a significant, cosmopolitan, spiritual center in the context and culture of medieval Christian Europe that demanded its architecture be sufficiently sophisticated to reflect its role and prominence.

The great portal of Vézelay is located within the narthex of the basilica, the central portal of three that provide access into the nave.  Approaching the great portal for the first time, one immediately is struck by the sheer size of the composition – it is massive.  Its overall height is nearly 40 feet – as tall as a 4-story building – and its width approaches 30 feet.  The carved stonework is punctuated by two door openings, each nearly 20 feet high by 10 feet wide.  Directly above the door openings is an enormous, semi-circular, carved stone tympanum, which dominates the composition.  Yet in spite of being stone, the tympanum seems to levitate overhead, due in large measure to the energetic poses of the carved human figures.

Contrary to other Romanesque sculpture which often depicts human figures in flat and static poses, Vézelay’s figures are vibrant, brimming with energy and enthusiasm, invoking T.S. Eliot’s words, “It moves perpetually in its stillness.”  The central figure is Christ, majestically reaching more than 10 feet in height, in spite of his seated position.  He is enveloped by an almond-shaped mandorla – the traditional symbol representing a sacred moment transcending time and space.  Gathered around him are the twelve, life-sized apostles, with six on each side.  Shooting forth from the fingers of Christ’s outstretched arms and striking the head of each apostle are what seem to be beams of divine power, infusing the apostles with energy, solidarity and wisdom.  Despite being damaged from centuries of vandalism, the vitality emanating from the carvings still is obvious.  The full, interactive postures of each figure, along with the swirling pleats and patterns in the fabric of their robes all contribute to the exuberance of the scene.

Encircling above Christ and his apostles and in the horizontal lintel below are a series of small, carved vignettes depicting people whose lives are transformed by the Gospel message, as well as people in far-off lands who are yet to learn of Christ.  Some are interesting caricatures with giant ears and dog-like faces indicating that, at the time, there still existed civilizations largely unknown by and mysterious to western Europeans.

Surrounding all of these figures in the outer, semicircular band of stone molding called an archivolt are the signs of the zodiac and months of the year indicating that this theophany, this incident of divine intervention, was not simply a product of creative imagination, but actually took place on this earthly plane of human existence within the sphere of time and space. 

So then, what does it mean?

Obviously, the scale of the great portal is meant to impress and inspire all who see it.  Its immensity and imagery promise those who approach, that by passing through its doors, the space found on the other side will be extraordinary – incomparable in size and appearance, and the activities that take place there will be mystical and life-changing.  After all, the great portal is an entrance to sacred space and the medieval mind believed that each church is an earthly image of Heaven.  Yet in spite of its majestic and otherworldly appearance, the great portal does not seem threatening or discriminating.  In fact, it seems inviting, extending a warm welcome to those who come near.  It brings to mind the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” (Matthew 23:37)

Perhaps, another helpful interpretation can be drawn from a similar portal of the Medieval Period, albeit one found in an epic poem of world literature.  In the early 14th century, Dante Alighieri completed his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, and in it he describes the inscription carved above the entrance to Hell, which reads, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”  While certainly Dante’s portal to Hell is the antithesis of Vézelay, it helps underline the intent for which the great portal was created.  Rather than words of warning and pending despair, the great portal of Vezelay offers encouragement and hope.  It was designed to awaken and arouse all those who see it: Be defiantly hopeful, all who enter here.  The love of God will make you strong!  Just as Christ, the Incarnation of God, transformed the lives of his apostles, the same transformation is available to you, if you pass through this portal and commit to living the Christian life.

For centuries, art historians have pondered the meaning of the great portal.  What are these magnificent carvings meant to represent?  What stories are they trying to tell?  Some believe the great portal represents the day of Pentecost, as described in the “Acts of the Apostles.”  Others suggest it depicts Christ’s mission to the apostles, as found in the Gospels, and was used to justify and inspire the crusades which were launched from Vézelay.  One argued the carvings serve as a defense of the addition of the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed, when in 1098, the Western Church asserted that the Holy Spirit proceeds simultaneously from the Father and the Son, against which the Eastern Church vehemently disagreed and the split between the two churches widened.  In the end, these interpretations seem to focus primarily on the literal meaning of the carvings, rather than the purpose for which the great portal was created.

Good spiritual architecture encourages people to engage the mystery it encapsulates.  While the design of the great portal of Vezelay depicts an incident from the pages of Christian scripture, it also points to a divine reality that transcends time and history, but nevertheless exists in the present moment.  It reminds you and me that unseen forces larger than anything humanly possible are undergirding the existence of daily life and we are more than mere spectators.  In truth, we are participants in this epic drama as well.

So, what was the purpose of the great portal of Vezelay?  What was the question that inspired such a concrete, extraordinary answer as this?

Certainly, the great portal was meant to be more than simply a doorway.  The carvings were intended to serve a purpose beyond mere decoration.  Vézelay, because of its prominence and popularity, was positioned to influence a great many people from all ranks of medieval society and the great portal was created to encourage them to discover and deepen their commitment to Christ and his church.  Like an icon from the Orthodox tradition, the great portal is intended to be a means to the end, but not the end itself.  Its purpose is to draw people toward it and away from the profane, secular world; to usher them through a physical, mental and spiritual transformation; to adequately prepare them to enter the sacred space that lies ahead, and then direct their attention beyond the portal itself to the world of God beyond.

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In 1800, Alexandria, Virginia is a busy little harbor town, with nearly 5,000 people living here.  Large quantities of agricultural products—wheat, flour and tobacco, are brought here from farms out in the Virginia countryside, and shipped from Alexandria to ports throughout the world—the West Indies, Portugal, Spain, as well as domestic ports in New England and New Orleans.  Likewise, cargo-laden ships arrive down at the riverfront bringing in rum from Antigua, coffee from Puerto Rico, wine from Lisbon and products from factories in Great Britain.  What’s more, by 1810, Alexandria ranks third nationally in the production of refined sugar,[1] an important commodity that feeds a hunger for sweet things both here among our own people as well as those in distant ports.  The capital city of our new nation is being constructed just up the Potomac River.  In fact, in 1801, Alexandria officially was ceded by the Commonwealth of Virginia to help form part of the area designated as the District of Columbia.  In ten short years—between 1800 and 1810, the population of Alexandria increases by nearly 50%.  So obviously, this is a thriving place to be--intimate in scale, but cosmopolitan in breadth, as well as industrious by nature.  The future is bright here in Alexandria, the prospects are limitless and optimism abounds.

But unfortunately at this point in time, the same cannot be said about the state of the Episcopal Church in Virginia; because by 1800, the Church here is in ashes—a drastic change from the not-so-distant past.

It was only 25 years ago, prior to the American Revolution, that the Anglican Church—the predecessor to the Episcopal Church, it was the established church here in the colony of Virginia.  For generations, it served as the authorized and recognized body of Christian worship in this colony, an instrument of the British Crown.  To hold political office in Virginia, you must be an active member of the Anglican Church.  All citizens—whether or not you subscribe to the practices of the Church of England—were taxed by the legislature to support the efforts of the Church.  This public money was used to buy land, build churches, pay the clergy, and make provision for the poor and disadvantaged in our local communities.  Needless to say, those who were Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist and other faith traditions not officially recognized by the Crown—they were known as “dissenters” and bristled at the thought of being taxed to support a church they did not attend.

So in 1776, with the Declaration of Independence and the outbreak of Revolution, the Anglican Church in the former colonies, and particularly here in Virginia, was thrown into complete turmoil.  No longer were we connected to the Church in England, which, in and of itself, may not seem such a bad thing.  But, as a hierarchical church, it meant we didn’t have a system in place to govern ourselves.  Traditionally, we are a church who relies on the governance of bishops, and we had no bishop in place in this country.  Our source of income, which had been based upon tax revenue, was now cut off.  We had no established means of educating and ordaining our clergy.  Dissenters are calling on the new Virginia Assembly to confiscate all our property which had been bought and built with public money.  Our Disestablished Church is scrambling to save itself as its institutional foundations crumble.  Yet at the same time, we are struggling to re-define ourselves for a future and mission we cannot clearly see.  In 1799, there are at least 59 parishes with clergy in Virginia.  But by 1814, that number drops to 19.  Obviously, the beginning of the 19th century is a depressing time for the Episcopal Church in Virginia.  It is said, “The older generation found it difficult to shake off the sense of loss or to imagine a new and different church.  Some still hoped for a return to state support….”[2]  In this period of darkness and confusion, the question facing the Church is, “Who are you?  Are you are an heir to the defunct colonial church of the past or are you going to be a new Christian denomination shaped in the spirit of this bold and exciting, young republic?

This is the context, the setting, into which St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is born.  It’s here, that St. Paul’s comes into being, as a provocative, inspirational answer to this important and challenging question.

It begins on Sunday morning, Oct. 15th, 1809.  The Rev. William Lewis Gibson, the Rector of Christ Church, Alexandria, suddenly resigns his position from that parish.  He does so because of the extreme criticism he receives over his choice of clerical garb and the style in which he preaches.

At the time in Virginia, the established tradition is for clergy to wear a black cassock while leading worship—an austere expression of the “low church” Anglican piety prevalent in this part of the world.  Even though prior to his arrival at Christ Church, Mr. Gibson made it clear to the Vestry he intends to wear a white surplice over his cassock, to which they reluctantly agreed.  But many in the congregation are offended by this expression of “pomp and ceremony” that runs counter to their Protestant sensibilities; so much so that a prominent member of the congregation walks out of the church in protest.  Likewise, Mr. Gibson hears complaints that his sermons are too abrasive, that they are delivered with too much frankness, contrary to the more subdued and reverential sermons to which the congregation is more accustomed.  And as a result, Mr. Gibson decides that Christ Church is not the place for him and so it’s time to move on.  And with him, approximately half of the congregation follows to establish what becomes St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

For many, a move like this may seem somewhat ordinary; new congregations have split off from established congregations for years and years.  But for the Episcopal Church in early 19th-century Virginia, this move is unprecedented.

That’s because for the previous two centuries, as the Church of England established itself in the colony of Virginia, it followed the traditional pattern of dividing the landscape into a series of parishes.  For any given geographical area of land, it was viewed as one parish/one church/one congregation.  If the population increased in a part of the parish that was a significant distance from the original “mother church,” then a “chapel of ease” was constructed.  But that congregation remained part of the “mother church.”  The unity of the parish remained intact.

A case in point is the “chapel of ease” constructed in Alexandria in 1753.  At the time, it was part of Truro Parish, with the “mother church” being Pohick, 15 miles away.  As the population grew in this part of the colony, Truro Parish was divided and the northern portion became Fairfax Parish, with the Falls Church as the “mother church” and the chapel still in Alexandria, which would become Christ Church.  Consequently, Christ Church is recognized as the established place where Anglicans in Alexandria worship.  Options are not available.  It’s an approach that represents a very “top-down” strategy of governing the institutional church.

However, when St. Paul’s Church comes into being, it’s not a product of the institutional church.  It’s a “grassroots” movement.  In fact, it’s the first instance in Virginia when a separate, alternative Anglican congregation is created within a given community that already has an established congregation.  In other words, by the very act of its birth, St. Paul's establishes a new way of being church that breaks with traditional Anglican practice and now offers people a choice.  A bold move that undoubtedly raised a few eyebrows among long-time Episcopalians in the Old Dominion.

During its formative years, St. Paul’s is fortunate to have inspiring clergy to help chart its path forward.

Of course, the Rev. William Gibson is instrumental in the very beginning, but in two years, he leaves in 1811 to return to Maryland.

In 1812, the Rev. Dr. William Holland Wilmer is called to be rector of this fledgling congregation.  Under his leadership, St. Paul’s “experiences a period of great growth and prosperity.”[3]  In reading this man’s biography, it’s a wonder he even finds time to sleep!

Dr. Wilmer is an impressive young man with boundless energy and creative ideas.  Ordained a priest just two years earlier, he is one of a small band of evangelicals who come to the Diocese of Virginia at this time, determined to raise the Church up from its broken state.

Once installed as rector here at St. Paul’s, Dr. Wilmer immediately is elected to the Diocesan Standing Committee.  Along with his fellow evangelicals, he refuses to support the newly-elected Bishop John Bracken because they believe it’s time for younger and more inspired leadership.  They work behind the scenes to find an alternative leader and pressure Bracken into resigning his election.[4]  In his place, Dr. Wilmer and his colleagues push for the election of the Rev. Richard Channing Moore as the next bishop, whom they proclaim as “the kind of forward-thinking person Virginia [needs].”[5]

Not only is Dr. Wilmer influential in the Diocese, but his ministry extends to the larger Church as well.  In 1815, he is instrumental in establishing St. John’s Episcopal Church at Lafayette Square in Washington; and even serves there as rector for two years while he simultaneously continues to serve here at St. Paul’s.  In 1817, Dr. Wilmer is elected president of the House of Deputies for the entire Episcopal Church, only seven years after ordination, the youngest person ever to serve in that role.

Back here at St. Paul’s, Dr. Wilmer works diligently to grow and strengthen the congregation.  So much so, that in 1817, the church outgrows the small meetinghouse on Fairfax St. where it worships and needs a new, larger place of worship.

Keep in mind, the traditional approach to building a church at that time was to hire a local builder and ask him to put up a simple brick box.  Some builders were sophisticated enough to refer to architectural pattern books, that were popular at the time, and plug some decorative doorways, windows and other elements into the box to make it more attractive.  But in the end, the final result still was a basic brick box built for preaching.

Rather than turning to a local builder for a predicable box church, Dr. Wilmer encourages the St. Paul’s leadership to think outside the proverbial box and act differently.  And do they ever!  In what certainly can be characterized as unconventional and some might say audacious, St. Paul’s hires the first and most prominent architect in the United States at the time—Benjamin Henry Latrobe.  A favorite of Thomas Jefferson, Mr. Latrobe is actively involved in the design of a number of prominent buildings in the new Capital city—the U.S. Capitol building, the White House, Decatur House, St. John’s, Lafayette Square, Christ Church, Capitol Hill; along with important buildings in other major cities—the Roman Catholic Basilica in Baltimore, the Bank of Pennsylvania building in Philadelphia, and the Customs House in New Orleans.  Latrobe is a conspicuous, progressive choice to make, signaling that St. Paul’s is eager to embrace the future and assuring the new building where it worships will be a landmark on the streetscape of Alexandria, even, perhaps, the entire country.

Not only does the choice of Latrobe as architect for the new church grab attention, but the design of the building is eye-catching as well.  For 300 years, since the start of the Reformation, Protestants have steered away from anything in the life of the church that brings to mind the medieval church and the abuses which took place then—particularly church buildings in the Gothic style.  Protestants in Europe preferred to build their new churches in the Classical-Revival style that recalls the glories of ancient Greece and Rome— a time of presumed purity before the onslaught of corruption that tainted the Roman Catholic Church.  St. Paul’s Cathedral in London is an example of this school of thought.  Also in England, the Georgian style—a derivative of Classical-Revival—is widely popular and its influence extends to these shores, as we can see in the building fabric of Christ Church, here in Alexandria.

In fact, Latrobe is well-known for his mastery of the Classical-Revival style.  His designs are celebrated for their simple elegance, their noble, uplifting spirit.  Any sense of darkness and mystery is removed, the spaces are enlightening and inspiring, encouraging its inhabitants to see the theoretical in the world round about them.  Latrobe’s design of St. John’s/Lafayette Square encapsulates his skills with the Classical-Revival.

But with the design of St. Paul’s, Latrobe departs from his preferred and predicable style of Classical-Revival.  Here, he designs one of the first churches in the United States in the Gothic-Revival style.  Collaborating with Dr. Wilmer, the two actually succeed at “turning the tables” on conventional thought and capitalize on the associations the Gothic style brings to mind.  Rather than shy away from its allusions to medieval corruption, they proclaim the Gothic-Revival style serves to remind people of the passion and fervor of the early English Church—a “high-water mark” when Christianity permeated all aspects of peoples’ daily lives.  The design of the main façade, with the three lancet arches rising to the full height of the building, provides a monumental scale similar to the great cathedral at Peterborough, and signals that a new era of Christian influence is underway in this new republic.

The interior of St. Paul’s is shaped around the prominence of the spoken word—the proportions of the worship space are as wide as it is deep to allow the congregation to gather as close as possible to the preacher in the pulpit.  Remember this is a time when Morning Prayer is the principal form of worship, not Holy Eucharist.  Of course, an altar is present, but the pulpit is centrally-located and dominant in size.  The space is open, originally envisioned to be without piers and columns, or the gallery overhead to interfere with peoples’ experience of the sermon and the transformative power of the word of God.

From the unapologetic use of pointed arches, to shunning the tradition of exposed brickwork in favor of the more sophisticated practice of scored stucco to simulate blocks of stone, Latrobe’s design of St. Paul’s makes a dramatic break with the Georgian architecture of the past and points the way toward a new, confident age in church architecture—the Gothic-Revival age, arguably the most influential and widely-accepted style of church architecture in western Christendom for the next hundred years.  It’s a bold statement by a breakaway congregation who refuses to think of itself as second-class in any form or fashion.

But the precociousness of St. Paul’s doesn’t stop here.  In 1819, Dr. Wilmer continues to develop creative ideas to rebuild the larger church beyond the walls of St. Paul’s itself.  In August of this year, he establishes the Washington Theological Repertory—a monthly journal that reaches out to scattered Episcopalians throughout Virginia and the church beyond.  It publishes serious theological discussions, poetry, memorials, and notices of church activities from all over the country.  In 1835, it is replaced by the Southern Churchman, a weekly journal that relocates to Richmond and serves the Episcopal Church for well over a century—until 1952.[6]

In addition to his publishing endeavors, Dr. Wilmer is determined to establish a suitable institution for the education of future Episcopal clergy.  The College of William and Mary, founded in 1693, had provided a divinity school for aspiring Anglican clergy.  But since the American Revolution, it discontinued this course of study.  In 1820, the College tried to revive the school, only to fail.  The only other functioning Episcopal seminary in the US is General Seminary in New York, founded in 1817.  But evangelicals are suspicious of its “high church” leanings and want a place of learning closer to Virginia.

In 1818, Dr. Wilmer takes the lead in organizing ”The Society for the Education of Pious Young Men for the Ministry of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Maryland and Virginia,” an organization with a monstrous long name and whose purpose is to raise funds to support theological education for students at a seminary or privately.[7]  After several years of “starts and stops” by the Church to provide a school locally, Dr. Wilmer becomes frustrated and takes the initiative to hold classes here at St. Paul’s.  On Oct. 15, 1823, two professors and fourteen students begin meeting here and their efforts are the genesis of what becomes Virginia Theological Seminary—the largest Episcopal seminary in the United States.

From its birth and through its formative years, St. Paul’s Church redefines what it means to be the Episcopal Church in Virginia.  It’s a hot-bed of new ideas and new ministries!  This church epitomizes the qualities necessary to embrace the future: believe faithfully, act confidently, think creatively, care unselfishly, and live hopefully.  These characteristics are inherent in the nature of St. Paul’s; they are part of its DNA.


[1] City of Alexandria website, “Discovering the Decades: 1800s,”

[2] Joan R. Gundersen, “Like a Phoenix from the Ashes: The Reinvention of the Church in Virginia, 1760-1840” in Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 115, No. 2 (Richmond, VA: Virginia Historical Society, 2007) 219.

[3] Ruth Lincoln Kaye, The History of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Alexandria, Virginia: November 12, 1809 – November 12, 1984 (Springfield, VA: The Goetz Printing Co., 1984) 17.

[4] Gundersen, 220.

[5] Gundersen, 221.

[6] Gundersen, 226.

[7] Gundersen, 230.

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During one visit to Canterbury Cathedral, I had the good fortune to tour the Cathedral Archives and see a number of fascinating and wonderful things.  At one point, the Cathedral Archivist hands me a document, made of parchment and obviously quite old.  The text is Latin and so, admitting my ignorance, I ask for a translation.  She proceeds to explain, in unassuming British fashion, that the document I now hold in my hands clarifies the roles and responsibilities of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York, and clearly establishes the superiority of the former over the latter.  The agreement is known as the “Accord of Winchester,” it dates from 1072 and the prominent signature at the bottom of the parchment is that of William the Conqueror!

“Oh, really?” I say, trying not to sound too-overly impressed.  Even though at the same time, my mind is racing to catch up with the reality of the object clutched in my bare hands, trying to fully comprehend the significance of this seemingly simple, one-page document.  Vague memories from church history class help me to remember that this is the agreement that ultimately led to the complete reform and reorganization of the English Church following William’s conquest, when Anglo-Saxon bishops were replaced with Norman bishops.  What’s more, it became the tipping point that put into motion the effort to rebuild every existing Anglo-Saxon cathedral in England in the subsequent Norman fashion.  Much of the architecture we enjoy today in the great medieval cathedrals of England was brought into existence because of this document.  Truly, this unpretentious piece of parchment caused a seismic shift not only in English history, but its aftershocks went on to impact the Anglican tradition as it spread its way around the globe.  It’s not every day I have the opportunity to touch such an ancient and extraordinary artifact of human history, and it was thrilling!

Ancient artifacts, such as the Accord of Winchester, have a transcendent quality about them.  Not only did they influence civilization at the time they were created, but continually do so.  Generations have highly regarded and carefully protected them, setting them apart as unique and special.  Their significance and ability to transcend the ages infuses them with a sense of immutability, they exude a force of character beyond that of the simple mundane.  They serve as reminders that we are part of a continuum much larger than ourselves.  They help us to see beyond the limitations of our individuality and finitude to inspire comfort, confidence and optimism.  They are a necessary elixir to those of us diminished by the fleeting, trivial nature of living in a “throw-away society,” expecting immediate gratification of our needs, and roiling in a constant state of change.  Rarely, do we find ourselves in the presence of such objects of eternal value.  But when we do, they shift the focus of attention away from our own selfish needs, raise our level of consciousness above the primal instincts of mere survival, and remind us of the priceless quality of life.  Thanks be to God!

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In the fall of 2011, I was privileged to lead a group of parishioners from my church on a pilgrimage to a number of Virginia’s colonial churches.  One of our stops was at Grace Episcopal Church in Yorktown, a parish founded in 1697.  While we were there our host told us about their Eucharistic silver that dates from that same period in time.  She informed us that rather than putting their precious silver on display in some glass case—like a museum exhibit, they instead prefer to use it as it originally was intended—for worship every Sunday.  She told us that each time she holds that beautiful, 17th century chalice in her hands and receives the communion wine, she is so moved by the thought of the people and the history the chalice symbolizes that she wants to turn and look out the windows of the church toward the cemetery, where so many members of the congregation are buried, and just say “thank you.”

Truly, her heartfelt gratitude is so stirring and delightful, yet, at the same time, uncommon.  It illustrates an aspect fundamental to the Christian tradition that we often forget—the abiding presence of the Communion of Saints.

The fact is: you and I are not alone.  We are part of a great continuum of believers that reaches back in time to a point we cannot even imagine and extends infinitely into a future we cannot foresee.  A passage from the Book of Revelation describes it as “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” [Rev. 7:9]  It is a massive cloud of witnesses—witnesses to the redeeming, life-giving love of God: people seen and unseen, known and unknown, present in this life as well as in the life beyond.  Encircling us in love, enveloping us in prayer, empowering us by their presence, the saints of God support us all the day long, year in and year out, as we struggle to lead meaningful and righteous lives.

Unfortunately, it has fallen out of fashion to believe in the abiding presence of our spiritual kinfolk; a casualty of western, rational thinking.  Yet as Christians, we continue to profess with our mouths to believe that the dead do not simply cease to exist, that there is life after death, and that in the next life, the faithfully-departed do congregate as a communion of saints and actively exist.  But are we just giving lip-service to a quaint, romantic notion leftover from a silly, out-of-date, superstitious period of our history?

I argue that, contrary to what the popular culture would have us believe, we are not ignorant, overly-sentimental or superstitious, but, in fact, are very much enlightened to live with the conviction that these fundamental tenets of the Christian faith are true.  That instead, it is primitive and narrow-minded to believe that life consists solely of what occurs in this material world.  That unless something can be confirmed by scientific analysis, it cannot exist.  That the ego should be the dominant, guiding force in in all our actions and the world should revolve solely around our needs.  These are the marks of the misinformed, the misguided, and the deceived.

In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus teaches an alternative way of engaging the world.  Through wisdom of the Beatitudes, our Lord offers us freedom from a life of self-centeredness and suffocation.  He points us toward a larger purpose.  He helps us to see that you and I can be part of a larger reality that extends beyond the limitations of our ego.  That our lives can be interwoven with the lives of others in an epic endeavor so much larger than ourselves.  That you and I are necessary and vital participants in God’s redemption of all creation.  That by actively engaging life, we will make a real difference in the betterment of this world.  To know this, to believe this inspires great comfort, it is empowering and motivating—a reason, a real purpose for living.  Truly, this is enlightenment, it is good news! [Matt. 5:1-12]

The second key point I want to make regarding the gratitude of our Yorktown host concerns the silver chalice itself.  There is an old saying about Episcopalians, that for us, “matter matters.”  In other words, we believe that God is capable of working through material things to achieve our salvation, which is why we have such high regard for the sacraments of baptism and Holy Eucharist.  This high regard extends to other tangible things as well, such as chalices, Bibles, stained glass windows and even church buildings.  We see these things as concrete, real-life manifestations of God’s love for us, our love for God, our regard for family, friends and neighbors, and our devotion to the Church.

Like the good folks in Yorktown, most Episcopalians are blessed with a rich material inheritance—a fabulous, historic place of worship that proclaims a long-standing and powerful ministry to the communities in which we live.  A beautiful church, built with natural materials, shaped by human hands, and offered to the glory of God.  It makes real the notion of the Communion of Saints.  All around are reminders—names and dates, tablets and plaques, the dead interred in the Columbarium—reminders of our spiritual ancestors who came before us and helped raise these churches up out of the earth.  The ministry of these saints forms the very foundation on which these sacred spaces are built.  Every time we gather for worship, the saints surround us.  Surely, these are places where generations of faithful Christians have come to know God, to experience God’s love and to share that love with others.  The very walls of our churches are saturated with prayer.

A virtuous quality that all saints share is that they do not draw attention to themselves, but instead point and direct all attention toward God.  The same can be said for our places of worship.  They point to something greater, more enduring and gratifying, more valuable, more precious than anything of this earth.

And that is the reason that silver chalice was created in the 17th century and the same reason our churches were built over the years since then.  They were created by our forebears, the saints who precede us in our common spiritual journey, to help us know God.  In fact, the primary intention of church properties is to provide a myriad of opportunities for all who come to them to bump into God and fall deeper in love.  It is said that sacred space is not so much about space where something is done, as it is about space where Someone is encountered—with, of course, that Someone being God. 

The Communion of Saints are incredibly generous to us.  We receive an inheritance beyond measure.  Words fail to convey the magnitude of how wonderful, how thoughtful, how life-giving their gift of God’s love to us is—all except those used by the docent in Yorktown, which are, “thank you!”

The question is, “Will future generations be able to say the same about us?”

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