By the Rev. Mark Michael
“We will only endure — this building will only be what it should be — if we are built on Jesus. There is no compromise with that message. Without it this is a museum of interesting social anthropology. With Jesus as its focus and center, it is a channel of the breaking in of the kingdom of God.”
With these ringing words, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby set forth the purpose of Virginia Theological Seminary’s new Immanuel Chapel, which was consecrated at a grand celebration on Oct. 13. The Episcopal Church’s 25th, 26th, and future presiding bishops shared in leading worship at the consecration Eucharist and festival Evensong services, which gathered thousands of students, alumni, and friends of the seminary from around the world.
The preacher at the Eucharist and officiant at Evensong, Welby began with a stark reminder of the destructive fire that struck the former Immanuel Chapel nearly five years before.
“In 2010, to the glory of God this chapel burned, and was rebuilt 2015,” he said, adapting words etched on the ruins of Coventry Cathedral. The destruction and rebuilding of the chapel provided, he noted, an invitation to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Standing at the center of the seminary campus, the chapel provides an opportunity to focus anew on how an “untidy crowd of pilgrims” from around the world is formed to serve in the ministry of the church, Welby said. The archbishop expressed his hope that the chapel would become a place where Jesus is revealed, “where confronted by that mystery and love we fall in worship, find ourselves reorientated through the liturgy, are captivated by God’s holiness, and sent out to do his will.”
The Very Rev. Ian Markham, who has served as the seminary’s dean and president in what he called “a long hard journey” leading to this moment, echoed the archbishop’s words. “Worship of God is the reason for our being. A seminary must always have a chapel in which men and women who are striving for leadership in the church can struggle in prayer as the potter molds their clay lives,” he said. “We did not simply celebrate the consecration of a chapel, but we also celebrated the purpose of our chapel. We worshiped God. And we did so with the Archbishop of Canterbury present — representing the Anglican Communion. It was simply a fabulous celebration.”
The building’s architect, Robert Stern, said he aimed to make the structure look “as if it has always been here.” He chose an exterior of red Virginia brick, a square Colonial-style tower with eight change-ringing bells, and ornamental cornices patterned on those of the surrounding buildings. The interior is a soaring and elegant yet surprisingly intimate space, designed in the shape of a Greek cross, with the altar placed on a central dais. An oculus floods white walls with natural light. The architect cited the Pantheon, Sir John Soames’s Bank of England, and Bernard Maybeck’s First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Berkeley, California, as inspirations.
An enormous double-decker iron chandelier dominates the interior and enhances a state-of-the-art lighting and audiovisual system. With flexible seating, simple fittings, and image projection on four screens, the space is designed to “invite the seminary to move into the church of the future,” accommodating many different forms of worship.
It also has superb acoustics and a large pipe organ, designed by the Virginia firm Taylor and Boody. A smaller Gothic-style oratory and octagonal meditation room, as well as a parlor, children’s room, and preparation rooms, flank the chapel’s central worship space. The building is surrounded by gardens and courtyards connecting to the main entrance of the campus and the ruins of the 1881 chapel, now a memorial garden.
The services, replete with incense and choral music, marked for some a distinctive break with the seminary’s evangelical heritage. The consecration service featured the dedication of the seminary’s first aumbry for sacramental reservation, and the Marian Evensong centered on the dedication of a prominent new icon of the Incarnation and a statue of the Visitation.
The Rt. Rev. Gregory Brewer, Bishop of Central Florida and a 1976 VTS graduate, quipped that “with the consecration of this chapel the high church-low church wars in the Episcopal Church are over.” The Rev. Mary Thorpe, the Diocese of Virginia’s transition minister and a 2009 graduate, said the celebration’s mix of traditions highlighted the way in which the seminary had grown “to embrace the length and breadth of the Anglican Communion.”
The Communion’s continuing struggle for unity was not neglected in the midst of the festive celebration. In a poignant and spontaneous moment in his sermon, Archbishop Welby said, “My heart breaks when I think of our divisions. How they offend Christ. … O God, we need a united Church. Let this place orientate and shape those who will carry the torch of unity.”
The challenge of reconciliation also emerged in a series of panel discussions hosted in coordination with the event by the seminary’s Center for Anglican Communion Studies. David Porter, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Canon for Reconciliation, compared Anglican conflicts to the American Civil War and perennial violence in the Middle East. “Civil wars are the most difficult conflicts to put back together,” he said. “But you don’t have a generation or two to heal this civil war — we need to do this now.”
For current VTS student Jon Musser, the event marked out the seminary’s potential to play a significant role in that healing: “The archbishop’s presence highlighted our role in the Anglican Communion and that VTS is positioned uniquely in the Episcopal Church as an institution with lots of Anglican partners, and a history of global connectivity.”
The wounds of our common life, though, seemed far from minds of many alumni who returned to rekindle old friendships and to pray for a beloved institution at a uniquely blessed time.
The Rev. Margaret Peel (2013) shared her memories of standing in the seminary’s central grove as the fire engulfed the 1881 chapel and made the central stained-glass window explode. “We were without a full-time chapel for two years during my time here,” she said. “It’s good to know that the seminarians here will have a church home.”
For the Rev. Liston Garfield (1985), this new place evoked fond memories of the past. “The old chapel was such a center for our worship, a source of peace, deep reflection, and meditation. I wanted to come back to see if this place will do the same thing. They have recaptured what the old chapel was about. … I really feel at home.”
Interior image of Immanuel Chapel by Carol Kyber/VTS