At Virginia Theological Seminary, a Chapel Rises From the Ashes

Virginia Theological Seminary’s new Immanuel Chapel, dedicated and consecrated Oct. 13, stands beyond the ruins of the 1881 building that was destroyed in a fire Oct. 22, 2010. The ruins are now a memorial garden. (Peter Aaron Otto/Robert A.M. Stern Architects)
Virginia Theological Seminary’s new Immanuel Chapel, dedicated and consecrated Oct. 13, stands beyond the ruins of the 1881 building that was destroyed in a fire Oct. 22, 2010. The ruins are now a memorial garden. (Peter Aaron Otto/Robert A.M. Stern Architects)

Daylong festivities of dedication, consecration point to the future

With three knocks on the door from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Virginia Theological Seminary began a year-long celebration its new Immanuel Chapel Oct. 13, just short of five years after its predecessor was destroyed by fire.

“In 2010 to the glory of God this chapel burned and was rebuilt 2015,” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said, beginning his sermon by paraphrasing a sign in Coventry Cathedral in England, which burned in 1940 and was rebuilt in 1962. “Is it possible? Can such an event ever be seen to glory of God? Why yes, because in death and resurrection we are drawn back into the presence of the living God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.”

Jefferts Schori stood outside the chapel and used her pastoral staff to knock three times on the chapel door and declared, “Let the doors be opened.” She then marked a sign of the cross on the threshold with the staff. “Peace be to this house and to all who enter here,” she said.

Following the order in the Book of Common Prayer, the episcopal participants blessed in turn the baptismal font (retired Diocese of Utah Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish, honorary co-chair of the capital campaign for the chapel), the processional cross and torches (retired Diocese of Easton Bishop James Shand, VTS board of trustees chair), the organ (Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry) and the ambo/pulpit  (25th Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, co-chair of the capital campaign for the chapel).

Jefferts Schori blessed the altar prior to it being vested and set for the Great Thanksgiving. Virginia Bishop Shannon Johnston blessed the ambry after communion.

The sequence hymn, written for the service by the Rev. Carl P. Daw Jr. as a gift from the Class of 2015, included the request that God “build us a faithful household set upon a holy hill.” The seminary commissioned its professor of church music, the Rev. William Bradley Roberts, to write “A Festal Gloria,” which was sung after the altar was vested and set, and before the peace.

All of it was in celebration of the new chapel building. Welby warned during his sermon that church buildings can be both blessings and burdens: “Sometimes they are the servants of the church,” he said, and sometimes they are the church’s tyrant with their “demands and instructions.”

Church buildings are only brick and mortar but, buildings such as the new Immanuel Chapel’s “astonishing and wonderful and beautiful space” welcome pilgrims and give them a sense of “exultation and beauty.”

People drawn together to worship come with untidy hearts filled with joy, sorrow, worry, undiscerned callings and shame of sin, and emerge transformed and reoriented towards service, he said. “Holiness is not neat and clean, abiding by rules,” he said. “It is fire and flame, consuming the dark and the dirt. It is beauty and fear, causing us to fall on our faces, appalled by our sin, drawn by its radiant light and healing heat. But holiness is never tidy.”

And, while worship can transform and reorient participants, it should never seek to make people conformists, he said. “Let this never be a place that seeks to tidy people up,” Welby said.

The archbishop called for the chapel to “orientate and shape those who will carry the torch of unity.” Saying his heart breaks when he contemplates the divisions in the world, Welby prayed, “O God, we needed a united church.”

Welby also cited the Anglican Communion’s divisions, “in which I am personally, deeply implicated.” He called on the congregation to “recognize, contemplate and mourn” the fact that “we too turn from God and lose sight of God’s mission.”
The church must be built on the rock of obedience to Jesus’ word, the archbishop said.

“There is no compromise with that message. Without it, this is a museum, an interesting social anthropology,” he said. “With Jesus as its focus and center, it is a channel of the breaking in of the kingdom of God. For Immanuel Chapel to live up to the beauty of its architecture it must a place not of tidiness or conformity but of transformation and daily conversion, as St. Benedict would have it. It is to be a place where the encounter with God turns a traveling crowd of pilgrims into the people who meet God in Christ.”

And, having met God in Christ, the pilgrims who come in as sinners, Welby said, “find forgiveness and go out with new heart and hope to transform a world in which otherwise darkness seems to extinguish light, fear surrounds and despair-filled suffering encompasses the weakest and the poorest.”

The text of Welby’s sermon is here.


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SOURCE: Episcopal News Service
Mary Frances Schjonberg

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