Update on Virginia Theological Seminary Chapel Fire

On Saturday, I reported the destruction by fire of Virginia Theological Seminary’s Immanuel Chapel. Photographs of the fire and of the burned-out interior that have become available on the Seminary’s website in the intervening days reveal a truly heart-wrenching scene: the wooden altar is simply and sadly gone; blackened paint peels from the patches of plaster that have not already fallen to expose the brick beneath; the pulpit, choir stalls and pews are charred to varying degrees; organ pipes are strewn about; holes open to the elements mark where most of the stained glass windows once lent color to sunlight entering the space; and everything is littered with burned ceiling-members and slate from the collapsed roof.

But the daily cycle of seminary liturgical life cannot be halted, even by such a devastating fire. During his sermon at Monday’s eucharist, the Very Rev. Ian Markham, dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary, expressed what all were certainly feeling:

In that chapel of 129 years, there have been so many moments of holiness, it is impossible to count. The walls had heard it all. Countless seminarians have struggled, prayed, dreamed, and hoped on those pews. Thousands of seniors have delivered a sermon from that pulpit in front of their professors and peers. Morning Prayer had been said in that chapel — virtually every weekday morning since 1881. People have been baptized; people have been married; people have been buried; people have been ordained in the space. Because God has done so much work in that space, it is a holy space. And as we watched the fire destroy the chapel, shatter the Ascension Window — it felt like an act of desecration. We wanted to scream at God: this should not happen. It made us angry. It was disturbing. It was painful.

(Full text of the sermon available here; audio here.)

Dean Markham went on to note, however, that there was much for which the community could be thankful: “that no one was hurt. . . for the uplifting worship of that week. . . for the professionalism of the firefighters. . . for the warmth and kindness of the rest of the Episcopal Church and beyond. . . for this community that is determined to support and love each of us through it all.” In the ensuing days, the community was able to add to that list thanksgivings for the retrieval of eucharistic vessels, some vestments, and an historic brass altar cross; for the endurance of many marble memorials to past faculty, alumns and other benefactors; and for the survival of some of the magnificent stained glass that adorned the chapel. Material things, true, and nothing in comparison to human safety and the gift of community; still, for many grieving hearts these have been signs of the promise that nothing good is lost in God’s keeping. The treasures are precious few among so much ruin, and will need refurbishing before they can be returned to sacred use; but truly they are treasures nonetheless, and all-the-more precious for having endured the destruction.

Yesterday (Wednesday), Dean Markham had commented that “[t]here is a shared quest for the truth and a willingness to share information. I am grateful to all those who have cooperated so well with the investigation. […] Meanwhile we continue to wait. The most helpful response during this difficult waiting time is to avoid speculation and to learn the gift of patience.” Earlier today, he wrote, “Waiting is almost harder than knowing. So we prepare for this moment prayerfully and thoughtfully. We offer to God our anxiety and concern; and we trust in God that ultimately ‘all things work together for good.’” These remarks suggested to many of us on the outside of the VTS community that there was some active consideration of arson as having been the cause of the fire.

Thankfully it was not — something else that can be added to the dean’s list of thanksgivings.

Earlier this afternoon, the Alexandria Fire Department and Fire Marshal’s Office together with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) — which is involved, as a matter of course, in investigating all fires in houses of worship — released their findings regarding the cause of the fire. Dean Markham’s summary of the findings reads:

The fire started in the sacristy. Given it is late Victorian wooden structure, the fire spread rapidly and quickly. There was no smoke detector or sprinkler system.

It is clear that the fire was not caused by any deliberate or criminal act. Although the fire was caused by human agency, those involved took “steps that any responsible person would have taken”. However, these steps were not sufficient to stop the catastrophe that followed.

This is a brutal reminder to us all to handle with enormous care anything that can be flammable. As we look ahead the Seminary will be reviewing fire safety for all the buildings on the campus. The investigation will not lead to any criminal charges. It is agreed that all involved behaved with integrity and thoughtfulness.

This is not a time for blame. Instead, it is a time for reflection and prayer. As a community, we are called to surround each other with love.

Of course the pain caused by the loss of the historic chapel remains, and it is still too early to begin consideration for the future worship space of Virginia Theological Seminary. But peace, healing and the shape of the future will all come in God’s good time.

To this commentator, who has closely followed the latest developments in the ongoing saga of the Missale Romanum translation brouhaha (most of which have been reported on this blog), the chapel fire at Virginia Theological Seminary, and the forward-looking attitude of Dean Markham and the whole seminary community, have offered a counterpoint of perspective. Regardless of the words, regardless of the vessels, regardless of the space — and regardless of (possibly traumatic) disruption or loss of any or all of the above, the opportunity for truly holy worship remains. Yes, we all want — no, we all need — beautiful words for our worship, translated or otherwise. We need sacred space. We need glorious music. We need those pointers, road signs, and landmarks that move us to “lift up” our hearts.

But when the pointers aren’t there because some committee has bungled the liturgical books for the enth time; when the chapel isn’t there because it’s been reduced to a pile of brick and charred lumber, we all can still “lift up” our hearts.

We can, and we must — and we must not lose sight of that.

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