Posted by: Titus Presler | November 5, 2010

Mission inscription among losses in Virginia Seminary Chapel fire

Among the many losses in the catastrophic fire that on Oct. 22 destroyed the historic 1881 Immanuel Chapel of Virginia Theological Seminary, the largest and second oldest seminary of the Episcopal Church, was the missional inscription over the Great Commission window behind the altar: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel,” the quotation from Jesus at Mark 16:15.

Chapel sanctuary

As a missiologist, I had always been struck by the inscription.  In a Victorian-style chapel with lots of finely chiseled points, the inscription was startling for its stark boldness: large black letters on a white background, the font quite plain rather than elaborate.  With world mission subjected to skepticism in the world at large and scrutiny within churches throughout the 20th century, what I call the Century of Self-Criticism, the inscription was a counter-sign insisting on the continuing mandate of gospel proclamation to all peoples.  This was particularly notable in a centrist theological institution forming people for ministry in the contemporary world.

The missional force of the inscription at the center of the life of a seminary struck innumerable people over the years, regardless of how they felt about it.  This was reflected in the fact that the second paragraph of the seminary’s Oct. 22 news release about the fire mentioned it: “It is clear that significant damage has occurred, including the loss of the stained glass windows and iconic words ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel.'”

It will be interesting to see whether those words continue to be iconic in whatever approach the seminary takes in building a new chapel.  I hope they are highlighted in some central way.

In a reflection on the chapel loss, church history professor Robert Prichard specifically highlighted how the missional message of the chapel reflected the missional commitment of the seminary:

What I will most miss are those reminders of generations of outgoing students who served in foreign mission.  Three particular elements come to mind:  1) The altar rail, made from wood brought from Liberia, where John Payne (VTS 1836) served as the first bishop.  2) The stunning Tiffany Windows in the liturgical North transept.  Depicting Paul making a case for the Gospel before King Agrippa and Queen Bernice, they were given by Mrs. Henry B. Gilpin in thanksgiving for the life of William Cabel Brown (VTS 1891) who went from Virginia Seminary to serve as one of the founders of the Episcopal Church in Brazil.  3) The window over the altar depicting Christ’s Great Commission with the inscription “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel.”  A gift of Mrs. S. F. Houston of Philadelphia, it has inspired generations of worshipers.

For me, the inscription stood out more than the window.  While attractive, the window was a fairly conventional stained glass window, halos and all.  In fact, it was only Prichard’s citation that reminded me that the window actually portrayed Jesus commissioning his disciples.  What drew attention was the inscription.

Presiding Katharine Jefferts Schori mentioned mission in a generic way in her message to the seminary:

I give abundant thanks for Virginia’s tradition of training ordained and lay leaders for mission and ministry in The Episcopal Church and beyond. May God give you all strength and vision to meet the challenges before you.

In a similar vein, Dean Ian Markham observed, “VTS has always been about memories, ministry and mission in the name of Jesus.”

Mission in the classic sense of crossing boundaries in the name of Christ, what I call ministry in the dimension of difference, has been a hallmark of Virginia Seminary throughout its history.  As Prichard points out, many graduates served in world mission.  The seminary community itself has long had the Virginia Seminary Missionary Society, which annually raises a considerable sum for various projects around the world.

VTS has long had a professorship in world mission, most recently occupied by the Rev. Dr. Richard Jones, who retired in 2009.  (As also an expert in Islam, he is now the first Al-Alwani Professor of Muslim Christian Dialogue for the Washington Theological Consortium.)  Finances have prevented the seminary from replacing Jones, but fundraising  was launched last year for an endowment for a mission chair.

Virginia has led Episcopal theological education in connecting with the world church and the Anglican Communion.  Numerous students from around the world have studied at VTS, a number of seminary partnerships have developed, and the seminary now has a Center for Anglican Communion Studies.

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