St. Paul's, Alexandria 200th anniversary dinner

St. Paul's, Alexandria 200th anniversary dinner

Virginia Theological Seminary
December 16, 2008

I've been to several major anniversary celebrations in recent weeks. Last weekend I was in Cincinnati celebrating 100 years with Redeemer parish. Two weeks before that I was on Staten Island, celebrating 300 years with St. Andrew's, on the feast of St. Andrew. Last year I was in Jamestown on three different occasions to mark the 400th anniversary of Anglican presence on these shores. Your celebration has its roots right in the center of Anglican history on this coast ' and that place in a cardinal, hinge-point place may have something to do with your remarkable ability to value your heritage and yet keep looking forward into the future where God is calling us.

You've shown yourselves as a congregation able to read the signs of the times, and able to do something to heal the brokenness you have found around you ' both next door and across the world. That ability has resulted in two significant legacies: ministries of education and ministries of healing. Formal theological education began here in 1823 after an abortive attempt to start a seminary in Williamsburg. Virginia Theological Seminary owes its beginnings to a class of 14 who began to meet at St. Paul's. Faced with failure, your ancestors said yes, anyway, and this institution is the result.

This parish also started a Sunday school in 1818, a school that had the enlightened thought that both white and black children could profit from learning to read and write and do their figures. At least until fear shut the door. When Nat Turner led an uprising here in 1831, an uprising born of the same yearning for freedom out of which this nation was born, fear produced a law forbidding the teaching of black children. It has taken a long time to sequester that fear or let it be transformed. Other heirs, like the high school, have opened the door again, proclaiming the equal human dignity of access to education.

The second rector of St. Paul's, William Holland Wilmer, served here from 1812 until 1826, and founded St. John's, Lafayette Square. He actually served as rector there at the same time he was rector here. When he left, it was to become president of William and Mary College and rector of Bruton Parish. It's abundantly clear that clergy had more free time then than they do today!

That ministry of teaching flourishes to this day, and seems to have had something to do with other kinds of educational ministry, like Episcopal High School, that started in 1839, under the direction of the Rev. William Pendleton. He went on to be a confederate general as well as rector of Grace Church in Lexington, Virginia ' though not at the same time. You are still supporting educational ministries ' the Alexandria Tutoring Consortium, Saturday school, and the many educational programs serving the parish.

The ministry of healing began early in this place, and continues to the present. The Civil War saw the sanctuary and outbuildings used as hospitals to care for the wounded. In 1872, Julia Johns led a move to start the Alexandria Infirmary Association. It developed into Alexandria Hospital, began surgery in 1882, a nurses school ' there's the educational ministry again ' in 1894, and outpatient care in 1900. In 1961, this was the first hospital to staff an emergency room with physicians dedicated to emergency care 24 hours a day, an innovation known as the Alexandria Plan. It changed the face of medicine across the world.

This parish continues to be involved in ministries of healing, through work with shelters, northern Virginia AIDS ministry, and various crisis ministries. The Highland Education Project, like many of the other ways in which you serve, involves both education and healing.

But caring for the desperately ill or injured and educating many sorts and conditions of people are not the only creative ministries and responses to the gospel to arise here. Your sanctuary has seen some significant changes over its 190 years. Its architect, Benjamin Latrobe, designed it with a large pulpit stationed in front of a small alcove that held the altar. It's a curious thought to most of us today, but it reflected the very low-church form of liturgy then common in Virginia. As worship became somewhat less focused on preaching through the 1800s, the pulpit was moved to the side, and in 1906, the alcove was pushed back 40 feet to make a large chancel. This place seems to have been known for the rather radical form of its liturgy in the midst of a decidedly low-church diocese. 40 years ago, the altar was even moved well out from the wall ' long before most places even began to think such surprising thoughts. I was in a church in Cincinnati on Saturday that moved theirs out only a year ago.

Your history through the Civil War seems to have been focused on survival, with members of St. Paul's staunchly aligned with the Confederacy. After Union troops occupied Alexandria, some soldiers came to services one Sunday early in 1862. When the Rev. K.J. Stewart failed to pray for the President of the U.S., and simply omitted the usual prayer for the leader of the nation, they took offense. They put their pistols to his head and swords to his backside and marched him out of here, in cassock and surplice, down to the jail. The military command let him out pretty quickly, but they closed the church until after the war ended, and turned it into a hospital. There's a fascinating comment about the resistance to the Union troops on that day, and I quote: 'On that same day, a warning was issued to 'females and others,' threatening arrest for offensive remarks and demonstrations ' prompted, no doubt, by the actions of several St. Paul's ladies, including one who is said to have dropped her Prayer Book down from the gallery onto the head of an offending officer. I wonder whose mama she was.

I sense you are still stirring things up, and that that kind of energy is being used constructively for healing and teaching and innovation in this place. I gather that a similar passion is being turned toward the Diocese of Renk and indeed the whole of the Episcopal Church of Sudan ' there is a gospel overturning!

From what I have been able to discover about your ministry in this place over two hundred years, it might be best characterized by 'bloom where you are planted. You have a remarkable ability to discern the needs of the community around you, and tend to those needs in healing ways. Keep nurturing that ability to look carefully, and find an appropriate response. Keep expanding your view ' here in Alexandria, in northern Virginia, in the Appalachians, and now reaching to Sudan. The world needs your passion. Be the light of Christ you know. Shine on a world in darkness, and your responsiveness will keep you growing and thriving and shining for another 200 years.

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