Our chapel burned down this fall. It was an accident; no one was to blame, but it burned. I was on the seminary lawn as the smoke and flames reached heavenward, and I had a simultaneous feeling of grief and anticipation. The loss was profound. It upset our worship life in ways we are still uncovering, but it also provided opportunity. Immanuel chapel’s rigid space and furniture made anything but the generic stultified Victorian Episcopal liturgy nearly impossible.
In the fire we lost a chapel, but gained some freedom. I helped work with the liturgy for the week after the fire, and adapted a prayer litany in thanksgiving for a Church from the Book of Common prayer to suit the loss of our chapel space. (You can have a look at the adaptation here.) At the end of the litany I composed the following prayer:
O Lord, walk with us as we venture out from this place. In this season, wander with us. Inspire our minds, that we may use our talents and creativity to gather your people. Inspire our hearts, that they may be filled with love for you. Inspire our voices that we may speak your praise, and go out into the world to preach your Gospel.
I was attracted the the image of the “liturgical nomad.” God’s people worshiped first in a tent while wandering through the desert. After the fire, we became nomads. (For awhile our “temporary worship space committee” even considered worshiping in a tent for the next few years, but in the end we decided we could not make the tent work in Virginia winter.)
We migrated to the “living room” of Virginia Seminary. The Scott Lounge in front of the refectory was a room that always made me feel as if I lived in a country club. I spent many a Saturday morning sprawled out on its opulent couches, drinking Tea, reading the New Yorker, and enjoying the morning sunlight coming in from the 20 foot east windows. The room got even better when a classmate was practicing on the Steinway. Once the grand furniture was removed from Scott it became basically an empty rectangle with big windows and Georgian architecture. We brought in chairs and created an ad hoc altar in the center of the room.
For the first time in my seminary career the whole community is gathered around the table for the celebration of the Eucharist, facing one another. The move is jarring for many of my fellow seminarians. I think exposure of the community’s liturgical hang-ups has a lot to teach us. The liturgical texts of our Church offer a great deal of flexibility, but so often our liturgical spaces do not. This time in the life of Virginia seminary demands creativity, demands a dynamic response to the worship needs of a community. There is no easy “default” setting, and so worship in this season will demand our best efforts. Already we have had to bring more of our gifts to the table. Making liturgy work while wandering through this time without a chapel requires God-given talent. I have found the time to be the richest worship experience I’ve had during seminary. I’m grateful for the opportunity for hands on learning, and to see my community come alive and share its gift.