St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – Closing after almost Seven Score Years

“The days of our age are threescore years and ten.” — Psalm 90:10 (BCP)

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on 34th Street in downtown Newport News, Virginia, is closing. (See announcement’s on the church’s Facebook page, and articles in the Daily Press on April 21, and May 12, and on WAVY on May 14. The final free meal offered through its Community Action Network was this morning May 19. The final regular service will be next Sunday, May 26 at 10:30. The deconsecration service is set for Saturday, July 20, at 11 a.m. Episcopalians first began ministry in Newport News when it was chosen as the terminus of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in 1881. By this reckoning the church is 139 years old as has been stated in several headlines. The parish was formally organized slightly later, on Easter Monday, March 26, 1883. Its current building was opened on Easter Day, April 5, 1900.

From whichever beginning St. Paul’s age is counted, it has lasted nearly twice the biblical human lifespan of seventy years (“threescore years and ten”). That is impressive for any congregation, especially one in a difficult place such as Downtown Newport News became decades ago.

My Family’s Episcopal Church

St. Paul’s is one of two churches in which I was raised. The other is Trinity United Methodist Church located five blocks down river on 29th Street. My paternal grandparents immigrated from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and were married in December 1929. I assume they began attending St. Paul’s in 1930. They raised their sons there, witnessed grandchildren baptized there, and were buried from St. Paul’s in 1970, the year before I was born. My parents and I attended St. Paul’s and Trinity (my mother’s church) on alternate Sundays for roughly the first decade of my life. Then for a variety of reasons we stopped going to St. Paul’s. This made my life easier with only one children’s choir and one Sunday school class to keep up with. It was at Trinity that I was baptized and confirmed. My mother is still an active leader there. While education and career has caused me to live far away from Virginia for the past twenty-six years, I visit often and know Downtown Newport News well from Trinity’s perspective.

Mom told me St. Paul’s was closing before it was announced publicly, over a month ago, but it has taken me a while to blog about it. There is a lot to process. Our connection to St. Paul’s continued through League of Downtown Churches events, family baptisms, and weddings. Though eventually some of those family members joined other Episcopal churches closer to where they had moved. Others simply stopped attending St. Paul’s. In college I renewed my involvement in the Episcopal Church, while maintaining involvement in the United Methodist Church. It’s a pattern I’ve continued my whole life. My experiences of worship and architecture at Trinity and St. Paul’s set much of the course for the initial phase of my scholarly career in the history of religion, worship, and architecture in the U.S. So St. Paul’s is an essential part of my story. But I am only barely a part of its. The many chapters of its history are best told by its dedicated, long serving members. Especially those who have helped it offer a seven-days a week ministry for decades. What I can offer are some notes from my perspective as a historian of the American religious landscape.

Downtown Newport News

Downtown Newport News is a small rather isolated neighborhood that was once the commercial center of the Virginia Peninsula. The community was created in the 1880s when Colis P. Huntington selected it as the Atlantic port for his Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. He also founded Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company there. In time it became the premier builder of ships for the U.S. Navy, a position it retains. Bounded by the three-mile-wide James River on the west, a multiple-track railroad right-a-way on the east, downtown is at most five blocks wide. While there is a continuous area of residential development to the north, on the south is a huge railroad terminal precludes other development.

Multiple overpasses connected downtown to the much larger residential areas to the east. For this reason, some people spoke of going, “overtown” rather than “downtown.” But despite the bridges, downtown is located on the corner of a peninsula. It was never in the middle of anything. Development spread to the north and east and other centers of commerce, residence, and recreation emerged.

Stores began moving out of downtown to suburban shopping centers in the 1950s. Many grand redevelopment plans were floated. None were realized. The historic Newport News High School was first converted to an intermediate school and then closed entirely in 1980. Peninsula Catholic High School stayed downtown for an additional fifteen years until it too moved away. By the 1990s, downtown was basically just the city government, Newport News Shipbuilding, and its accompanying Navy facilities.

Houses of worship began closing in the late 1950s According to Downtown Newport News by William A. Fox, Trinity Lutheran Church relocated in 1958, Rodef Sholom synagogue in 1959, and First Christian Church in 1962. The Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church remained downtown until 1982.

The Downtown Churches

The remaining five churches: Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, and Episcopal, had formed the League of Downtown Churches in 1969. In various ways they embraced the downtown identity and stayed longer. Yet two of them closed before the end of the century. First Baptist started a suburban chapel in 1977 and closed its downtown location in 1989. An adult Sunday school class from the Baptist church stayed downtown, holding their meetings in First Presbyterian Church until it too closed in 2000. St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, Trinity United Methodist Church, and St. Paul’s stayed open.

The building of I-664 through the old railroad right-away and the opening of the Monitor Merrimac Memorial Bridge Tunnel in 1992 provided easy access to downtown Newport News from the rest of the region. New congregations moved into the Baptist and Presbyterian buildings. Today the Full Gospel Kingdom Church meets in Presbyterian building and the Dominion Outreach Worship Center in the Baptist building. The Greek Orthodox building still stands empty.

All of the six surviving downtown church building are architecturally impressive and representative of their denomination’s turn-of-the-century worship spaces. Two, First Baptist and St. Vincent de Paul, have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. First Baptist (NRHP 0000774), listed in 2000, was designed by the prolific church architect R. H. Hunt of Chattanooga, Tennessee. It follows a design for a Richardsonian Romanesque auditorium church that Hunt adapted for many churches throughout the South including First Baptist Church on East Bute St. in Norfolk and Court Street Baptist Church in Portsmouth. St. Vincent’s (NRHP 05000525), listed in 2005, was designed in a classical revival style by Carl Ruehmund of Richmond. While St. Paul’s is not (yet) on the National Register. However, several later works by its architect, P. Thornton Mayre are included.

P. Thornton Mayre and the Architecture of St. Paul’s

Mayre was a native of Alexandria, Virginia. He attended Randoph-Macon College and the University of Virginia before serving as a volunteer in Cuba in the Spanish American War. After briefly working with Glen Brown in Washington, D.C., Mayre began his architectural practice in Newport News. For St. Paul’s he designed a strongly symmetrical Gothic revival building that evoked the English perpendicular Gothic period that was rising in popularity at the close of the nineteenth century. He placed a wide and high nave between structural side aisle that were wide enough for seating.

Interior of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Photo: Daily Press, 2019.

Mayre would later employ many of the same features on a larger scale in his design for St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Here, however, he conformed to the new practice of reducing the structural aisles to passageways so that no seat would have its view blocked by a column.

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo AGO Atlanta

Like St. Luke’s, St. Paul’s is a light and airy incarnation of the Gothic. This characteristic is amplified by the fact that its walls are now painted white, rather than the gray as they were for much the building’s history.

Mayre moved from Newport News to Atlanta in 1903 after winning the commission for the Atlanta Terminal Station. From Atlanta he designed buildings for many cities in the Deep South, including two celebrated ones in Birmingham, Alabama, (where I have lived since 1999).

Highlands United Methodist Church still defines the landscape of the Five Points South neighborhood. The Birmingham Terminal Station is Birmingham’s most lamented lost building. It was razed in 1969, but just this weekend a special exhibit celebrating it as “Birmingham’s Temple of Travel” opened at the Vulcan Museum, the museum of Birmingham history.

During the process of planning St. Paul’s, a parish leader wrote Ralph Adams Cram, the Boston architect who was at the time publishing an influential series of articles on church architecture in the Churchman. (They were later published as Church Building.) The parish leader asked Cram to volunteer a preliminary design for the new church. Cram responded by explaining that that was not how professional architects worked. The Newport News parishioner admonished Cram, explaining that he was trying to elevate taste in a place that needed it. Couldn’t he at least send a sketch?

I haven’t seen a record of Cram’s reply. Mayre’s St. Paul’s with its tall clerestory, central battlement tower, and chancel window certainly reflects Cram’s influence. His 1892-93 building for All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Ashmont, Massachusetts was widely celebrated.

Most of the windows in St. Paul’s are of simple colored glass in a diamond design. This was common in many Gothic churches of the period. Often these would be replaced by more elaborate designs as the congregation decided to invest money in glass. At St. Paul’s only two windows are pictorial. One features a medallion of St. Paul and the letters alpha and omega. This was from the chancel of the parish’s first building on 25th Street. The second is the great chancel window that was installed in the 1930s.

The window is designed and signed by the firm of Louis Comfort Tiffany. It is not, however, in the opalescent glass that Tiffany made famous in the late 1890s. Rather it is in the more academically correct Gothic revival style championed in America by Cram and Tiffany’s rival in stained glass, Charles Connick of Boston. Connick took his cue from the windows of Chartres and other French cathedrals, reveling in vibrant blues and in windows designed as mosaics of small pieces of glass. The St, Paul’s window shows that the Tiffany studio could do this style too, even though it would be one of their last.

The bottom register of the window depicts five biblical scenes: the Last Supper, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and he Day of Pentecost. The upper registers are largely geometrical designs. The rest of the window consists of geometrical designs and symbols. The cut of the individual pieces of glass realizes the jewel-like quality of stained glass that was prized in the age of Connick and Cram.

Fixity and Change

Like any parish that lasts beyond a generation, St. Paul’s has had many lives. These have included being a young congregation in an emerging industrial center, thriving as an established downtown church, and ministering to economically disadvantaged individuals in a part of town that most people had avoided. Along with St. Vincent’s, St. Paul’s took a leading role in opening its doors for social ministries. The Daily Press reports that St. Paul’s began offering a lunch five-days a week in 1976. Through the Community Action Network, the various aspects of this ministry became key to St. Paul’s identity seven days a week.

The study of the American religious landscape emphasizes that change is inevitable. Landscapes are fluid, especially given the major changes in transportation and population that the U.S. has experienced in the past century. It takes great determination and commitment for a congregation to last more than a generation. Indeed, some contemporary church growth specialists would advise it is unnatural and should be avoided. Yet church buildings and their congregations are often important places of constancy. The cornerstone of St. Paul’s church has been in the same place since November 1899. Very few things in downtown Newport News have stayed in place that long.

Cornerstone of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. A.D. 1899 with the IHS monogram of the name of Jesus.

Deconsecrating a Church Building

In writing an essay for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Religious Place, one of the most memorable articles I read was on the deconsecration of a church building. In the article published in 2015 in Practical Matters, Barry Stephenson, a professor of religion in Newfoundland, examined the service marking the closing of Highgate United Church of Canada in southwestern Ontario. The congregation and its 1898 building began as a Methodist congregation, and like all Canadian Methodists entered the newly created United Church of Canada in 1925. Interviewing parishioners a few weeks before the service closing the church, Stephenson was struck by the importance of the building itself to longtime members. In contrast, the liturgy marking the closing of the building strongly emphasized the Christian teaching that faith and worship are not tied to a particular place, but can take place anywhere. The legitimacy of the grief of closing the building was largely denied. “Do not think of this as an ending,” the congregation was told in the deco section service. Also despite the evident importance of the physicality of the place to members, “nothing was done to or with the building itself in the closing service.” The official ending of the service was simply the reading of the verbal declaration that this was “no longer a place of meeting of the United Church of Canada.”

The service did not actually end there. A longtime member interrupted the proceedings as they were transitioning toward a reception with food. He spoke extemporaneously and said essentially, “We are ashamed that we haven’t been able to carry on.” Stephenson concluded that the rites of closing a church should “not merely be held ‘in’ the closing church; action can be centered ‘on’ the church” and that a service of deconsecration ought not “occlude the sense of an ending, and the complex tangled emotions that endings occasion.”

Certainly nothing that I’ve read about the closing of St. Paul’s or the conversations with friends and family that I have had shows the temptation to occlude a sense of ending. Sorrow and grief are being freely shared. The service for “secularizing a consecrated building” in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Occasional Services is quite brief and acknowledges that “some will suffer a sense of loss.” The service, however, is not more attentive to the building itself than that described by Stevenson. The first rubric that proceeds the service states that “The Altar(s) and all consecrated and dedicated objects that are to be preserved are removed from the building before the service begins.” After that it is simply the reading of the bishop’s written declaration that secularizes the building. Then “praise and thanksgiving” is offered to God for “the blessings, help, and comfort bestowed upon [God’s] people in this place.”

I don’t presume to know what would be best for the faithful people of St. Paul’s as they close their church. I do know that church buildings and their furnishings are important part of Christians’ lives. I’m sure there are many resources beyond the BOS which Bishop John Magness and parish leaders will consult. I can imagine prayers of thanksgiving being offered at the various liturgical stations of the church such as the font, the pulpit, and the table.

Just as congregations that live a long life adapt and change to their changing environments, so do houses of worship that survive their initial congregations. First Baptist and First Presbyterian now serve other congregations. Elsewhere churches have become Islamic mosques, Buddhist temples, residences, and restaurants. Sometimes buildings return to religious use after decades serving a secular purpose. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for the buildings of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Numbers – An Expression of Baptist Power

Few things seem to me more expressive of twentieth-century Southern Baptist spirit than the focus on large numbers on the 1984 monument erected on the site where the Southern Baptist Convention was organized in 1845.

Memorial tablet in front of 1902 building of First Baptist Church, Augusta, Georgia.
April, 27, 2019

In 1983 the denomination reported
36,531 churches
14,185,454 members
394,606 baptisms
7,815,443 Sunday school students
$3,165,237,965 in gifts of which $529,283,289 were for missions
20 national agencies.

Most large U.S. denominations in the twentieth-century reveled in corporate-type reports of their power and operations. But perhaps none more than Southern Baptists.

The original building in which the convention was organized was razed in 1899 was razed in 1899 to make way for the monumental Beaux-Arts building designed by Willis Franklin Denny. It served for about 80 years until it moved to the suburbs.

Naming the Study of Religion

The name of my academic department has changed for at least the fifth time in its history. Last week Samford University announced that the Department of Religion would now be known as the “Department of Biblical and Religious Studies.” One reason for the change is that the department has added a major in biblical studies in addition to its major in religion. This is part of a trend at Samford to offer academic programs that are more focused and directed as well as ones such as the religion major that are adaptable to many goals and purposes.

The study of the Bible has always been the center of the department’s course offerings. Samford University was founded as Howard College in 1841 by and for Alabama Baptists. Historically, while at Roman Catholic colleges, theology was the starting point for the undergraduate study of Christianity, for Baptists (and many other Protestants) it was biblical studies.

Bible courses began in our college before the college was organized into departments. Interestingly, however, courses on the Bible in English translation they were not part of the curriculum for Samford’s first half century. Until that time the explicitly religious courses were reserved for the spring of the junior and senior year. Juniors read the Greek New Testament and seniors the “Evidences of Christianity.” This was typical of other liberal arts colleges throughout America.

The school’s first president, Samuel Sherman, complained about the Bible’s absence from the American collegiate curricula in his 1850 commencement address, “The Bible A Classic“. Yet only in 1894 did the school introduce such courses.

When the college was first divided into departments in 1916, ours was named the “Department of Religious Education.” By the 1930s it has become the “Department of Bible and Religious Education.” This remained the department’s name until 1970, when in recognition of the growth of its philosophy program it was renamed “Religion and Philosophy.” Courses on Bible, theology, history, religious education, and ministry were all covered under the label “religion.” To these were added sociologically-grounded courses in congregational studies in 1993.

A mission statement for the department prepared in that year spoke of the department offering “studies in Scripture, theology, philosophy, history, sociology and ministry.” The department’s current website includes a similar list: “biblical studies, Christian theology and ministry, as well as the history, sociology, and philosophy of religion.”

While the department had had an “and” in its name for nearly 70 years, when philosophy became a separate department in 2001, the name became simply “Religion.” While most of our peer departments around the country are likewise simply named “religion” or “religious studies,” a large number of those at church-related schools use longer names to suggest the variety of subjects in their curriculum. These include “Theology and Religious Studies,” “Theology and Christian Ministry,” “Biblical and Theological Studies,” “Theology and Missions,” “Bible and Religion,” as well as the new name for us at Samford, “Biblical and Religious Studies.”

The views expressed are solely those of the author, David R. Bains.

Hamilton and Civil Religion

“Civil Religion and the Phenomena of Hamilton” by Emily Jenkins (Samford University, class of 2018) was published in the spring 2019 issue of the Journal of Theta Alpha Kappa. Jenkins argues that the popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is due in part to the way the musical frames Alexander Hamilton’s life through the ideology of American civil religion. She writes,

Contemporary American civil religion scholar Philip S. Gorski understands civil religion as “a framework for connecting past and future, and for conjoining sacred and secular.” Connecting the next generation to the stories of the origins of this nation, the musical familiarizes audiences of the present with secular events of the past by infusing religious references throughout. Gorski also describes civil religion as “a narrative that tells us where we came from and where we are headed,” complete with “our values and commitments within particular stories of civic greatness–and collective failure.”[Hamilton serves as a reflection on the successes and failures of the founding fathers and American values, motivating Americans toward a better future.

Emily Jenkins, “Civil Religion and the Phenomena of Hamilton,” Journal of Theta Alpha Kappa 43, no. 1 (spring 2019): 30-48.

Jenkins examines the civil religious dimensions of the musical through its plot and audiences’ reception of its performance utilizing Gorski’s framework of “canon, archives, pantheon, and narrative.” She concludes,

The impact of Hamilton on civil religion is not limited to the present; this musical will inspire the next generation by allowing more people to view themselves in light of the American story. Immigrants who watch, or hear, Alexander Hamilton rise through the ranks to establish the governmental and financial foundation of America may be encouraged to consider themselves vital characters in the future of the American narrative. Additionally, Hamilton will also affect the dreams of performing arts students: Future licensing for high school and college productions of Hamilton will empower students of any race and of both genders to envision themselves as powerful leaders, capable of creating the future of American national identity.. Moreover, the social justice themes of Hamilton call for “a second coming of a Hamilton figure or a ‘messiah of sorts’” to fight injustice. This musical leads viewers and listeners to question the current national identity’s reaction to injustice. It also prompts questions of personal identity, which David Brooks expressed in the audience’s thoughts leaving the theater: “[Hamilton’s ambition] is sort of deeply American. And that’s why the show is universal. Because everyone wonders, Are my dreams big enough? Am I really making the most out of my life?Hamilton equips its fans to seek purpose in their lives by employing civil religious themes throughout the musical.

You can read the full essay in the Journal of Theta Alpha Kappa found in many university. Full text is also available through the ATLA Religion Database, though at last check they did not yet have this issue in the database. It should be there soon.

The essay had its origins in my seminar at Samford University on Religion and American National Identity in fall 2017. I was delighted when Emily suggested this topic for her paper and thrilled when the editors of the journal for the national honor society for religious studies and theology decided to publish it. I hope others are able to build on Jenkins’s fine work.

She is now enrolled in the Clinical/Medical Social Work program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Spy Wednesday, Its Origins and Popularity

The practice of referring to the Wednesday of Holy Week as “Spy Wednesday” appears to be growing. I only heard it a few years ago, and I have long enjoyed learning about the details of the liturgical calendar. So I’m surprised I didn’t know about it. My wife is equally interested in liturgy, and between being a student and a teacher spent 22 years in Roman Catholic parochial schools. But she never heard it there.

She says she first encountered it through Lent Madness, which is only in its tenth year. (Lent Madness is fun, silly, educational, and devotional. Think March Madness but with Christian saints instead of college basketball teams, and votes from spectators, not shots by players. If you hurry you can still vote to determine the champion, the final round is always on Spy Wednesday.)

It turns out that the first reference that the Oxford English Dictionary provides for “Spy Wednesday” is from Samuel Lover’s Handy Andy: A Tale of Irish Life (1842). So at least in Ireland, it goes back at least to the nineteenth century. It is called Spy Wednesday, because according to the gospels it was on Wednesday that Judas Iscariot’s decided to betray Jesus.

For what it is worth, the nifty N-Gram viewer provided by Google Books suggests that the phrase “Spy Wednesday” was most popular in the 1940s, and then again around 1990. But Google only searches its data through 2000, so we don’t know about the past twenty years.

Of course “Spy Wednesday” is far less common than either of names for Thursday in Holy Week. I’m not surprised to see that “Holy Thursday” is ascending and “Maundy Thursday” is descending, but I still prefer Maundy.

Apparently the internet prefers Maundy Thursday too. Google gives me 3.23 million results for “Maundy Thursday” but only 1.83 million for “Holy Thursday.” Spy Wednesday has just 50,500, after all, it is far from the week’s main event.

D.C.’s New Archbishop and One of Its Historic African American Churches

On Thursday, the Vatican announced the appointment of the first African American as archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory. For the past fourteen years he has been archbishop of Atlanta. In its report on Gregory’s appointment, the Washington Post noted that while nationally African Americans only make up 3% of the Roman Catholic Church, in the Washington archdiocese they comprise 13%.

As in other denominations in Washington, initially African Americans worshiped as miniorities within white-controlled parishes. The first Catholic church in the capital specifically for African Americans was established by free African American Catholics in 1858. Initially it was named for Blessed Martin de Porres, but it was renamed for St. Augustine of Hippo, the North African doctor of the church in 1873-74.

In downtown Washington, the church’s first location is marked by a handsome metal plaque. This is the only such marker for a vanished church that I can think of in downtown D.C. Pictures of several other destroyed churches buildings appear on the interpretive signs along the many walking trails developed by Cultural Tourism DC. They do not, however, suggest the permanency of this marker.

Marker commemorating former site of St. Augustine Catholic Church near 1152 15th St NW, Washington, DC 20005 Photo: David R. Bains, November 2018

The Victorian Gothic building north of L Street on 15th St NW was completed in 1876 to designs by Francis Baldwin, a Baltimore architect who divided his career between Catholic churches and buildings for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Perhaps his most prominent church is in Savannah, Georgia, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist designed in a French Gothic style.

St. Augustine Catholic Church, Washignton, D.C. 1899? From collection of photographs assembled for Paris Exposition of 1900, Library of Congress

When St. Augustine’s downtown building was razed in 1947 to make way for a new building for the Washington Post, the parish was merged with St. Paul’s Church, about one mile north on 15th St. at the base of Meridian Hill. The name St. Augustine’s was dropped from use at that time, but revived in 1961 when the parish was renamed St. Paul and St. Augustine. In 1982 the parish name revised again to be St. Augustine in recognition of its rule as a vibrant center of African American Catholic life. It remains so today.

Around the corner from the marker, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church still stands on M Street. With stubborn heroism, its congregation has held on its building and remained downtown to exercise its role as the “National Cathedral of African Methodism.” (The building was once named to the annual list of the 11 Most Endangered Buildings in the United States by the National Trust for Historic Preservation). A longtime member of that congregation once told me that they missed their neighbors at St. Augustine’s. At the head of a glass-lined ally, the St. Augustine’s marker is a good reminder of the vanished landscape of nineteenth century Washington.

Marker commemorating former site of St. Augustine Catholic Church near 1152 M St NW, Washington, DC 20005 Photo: David R. Bains, November 2018

St. Augustine Catholic Church, 2009, Wikimedia Commons, AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, David R. Bains, 2018.

St. Rose Church, Hastings, MI — Church of the Week

Samford University Library posts an historic photo of an Alabama Baptist Church every Sunday as a “church spotlight.” I’m going to start to do the same from churches far and wide in my collection. This week is St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, Hastings, Michigan. I wondered in there one Saturday in June 2006. It is a modest-sized church on a residential street near the town center. It has interesting art and a good-sized apse. It is an appropriate place off the beaten path for this first post.

I know almost nothing about the church but later I used an photo of the representation of the Trinity above its altar as an illustration in the chapter on Christianity that I wrote for Understanding the Religions of the World. So now a lot of students who have never even been to the church have seen a piece of it.

Transfiguration in Lent or before Lent?

Two weeks ago I was listening to With Heart and Voice early on Sunday morning. The host, Peter DuBois, stated matter-of-factly that the celebration of the Transfiguration was that day and focused much of this program on music for it. DuBois, in addition to being a concert organist, is director of music at Rochester, New York’s Third Presbyterian Church. Like Episcopalians, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and others, many Presbyterians follow the Revised Common Lectionary. It assigns the reading of the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on a mountain to the Sunday before the season of Lent.

But in Roman Catholic churches around the world, the gospel story of the Transfiguration is read this week, on the Second Sunday in Lent. This is one of the few differences during the whole year in the gospel readings assigned by the Roman Catholic and Revised Common lectionaries. Here is my hypothesis on why and the significance these different liturgical contexts for the interpretation of the story.

The current three-year Roman Lectionary for Mass was developed in the 1960s to replace the existing one-year lectionary mass. This was in response to the decision by the Second Vatican Council that “the treasures of the bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 51). The pre-Vatican II Roman Missal assigned Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration to the Second Sunday in Lent, and the new lectionary followed suit, though using Mark’s account in Year B, and Luke’s in Year C.

Lutherans, I understand, had traditionally read the story on the Sunday before Lent began. This was taken up by the ecumenical adaptations of the Roman Lectionary that eventually yielded the Revised Common Lectionary in 1992. The great revelation of Jesus’ glory to the three disciples on a mountain top seemed an appropriate conclusion to what most Protestants saw not as “ordinary time,” but as the Season of Epiphany. It also reflected the story’s place in Luke’s’ narrative (9:28-36). There Jesus’ transfiguration occurs shortly before his journey to Jerusalem for his crucifixion begins (9:51).

After the new lectionary was introduced, Episcopalian priest and hymn writer, F. Bland Tucker, wrote a new final stanza for Christopher Wadsworth’s Epiphany season hymn, “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise.” Included in The Hymnal 1982. Tucker’s stanza skillfully links the Transfiguration to the other ways Christ and his divine mission was manifested to people, while also linking all of them to Christ’s death and resurrection at Passover.

Manifest on mountain height
shining in resplendent light,
where disciples filled with awe
thy transfigured glory saw.
When from there thou leddest them
steadfast to Jerusalem,
cross and Easter day attest
God and man made manifest.

Is there then any logic for keeping the Transfiguration story n Lent as Catholics do? For me its Lenten placement reflects an ascetical theology. That is the beatific vision of Christ’s glory is to be accessed through fasting and prayer. This is, of course, a common theological theme, particularly among monastics in the Eastern orthodox tradition.

The Latin Lenten hymn attributed to Gregory the Great (c. 540 – 604), “The Glory of these Forty Days” brings this idea to the fore in its central stanzas

Alone and fasting Moses saw
the loving God who gave the law;
and to Elijah, fasting, came
the steeds and chariots of flame.

So Daniel trained his mystic sight,
delivered from the lions’ might;
and John, the Bridegroom’s friend, became
the herald of Messiah’s name.

Then grant us, Lord, like them to be
full oft in fast and prayer with thee;
our spirits strengthen with thy grace,
and give us joy to see thy face.

Gregory the Great, translated by Maurice F. Bell, 1906.

Of course Gregory doesn’t mention the Transfiguration story among his examples, because it doesn’t fit the pattern. Mark and Matthew don’t mention Jesus and the three disciples doing anything on the mountain. They go up it, Jesus is transfigured. Luke states that Jesus went up the mountain with them to pray. Jesus prayed, but the disciples were very sleepy. Luke doesn’t say they prayed, but they did stay awake enough to see Christ transfigured.

The placement of the Transfiguration in Lent, on the Sunday after Jesus’ temptation fits with a characteristic, one might better say stereotypical, Catholic focus on the importance of prayer and self denial and its ability to help realize holiness. Its placement in Epiphany signals just the opposite, a stereotypical Lutheran focus on unmerited, even unrequested, favor. It is a great example of the function of liturgical context in interpretation.

Stained glass window of the Transfiguration, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Homewood, Alabama, J.R. Lamb & Co. Photo (C) David R. Bains, 2016.

[Note: The Transfiguration is also observed in both lectionaries on the traditional date assigned to the feast, August 6.]

Upcoming Transitions for Birmingham Bishoprics

Three Christian bishops based in Birmingham, Alabama, are nearing the end of their tenure.

Last month, Kee Sloan, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama announced his intention to retire at the end of 2020. His successor will be elected by the diocese earlier that year.

Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, who serves the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, will reach the end of her second four-year term in the fall of 2020. United Methodist bishops normally do not serve in one area longer than four years, so a new bishop is likely to be assigned at the conference of the Southeastern Jurisdiction in the summer of 2020.

Yesterday, a Facebook post by the Cathedral of Saint Paul drew attention to the fact that Robert J. Baker, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama, will become seventy-five years old on June 4, 2019. At that point he will submit his resignation to the pope. It is not known when his replacement will be named. Often Catholic bishops serve many years after turning seventy-five. In some cases their resignation is accepted immediately. Baker could be the first of the three to step down, but most likely will be the last. In any case he will have served in Birmingham longer than the others having been installed on October 2, 2007.

Other bishops with headquarters in the Birmingham area include Teresa Jefferson-Snorton of the Fifth Episcopal District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and Harry L. Seawright of the Ninth Episcopal District of the American Methodist Episcopal Church.

Metro D.C.’s Other Peace Cross

Today the Supreme Court will hear arguments in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association concerning the forty-foot tall the Peace Cross at a traffic junction in Bladensburg, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.

Peace Cross in Bladensburg, Maryland, 2009.
Ben Jacobson (Kranar Drogin) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (

The cross is a memorial to American solders who died in World War I. It was completed in 1925 and is now maintained with government funds. The Fourth Circuit of Appeals has ruled that this makes it unconstitutional because it “excessively entangles the government in religion.” While the Bladensburg cross was reportedly directly inspired by a wooden cross that marked the grave of an American solider in France, the name “Peace Cross” is shared with another, older, Washington-area monument.

On October 23, 1898, President William McKinley attended the dedication of a Peace Cross marking the end of the Spanish-American War. It was erected by Bishop Henry Yates Satterlee on the newly purchased grounds of Washington National Cathedral. It was the first monument on that site.

Peace Cross, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., 2007
Photo: David R. Bains

The inscription on the cathedral Peace Cross states that its purpose was “to mark the founding of the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul.” It also bears a petition from the litany in the Book of Common Prayer, “That it may please Thee to give to all Nations Unity Peace and Concord, We beseech Thee to hear us Good Lord.”

While the cross does not explicitly reference the Spanish-American War except to say it was erected in “the historic year 1898,” its link to the end of the war makes it one of America’s first cross-shaped war memorials. It probably influenced the erection and naming of the Bladensburg cross
seven miles to the east.

[Washington National Cathedral is owned and maintained by the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation, and thus is not involved in the constitutional questions before the Supreme Court.]