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From the ashes: new chapel consecrated at Virginia Theological Seminary

Posted on: October 14, 2015 11:42 AM
The new chapel at the Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, USA
Photo Credit: VTS

[ACNS] The fire that gutted the Victorian chapel at the Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) in Alexandria, USA, should be seen as being “to the Glory of God”, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said.

Archbishop Justin Welby made the comments in a sermon yesterday (Tuesday, 13 October) in a service at which the new VTS’ Chapel for the Ages was consecrated by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Revd Katharine Jefferts Schori.

“In 2010, to the Glory of God this chapel burned, and was rebuilt 2015,” Archbishop Welby said, alluding to the brass words in the floor of England’s Coventry Cathedral – “To the glory of God this Cathedral burned, 14th November 1940 and was rebuilt 25th May 1962.”

Archbishop Welby said: “To the Glory of God this chapel burned. Is it possible? Can such an event ever be seen to be to the 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.”

The old VTS Immanuel Chapel was gutted by a devastating fire in October 2010. For 129 years it had stood at the heart of the VTS and had been the place where thousands of lay and ordained people from the Episcopal Church and wider Anglican Communion had worshipped as they trained for their ministries.

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Firefighters tackle the fire at the Virginia Theological Seminary chapel in October 2010. Photo: VTS

“A steady stream of leaders have knelt at the Immanuel Chapel altar rail, preached from the great pulpit, and gazed out the mission window with the iconic words [“Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel”], imagining how they themselves would ‘go ye into the world and preach the gospel,’ the VTS said in a series of webpages devoted to the new chapel.

“As the name ‘Immanuel’ implies, God is with us. The company of saints known and unknown who are part of the VTS family have, for generations, dedicated themselves to the Seminary’s well-being and service in Christ’s long and faithful procession.”

VTS was established in 1823 by the vestry of St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Old Town Alexandria to form leaders for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Since then, “we have educated and shaped generations of church leaders who have faithfully proclaimed the Gospel throughout the world,” VTS said. “The work that God called us to do is as important today as it was 189 years ago.”

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The aftermath of the October 2010 fire at the Virginia Theological Seminary chapel. Photo: VTS

In his sermon, Archbishop Justin Welby said that buildings can be seen as a burden, and he told the congregation that 9,000 of the Church of England’s 15,000 church buildings were “officially listed as [being] of historic significance and thus protected in one way or another”, imposing burdens on parish priests.

Using an example from the Winnie the Pooh stories where Pooh bear was using a honey pot to reach safety during a flood, he said that, in the story, “sometimes Pooh was on the honey pot and sometimes the honey pot was on Pooh”.

He continued: “Buildings can be like that. Sometimes they are the servants of the Church, and sometimes they are on top, her tyrant.

“The Church is, after all, dynamic in its beauty and its figure, whereas a building is static. So why is it that we are so addicted to buildings, and what is it about this astonishing and wonderful and beautiful space that capture the eye and the heart and the imagination? What is it about this space, this building on a holy hill, that enables us to feel a sense of exultation and beauty as we come in?”

The building, he said, would be “a museum of interesting social anthropology” unless it was used as a place “of transformation and daily conversion.”

“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,” he said. “It is to be a place which accepts our motley variety and untidiness, because it is full of human beings who are all sinners; but in which those who come in as sinners 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.”

Two services were held yesterday at the start of a series of events marking the new chapel’s “Dedicatory Year.” Following the consecration service, which was also attended by the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop-Designate, the Rt Revd Michael Curry, a special choral evensong was held at which a number of items within the Chapel were dedicated.

These included eight change ringing bells, made at London’s famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which were blessed by the former Presiding Bishop, the Rt Revd Frank T. Griswold III, and named the Hooff Norman Bells.

And the Archbishop of Canterbury dedicated an Icon of the Incarnation by Olga Shalamova; and a sculpture of Mary as Prophet, by Margaret Adams Parker.

The new chapel has been built a short distance away from the footprint of the former chapel, which has now been turned into a reflective garden space, which was opened two years ago.

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A reflective garden now sits in the footprint of the former chapel, while the new chapel can be seen in the distance. Photo: VTS

“The consecration of this space has never been revoked, even after the tragic fire that brought about the chapel’s destruction,” the Rt Revd James J. Shand, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Easton and chair of the VTS board of trustees, said as the garden was opened.

“Now, thanks to the kindness of generous benefactors, a new mission has come into being for this place: that this Chapel Garden might be a place of meditation and worship and that it might be a place where members of the wider Seminary family and its friends might be buried.”

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The October 2010 fire at the former Virginia Theological Seminary chapel. Photo: VTS

  • Click here to read the full text of Archbishop Welby's sermon