Nature and Grace

A Sermon for the Service of Dedication and Consecration of the Bishop’s Chapel at Roslyn

In Honor of the Right Reverend Peter James Lee Twelfth Bishop of Virginia

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

This is a great day for the Diocese of Virginia, for Roslyn, and for all of us who love and admire the Twelfth Bishop of Virginia. We are here in the spirit of gratitude for his ministry among us, in the Episcopal Church, and in the wider Anglican Communion. His episcopate is an enduring example of grace in action, and in the vocabulary of architecture we have come to thank God for the vocation of The Right Reverend Peter James Lee. Together we mark his faithful servanthood, his wise and intelligent leadership, his elegant and eloquent style, his comprehensive Episcopal vision for our diocesan mission, and his incisive pastoral care. We recognize these godly gifts in an occasion of worship. Our response to the Giver of these blessings is meet and right, as we offer to God this beautiful chapel built in Bishop Lee’s honor. Likewise we ask God to sanctify this Bishop’s Chapel as a place where God’s people will be edified and nurtured, forgiven and blessed for generations to come.

Our liturgy is a service of dedication and consecration. To dedicate is to set apart for sacred purposes. To consecrate is to declare something as sacred. These actions are interconnected, and they are interdependent; their efficacy relies on the power of the Spirit. Ultimately, God is the One who makes things holy. And yet, by God’s grace, the Church and her ministries are called to proclaim what God is doing in our midst. Thus we dedicate and consecrate this chapel, knowing that God transforms and completes what we do in God’s Name. The Bishop’s Chapel is meant to honor the historic significance of one ministry and to affirm the Episcopal leadership of our diocese in the past, in the present, and in the future. Many hearts and minds have collaborated to make this chapel a reality. Support has taken many forms – from prayer and imagination, discussion and planning, design and engineering, fine craftsmanship and attention to detail, to skillful fund raising and enthusiastic donations. Accordingly, with this ritual of thanksgiving we ask God to take what we have wrought to God’s glory and in honor of Bishop Lee, and to affirm the holiness of this gathering place by animating the structure with the Spirit of faith, hope, and love.

And so we’ve gathered in this architectural jewel, which is poised for action on the brow of a hill. It is one of many rolling hills in this lovely tract of land. Yet for me, the place on which this structure sits is more than a great choice because the elevations are spectacular. This hill is holy, and I’m not the first to sense that it is.

In my boyhood, some fifty years ago, when snow began to fall in earnest, the word quickly passed among my friends: “Meet at Roslyn.” And meet we did. We gathered here in droves for one simple reason. It was (and is) the best sledding in Richmond.

As a youth I paused at the brow of this hill, placed my old Flexible Flyer on the blanket of snow, and leapt aboard for the fastest, steepest, most exciting ride around. The thrill of the descent was matched by the fear of what lies at the base of this promontory, the Kanawha Canal, which once served as an arterial highway west to the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’ve seen many a sled catch air the end of its run, and plunge into the icy waters of the canal. Surviving was half the fun.

After the exhilarating ride, as I trudged back up this hill, I’d feel the incline, and I’d look up to the blue sky, and I’d wonder, “This place is great; who owns it?” I had no idea what Roslyn was, but I knew, even then, that it was special – a place set apart. Little did I imagine that in twenty years I’d be meeting here again as an aspirant to Holy Orders. And not long after, that I’d return to meet again – this time on retreat with parishioners to pray, and to dream, and to plan for the building of New St. Mary’s.

This hill, which served as the physical foundation for Ms. Annie Rose Walker’s country farmhouse, rises above the canal, the low grounds, the railroad, and the James River. It is the silent supervisor of Roslyn – a promontory with an “episcopal” role of overseeing the graceful southern vista of what has become the retreat and conference center for the Diocese of Virginia. Since 1934, when Ms. Walker gave this hallowed ground to the diocese, people have gathered here for reflection and prayer, spiritual refreshment and inspiration. Generations have sat on the porch of Powers Hall, reclined on the grass, and gazed at the beauty stretching out below the crest of the hill. Diocesan business has been conducted here – the standing committee, the executive board, and regional deans and presidents, the commission on ministry, Church Schools, the Episcopal Church Women, and other key groups have met in or very near this place. And families, congregations, and seekers of solace, comfort, and guidance have convened here to ask for God’s spiritual direction.

This is clearly a special place, a place most suitable for the Bishop’s Chapel. It is as if this hill were beckoning us to crown it with a sacred structure articulating the holiness that it radiates. The Good Shepherd, who leads us in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake, has led us to this day, and to this place. The chapel is a witness to the pastoral guidance of our Lord and to the shepherds who minister to this diocesan flock. Our God bid us to come hither and give thanks. We’re just catching up to where God is, and proclaiming what God has made possible.

“Architecture is the three-dimensional expression of faith.”[1] That’s what I was told by a church architect who helped us produce a form commensurate with our shared parish mission. He was right. The design of a structure dedicated to sacred use declares what the people believe. It announces commitment, values, aspirations, and awareness of what finally matters. Look around you; what you see is speaking to you.

When the idea of a chapel for Roslyn was developing, Bishop Lee voiced his preference for a simple Carpenter Gothic structure – something faithful to the Gothic ideal, but not too fancy. Gothic architecture of the High Medieval period highlighted the synthesis of nature and grace. It bespoke its belief in the Christ above culture.[2] The design takes natural perception of God’s presence and points it heavenward, where God’s grace fulfills faith. Hence, its form is high and lifted up – all lines prompt us to raise our eyes, and to seek Christ in heavenly worship.

Carpenter Gothic appeared during the Victorian era, when the Gothic Revival sought to correct what was seen as an aridly rational Enlightenment period, which removed much of the mystery of Christian devotion. Carpenter Gothic, unlike the stone and masonry structures built during the revival, was so designated because it was produced by local carpenters. Constructed out of wood, these country churches resembled their high-priced, urban cousins. They featured sharply-pitched rooflines, and the pointed arch windows, and vertical board-and-batten siding. Some parishes had the resources for stained glass, but others opted for cheaper clear windows.

The construction materials reflected lack of funding for a more expensive version of the ideal. But thank God for frugality, because the simplicity of the Carpenter Gothic makes a bold statement about priorities. Limited resources must be apportioned for mission and ministry. And windows that do not shut out, but include the world say volumes about the relationship of nature and grace.

This chapel is a splendid example of Carpenter Gothic on fast-forward. Its design and its materials are by choice, rather than by necessity. The faith of Virginia’s bishops is evident here. The structure respects heritage and tradition, but leans into the future instead of clinging to the past. Its design is a faithful articulation of the ideal; however, it refrains from reiterating time-worn features. Some might think it modern, but I see it as timely. It not only reflects Bishop Lee’s preference, but his central values as well.

The verticality of its lines is reaching heavenward, and drawing our eyes up to the apex of a steeply-pitched roof. This design says, “Lift up your hearts,” as it calls us to consider the transcendence of God. Its horizontal openness, made possible by walls of glass, symbolizes the immanence of God. The building materials are drawn from nature, and its chancel furnishings are finely polished cherry, begging us to touch their finished surfaces, to breathe in their aroma, and to drink in their color. These glories of the horizontal axis remind us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Nature is where grace is incarnate; it is the world that God seeks to save through his Son.

When viewed at night from the bridge below us, the Bishop’s Chapel is a lantern on the holy hill – a beacon of the Spirit. It sheds light on the world; it calls us to Christ. When one approaches this chapel on foot by day or by night, natural light passing through it, or artificial light emanating from its interior, reveals an arrow aimed heavenward formed by the wood and glass of the north-facing entrance. At the point of the arrow we see the cross of Christ. And from within this sacred space, facing this pulpit or standing before the holy table, we see the world through clear glass. God’s creation is invited in, and we are invited to look outward. The natural reredos shows us trees instead of statuary, blue sky and clouds instead of silk hangings. The Cross gracing the sanctuary window proclaims a love that accepts, suffers with, and blesses the world. In this simple design nature and grace intersect to produce a new synthesis – a new creation – one that “points beyond itself to the reality of God, and to the reality of people God calls.”[3]

Those were your words to us, Bishop, when you preached at the dedication and consecration of New St. Mary’s. The truth is that church architecture points beyond itself. It is not about anything we have achieved, but rather serves as a sign and instrument for God’s people. This you based on the text for a service such as this from I Kings. Solomon, the superstar of the Davidic monarchy, struck the right stance in his prayer at the dedication of Jerusalem’s first temple. Instead of exuding pride and triumph over what he had done, the king’s prayer was marked with reverence and humility. Solomon prayed, “‘Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built! Yet have regard to the prayer of thy servant and to his supplication, O Lord my God, yea, hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place; and when thou hearest, forgive.’”[4]

On that day in 1992, Bishop Lee applied the biblical message to our liturgy of dedication. His faith commitment shows in what he said then, and it is evident now in what this architecture proclaims:

In the midst of our celebration and thanksgiving for all that has been accomplished, we approach the loving mystery of God today in a similar spirit of wonder and of prayer, knowing that God dwells on earth among his people – people of all kinds, people of all colors, people of all languages, people whom he calls to bear his name, people who are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, members of the household of God, joined together, growing into a holy temple, built on the foundation of Jesus Christ himself.[5]

This chapel is built on that foundation; its sacred mission is manifest in nature and grace. The faith that the Lees represent is declared in this design.

I have known Kristy Knapp Lee since my childhood. Our families were neighbors, and I was a schoolmate of both her sister, Andie, and her brother, Richard. When Kristy was a student at Duke, she served as the lifeguard of our local swimming pool. Seated above us on her stand, smiling wisely and twirling her authoritative silver whistle, Kristy was the picture of bright, pretty, and cool. But she would surpass all that in May of 1970 when, as the young wife of the assistant rector of St. John’s, Lafayette Square, she greeted a group of us at the door of their Washington home dressed in denim bell bottoms, chambray work shirt, and a peace-symbol headband. Wow! What a memory. We students had come to the capitol to protest the war in Vietnam following the Kent State shootings. The Lees offered us floor space for our sleeping bags and breakfast before we went to lobby Congress. It was a great experience for an enthusiastic college senior.

Kristy’s husband, a fellow Washington and Lee graduate, was already legendary in my circle of friends. I knew that he was a major student leader before us, and that he was exceedingly smart and accomplished, and that he had become an Episcopal priest. I found all of that intriguing. A W&L star who had decided to serve rather than to be served. Fascinating. Who knew such a thing was possible?

Well, when I learned that I would be welcomed as a war protestor to stay in the home of Peter and Kristy Lee, I was thrilled, but nervous. I had seen Peter Lee once at W&L during a student-alumni conference. But I’d never met him in person. So the prospect of being a guest in his home was daunting.

We got to D. C. late, and after our wonderful reception by Kristy, we settled in and unrolled our sleeping bags. The Reverend Peter Lee was still at work; my only remembrance of his arrival that night was the heavy thud of the front door. When I awoke the next morning, and appeared for breakfast bright and early, I learned that the assistant rector had already left for St. John’s. It struck me then with considerable force that Peter James Lee was serious about his vocation. That thought remained with me, and when he was elected twelfth Bishop of Virginia, I learned that my assumption not only held true, but was an understatement. The man who served for a quarter century as our bishop has been recognized throughout the Anglican communion, as well as in ecumenical and political contexts, for his unswerving devotion to Christ and for his unwavering stance as a servant leader in the Episcopal Church.

Bishop Lee, we dedicate and consecrate this chapel in the Name of the God who makes this place holy, and we do so in your honor. Like the cathedral in which you were ordained, it will be a house of prayer for all people. Like the Chapel of the Cross whence you came to us, it is a chapel on a hill, where we gather at the foot the cross. Like the other chapel in Virginia that bears the name of Lee, it will be a place of reverence, remembrance, and inspiration. And, like the Cathedral Shrine of the Transfiguration, this is a space set apart, yet in continuity with the natural world from which it was created, and for which its ministry is devoted for the sake of Christ, our rock and our redeemer.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let it be. Amen.

 

 


[1] This declaration, made by Clovis Heimsath, AIA, of Austin, Texas, who informed and guided the parish design committee that produced the plans for additions to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Goochland County, Virginia in 1992.

[2] H. Richard Niebuhr coined this term to designate the High Medieval type of Christian theology and ethics. It occurs in his book, Christ and Culture (1956), and is evident in the work of Thomas Aquinas.

[3] The Right Reverend Peter James Lee, the 12th Bishop of Virginia, “The People Beyond the Building,” a sermon preached at the Dedication and Consecration of new church buildings at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. Dover Parish, in Goochland County, Virginia, Sunday, October 11, 1992.

[4] I Kings 8:27-30

[5] Op.cit., The Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee.

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