The burden of history and the possibilities of space

I spent the last week with an amazing group of Episcopal clergy who impressed me with their deep faith, their commitment to their ministries and communities, and their passion. Among the matters we discussed at some length, even though it wasn’t a theme of our meetings, was the future of the church in the midst of structural decline, demographic transformation, and a changing cultural context.

As I thought about those conversations, my own context, and my time in Richmond, I was struck by the burdens of history that we carry with us. For most of the clergy gathered together, a common experience was the histories of their parishes. Sometimes the burden of history plays itself out in patterns of conflict that recur over decades and generations. Sometimes the burden of history is the fading memories of a glorious past. Sometimes the burden of history is the sheer weight of a building that was constructed in and for a different time and context that demands enormous financial resources and limits our creativity and flexibility.

We’ve inherited a church that was designed for and adapted to the second half of the twentieth century and while that church served us well, it is singularly unfit for the present moment. Of course, I am speaking about our organizational structures, but the same thing could be said of our physical spaces. They were designed to serve a certain vision of church and to create certain kinds of community. We’ve tried to adapt our spaces at Grace to connect more effectively with our neighborhood and wider community. But our commitments to the integrity of the building and our traditional worship style prevented us from going further to reimagine our worship space for the twenty-first century.

For us at Grace, the burden of history can narrow our vision and our physical space can limit our imagination. But as I walked the streets of Richmond and visited St. Paul’s, I experienced the burden of history on a completely different level. I’m speaking of course of the legacies of slavery, the Confederacy and Civil War, and the Lost Cause.

St. Paul’s used to be called the “Cathedral of the Confederacy.” Jefferson Davis was worshiping there when he received word that Lee was withdrawing from Petersburg, leaving Richmond exposed to the Union Army. Davis left quietly and began his flight across the Confederacy. In the decades after the end of the war, St. Paul’s fabric was decorated with images of the Confederate battle flag and stained glass windows are said to have the faces of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee in images of Moses and St. Paul.

Recently, St. Paul’s has been engaging with its history and with the Confederate imagery displayed throughout its building. A story on that conversation, including the decision to remove images of the battle flag is here. St. Paul’s presentation of its history can be seen here.

A similar debate is occurring at the National Cathedral. Having removed images of the Confederate battle flag from stained glass windows, attention has now turned to the images of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The windows honoring the two generals were installed in 1953 with the support of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

But even if images are removed from all churches, the heavy burden of the past would continue to weigh down Christian churches. So, for example, the imposing statue of General Jeb Stuart on Richmond’s Monument Ave is surrounded by churches: UCC, Lutheran, and Presbyterian, which reminds of nothing so much as the ancient Christian practice of constructing churches and worshiping in the vicinity of martyrs’ graves.

Episcopalians in other parts of the country may breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t have to address directly the legacy of the Confederacy and slavery. Our historical burdens may be less obvious but they exist if we bother to explore our past in depth. The wealth accumulated from slavery was widely distributed, north and south. Our close identification with the nation and with the American aristocracy has implicated us in Colonialism, the destruction of Native American culture and communities, and has created barriers to our full embrace of our nation’s diversity.

For us to thrive in the twenty-first century, we must not only engage with the sins of our past. We must also be willing to allow our sclerotic institutional structures to die, adapt ourselves to the present and future, and make our spaces places of invitation and welcome to all. A question at the forefront of all our conversations should be how is our space experienced by visitors and newcomers? What do they see and feel when they enter?

 

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