By Mark Michael
Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) marked 200 years of ministry with four days of special lectures, worship services, and fun events for families on its campus in Alexandria, Virginia, on October 11-14. Seminary officials framed the events as “an opportunity to think about both the positive and negative aspects of its history,” and focused on several global partnerships and the continuing work toward healing and racial justice.
In a sermon at the crowded Festival Eucharist in Immanuel Chapel, the Very Rev. Ian Markham, who has served as Virginia’s dean and president since 2007, said, “Let us mark the journey of Virginia Theological Seminary, a journey of 200 years, a journey of sin and grace, of flaws and faithfulness … a journey that has not ended. We still have much further to go.”
“Today we tell the complete story of the past. We especially honor those names that we have suppressed. …Their spirit and their prayers can never be truly snuffed out. They live on this campus, and we intend to honor them and to hear what they have to say to us today,” he added.
The Protestant Episcopal Seminary of Virginia opened in 1823, in rooms loaned by St. Paul’s Church, with two teachers and a class of 14 men. It was intended by its founders as an evangelical alternative to the Episcopal Church’s first seminary, the General Theological Seminary of New York.
Long famous as a center for training missionaries, the seminary’s Immanuel Chapel continues to bear the charge “Go Ye into All the World and Preach the Gospel.” It is now the largest and most financially secure Episcopal seminary, and its former rival, General Seminary, became a formally affiliated institution under VTS’s control in 2022.
In 2019, VTS created a $1.7 million endowment to make reparations for its historical complicity in slavery and racial injustice, the first major Episcopal institution to do so. Dividends from the fund are providing compensation to the descendants of slaves and undercompensated Black laborers who worked on its campus in past generations.
Honoring James Solomon Russell
In the spirit of recognizing forgotten heroes, on October 13 the seminary dedicated a portrait of James Solomon Russell, the first graduate of Bishop Payne Divinity School.
Founded in Petersburg, Virginia, with financial support from VTS in 1878, Bishop Payne Divinity School trained Black seminarians and lay leaders for ministry in the Episcopal Church until its eventual merger with VTS in 1953. It was named for the Rt. Rev. John Payne (1815-74), a VTS graduate and the first Bishop of the Diocese of Liberia in West Africa. The Russell portrait will hang in the seminary’s Bishop Payne Library.
Russell was a deeply influential missionary and educator who mentored many seminarians and priests, and was the first archdeacon appointed to oversee Black churches in the Diocese of Southern Virginia. He founded St. Paul’s College, a historically Black four-year Episcopal college in Lawrenceville, Virginia, in 1888. He is honored on the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints on March 28.
The college closed in 2013 due to financial challenges, but several of its graduates were present for the celebration, including the Rev. John Harmon, Bishop-elect of Arkansas. K. Christopher Stephen, a classmate of Harmon’s who serves as president of St. Paul’s College 4 Life, a community-education center located near the former campus site, offered the prayer of dedication for the painting.
Joshua Waits, the seminary archivist and member of the class of 2024, commissioned Gerald Byrd, a Black artist from Carrollton, Georgia, to paint the portrait. One of his classmates, Charlotte Meyer, paid for the framing.
“Fifty years ago, the library was named to honor and preserve the work of Bishop Payne Divinity School. as well as its graduates, who gave of themselves, that they may bring the liberating gospel to the oppressed. Today, our seminary commits to acknowledging our historical participation in that oppression and working towards reparations and reconciliation,” Waits said at the ceremony.
“In this same spirit, I gained a conviction that Russell, the first graduate of Bishop Payne and a saint in our church, needed to be honored in a significant and lasting way, here on the VTS campus. My hope is that through this portrait, we not only lift up the holy life of one person, but the lives of all who went through the hallowed halls of Bishop Payne Divinity School, and that we renew our commitment to the marginalized in our society.”
Henry Russell, who unveiled the painting with several of his children and grandchildren, said, “My great-grandfather’s life journey began as a young boy walking barefooted behind a mule to tend the garden and fields — to the Episcopal priesthood as a young man … to establishing a four-year institution lasting 125 years, educating countless young graduates. His mission in life, I believe, was just to do God’s work, to serve and to love his fellow man regardless of race, creed, or color. Our family is most grateful and honored to witness this wonderful recognition.”
‘A People of Reconciliation’
Later in the day, Dean Markham moderated a video conversation with Archbishop Hosam Naoum of Jerusalem, a VTS alumnus who had planned to serve as celebrant at the Festival Eucharist before war broke out between Israel and Hamas.
Naoum confirmed that he and his family were safe, but expressed great concern about the diocesan-owned Al Ahli Hospital, a 60-bed facility in Gaza City, which he had visited just two days before Hamas killed more than 1,000 Israelis.
“The hospital has had a wonderful witness at this very hard time, and is welcoming all kinds of surgeries, and [treating] injuries, especially the burn unit. They are doing significant work of healing and health care at this time,” he said. The hospital was reportedly destroyed by an explosion on October 17, leaving hundreds of people dead.
Archbishop Naoum acknowledged that it’s very difficult for Christians in the region to know how to speak clearly about the current conflict. “You’re talking about who has the truth or who claims the truth, what is justice, whose justice. These are difficult questions that we are faced with daily in this land, and people who have more power can say more things and be heard more. But we as Christians are called to care for everybody. We come as people of reconciliation, as bridge-builders, and as people who call for a just and lasting peace in Jerusalem and the wider Middle East,” he said.
“We continue despite all that is happening, [because] we have a treasure that is Jerusalem, a place of hope and the city of the resurrection that continues to inspire us; that God has promised us something much better than this, and we will continue to work hand in hand as churches in order to bring a better life to every human person.”
History, Mission, and Poetry
The bicentennial’s first day focused on issues of telling the complex story of racism in the church’s life, and highlighted the resources of the seminary’s African American Episcopal Historical Collection, which marked its 20th anniversary this year. A symposium sponsored by the collection and the historical society considered the question “How did we become a segregated church and what can we do about that?” The Rt. Rev. Gayle Harris, assistant bishop in the Diocese of Virginia, offered a keynote address at a banquet celebrating the collection.
On October 12, The Rt. Rev. Renta Nishihara, Bishop of Chubu in the Anglican Church of Japan (Nippon Sei Ko Kai) and president of Tokyo’s Rikkyo University, recounted the witness of Bishop Channing Moore Williams, an 1855 graduate of VTS who founded Rikkyo and served as Japan’s first Anglican bishop.
He recounted the many obstacles Williams faced in preaching the gospel in a land long noted for its hostility to outsiders, and praised his humble spirit, deep piety, and courage.
“Following market principles, one would never take the risk of starting a Christian school in a land where Christianity was illegal,” Nishihara said. “We seek to be a place where we can hear the call that our founder, your alumnus, Channing Moore Williams, came to hear as closely as possible.”
English poet and Anglican priest Malcolm Guite also read and commented on a series of five sonnets commissioned by the seminary to mark the bicentennial. The series follows the liturgical year, he said, but also aims “to reach in and gather [your] story — dark times as well as times of renewal and regeneration.”
One passage said:
The turning seasons turn us, till we make
The long repentance of the restless heart;
The journey into one another’s pain
Which is Christ’s journey into us.
“There will be a journey to get to the heart of this, to wonder what we look like through the eyes of another. The way you have taken that on, the way you wanted to learn, to have your perspective changed, seems to me like that journey into one another’s pain. He comes in through the other we have othered, and changes our perspective,” Guite said.
A bicentennial campaign also raised more than $60 million in the past several years. This was used to increase scholarship funding for students, to endow professorships, and to expand lifelong education programs. The campaign also supported the renovation of several buildings on campus, including the main academic building, the library, and Bicentenary Hall, a former library that now serves as a seminar room and event space, as well as the exhibition space for a 3,000-year-old Assyrian temple relief.