Church History


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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Beauty is essential to life.  Just as air, water, food and shelter are fundamental to our survival; it is beauty that lifts us up out of mere primordial existence to a higher quality of life.  It infuses our souls with purpose, passion and inspiration.  It is not a luxury.  Every human being is entitled to the benefits it brings—not just the well-to-do and the overly-intellectual.  Jesus said, “I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly.”[1]  He is not talking about you and me having more air, all the food and water we can eat and drink, or larger houses.  He is talking about quality of life and beauty is the means by which this transfiguration often is brought about.

Anglicans firmly subscribe to this notion.  We pursue beauty in all aspects of life.  It defines our character.  One only has to look at the rich heritage of Anglican Church buildings or thumb through a book, such as A Treasury of Anglican Art,[2] to sample some of the most beautiful, spiritually-uplifting examples of Christian architecture and art in the world.

But why is this?  Why do Anglicans and, by extension, Episcopalians hold beauty in such high regard?

John Westerhoff, in his book, A People Called Episcopalians, writes, “Anglicans have made beauty the doorway into truth and goodness.  We have a strong respect for and belief in the beauty of holiness and righteousness.  Money spent on beauty…is justified insofar as it is our way of revealing and advocating truth and goodness.  Our churches are intended to be works of art and we make every effort to ensure that the arts used in our churches are of high quality.”[3]  In other words, for Anglicans—when one is in the presence of beauty, one also is in the presence of the Divine.

Certainly, there are Christians who approach worship by emphasizing truth and goodness, but pay little heed to beauty.  They focus on the word of God—both written and spoken—as the primary means by which to know God.  They appeal to the rational mind, thinking a right understanding of God’s word will bring right behavior, which is a perfectly reasonable, acceptable and time-tested approach to Christian worship.

However, another approach to Christian worship is to reach for the imagination and the heart, in addition to the rational mind.  And the means by which the imagination and heart are stirred most effectively is by the five senses.  The goal of this type of worship is to encourage an attitude of mystery and awe before the presence of God, evoking devotion, admiration and thanksgiving; and, in doing so, inspiring right behavior as a result.

To stimulate the senses, we historically make use of the arts—the visual arts and the performing arts.  The arts convey profound and timeless truths in imaginative and relevant ways—deeper theology than mere words.  As one stated, “The Word was not made flesh in order to be turned back into word again.  Art makes incarnate the Word of God.”  The beauty of art encourages our imagination to take precedence over the rational side of the brain, which, more often than not, tends to control the vast majority of life.  It induces stirrings of the ineffable and numinous that reside deep within us.

Finally, Episcopalians are a sacramental people.  We believe the Transcendent is made know to us through material things.  From God, there flows a continuous stream of Divine Love, making itself available to all through the material, most specifically through the person of Christ Jesus, as well as through the waters of Baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  In a broader sense, all creation is a manifestation of its Creator—God’s handiwork is visible in every directions.  Therefore, the spiritual cannot be separated from the physical.  As a result, architecture and the arts are sacramental to us.  We look to architecture and the arts to support our worship, education, evangelization and mission.  For us, God’s presence and actions are mediated most powerfully through our places of worship.  For Episcopalians, orthodoxy is right worship, rather than right belief.  To put it another way, it is through the beauty of sacred space that makes it easy to fall in love with God.

[1] John 10:10

[2] A Treasury of Anglican Art, James B. Simpson and George H. Eatman (New York: Rizzoli, 2002).

[3] A People Called Episcopalians, John H. Westerhoff (Atlanta: St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 1998) 23.

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I am not a cradle Episcopalian.  I was born and raised, baptized and confirmed in the United Methodist Church.  Then as a teenager, I fell away from the church because I could not see its relevance in my life.  It seemed flat, weak, moralistic and platitudinous.  It felt as though my very life was being sucked out of me whenever I walked through its doors.

In its place, architecture came to be my religion; and my creed was “better living through design and the arts!”  I came to realize that, for as long as I can remember, “beauty” stirs something deep within me.  No matter whether it is natural beauty or beauty shaped by human hands, I find myself feeling inspired, encouraged, even comforted in its presence.  In some instances, the beauty is so incredible, so ecstatic, so awesome to behold, that I am moved to tears.  Something the church had not been able to do.

Then during my 30’s, I spent a considerable amount of time in an Islamic country, working on an archaeological project.  It was there, in the midst of a culture so radically different from my own, among a people who are so devoted to their religion—no matter their station in life, who faithfully respond to the call, five times a day, to pray to God, when I realized a tremendous spiritual void existed in my life and was inspired to set about finding a way in which to fill it.  It was then I decided to return to the church.

I returned to the States, but knew I was not drawn back to the United Methodist Church.  Its way of being “church” did not speak to me.  What did speak to me was the beauty I found in the Episcopal Church.

Growing up in Virginia, I was surrounded by a great many examples of beautiful Episcopal Churches—an architecture carefully crafted to reflect devotion to God and commitment to the faith; roots in the past, but relevance in the present.  Unbeknownst to me, their beauty influenced my perceptions, shaped my sensibilities on what constitute sacred space.  I came to realize is that beauty is a manifestation of God—a means by which God’s grace permeates, illuminates and enriches our world.  It became clear that, for me, the architectural setting for worship is extremely important.  If the space is to be sacred, it also must beautiful to the eye, especially during those times when the sermon is so deadening to the ear.  In other words, beauty is what brought me to the Episcopal Church.

But, I am not the only one!  A great many others are drawn to the Episcopal Church for the same reason—some to the point of becoming members, while others simply admire it from a distance.  I can’t tell you of the number of Roman Catholics who say when they need a good dose of tasteful, dignified worship they visit the Episcopal Church.

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