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UPDATED: Church's 400-year heritage is fabric 'woven together with prayer'

Virginia Episcopalians host commemorative service June 24 on Jamestown Island

[Episcopal News Service] An image gallery "Marking the Church's 400-year heritage on Jamestown Island" is available here.

The fabric of four centuries of history -- woven with the 1607 beginnings of the Jamestown Settlement, Native American responses, and the rise of the African slave trade -- was prayerfully examined on June 24 as Episcopalians gathered for Eucharist to mark the church's 400-year heritage rooted in the region.
Recalling the settlers' original sailcloth, canvas suspended from trees shaded the rough-hewn altar around which bishops from the four dioceses that comprised the original Virginia of 1785 gathered with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori for Eucharist at which Bishop John Clark Buchanan of Southern Virginia was celebrant.

Also at the table were the bishops of Liverpool, England, and Kumasi, Ghana, both representing points of a "triangle of hope" engaged in continued healing and reconciliation in the slave trade's wake.

An estimated 1,200 people witnessed the outdoor morning service commemorating "the 400th anniversary of the planting of the Church in America on Jamestowne Island in Virginia" and the settlers' first Holy Communion there, rites at which the Rev. Robert Hunt officiated on May 14, 1607 under a sail taken from one of the settlers' three ships.

In her sermon, Jefferts Schori pointed to the current "national search for the meaning of this place, a search that ebbs and flows, and is only tangentially connected to numerical anniversaries." She asked: "What does it mean to be a Christian in this nation? What stories and values do we claim from the history of this place? What do we remember about this beginning, and how does it continue to shape our lives today?"

Full text of Jefferts Schori's sermon is available here.

That narrative includes "the story of the first Christian convert, Matoaka" (better known by her childhood name Pocahontas), an account "rife with ... ambiguous complexity," the Presiding Bishop said. Meanwhile, she noted that "the good news managed to be spoken, and done, even in the midst of diabolic tales."

While threads of evil and "a lot of tales of good as well" are interwoven in Jamestown's history, it is "those latter tales of good news that we're out to claim, remember, and tell again and again," Jefferts Schori said. "The rub is that sometimes it's hard to tell the difference."

The Presiding Bishop will revisit these themes as she prepares to return to Jamestown Island during November 1-3 observances planned by the Episcopal Church's Native American Ministries Office, led by missioner Janine Tinsley-Roe.

Tinsley-Roe joined members of the dioceses of Virginia, Southern Virginia, Southwestern Virginia and West Virginia in attending the June 24 service held in view of the James River and just down a knoll from the colony's memorial church site, its 17th century tower the oldest structure standing within the national park. Tinsley-Roe commended the "meaningful and spiritual" liturgy and the hospitality of its planners and hosts, and shared in greeting honored guest Chief Kenneth Adams of the Upper Mattaponi tribe.

She added that the upcoming November 1 All Saints' Day service -- and its renewal of the Episcopal Church's commitment to First Nation ministries of reconciliation and healing -- will bring a fitting "culmination" to this year's series of historic observances.

That series -- which included a May visit from Queen Elizabeth II -- began earlier this year on April 26, the date of the English settlers' first landing in 1607 at Virginia Beach before they traveled along the James River, arriving May 13 at what is now Jamestown.

This spring's April 26 400th anniversary re-enactment of that first landing was attended by the Presiding Bishop and a delegation of Episcopalians from both local and far-flung dioceses.

While the settlers established Jamestown as the first permanent English settlement, Anglican services had been conducted in the New World prior to 1607, both at Roanoke's Lost Colony and near San Francisco Bay in 1579 during Sir Francis Drake's explorations there.

"The Jamestown colony was a central part of England's striving after empire, established in part to rebuff the Spanish, already well established farther south (at St. Augustine)," the Presiding Bishop noted, continuing her June 24 homily amplifying scripture lessons from Luke 15 and also Peter's first epistle. "That striving continues to shape our national story. How much of it is that ancient struggle over religion and empire?"

Returning to the region's complex history, Jefferts Schori emphasized that "the evil tales sometimes are truly evil. This place reeks with the origins of the slave trade in this land, begun here in 1620 to facilitate the tobacco trade. That history is not yet fully redeemed, even though the church which sanctioned slavery was instrumental in its dismantling. The work is not yet over, and that work is certainly before us in the fifth century of our presence."

The Presiding Bishop went on to affirm the new work of Virginia Episcopalians, together with Anglicans in Ghana and Liverpool, who "have begun to build a triangle of hope to counter the old and evil tales of a triangle of shame and horror -- slaves bought for the price of goods brought from England to Ghana, and sold on these shores. Reconciliation is emerging from the evils of a terrible past."

In an interview after the service, Liverpool Bishop James Jones told Episcopal Life that "current issues in the Anglican Communion should be debated within the friendships already established between dioceses across the Communion. It is better to speak about difficult things with friends you already trust than with strangers."

He said that Anglicans' present discussion of human sexuality should come from places of "respecting each other rather than rushing to excommunicate one another."

Jones said he deeply appreciated the opportunity to share both in the service and the ongoing "Triangle of Hope" dialogue with Bishop David Yinko Sarfo of Ghana's Kumasi diocese.

Bishop Peter James Lee, who has led the Diocese of Virginia for some 22 years, said the two bishops' presence at the service was for him a highlight of the observance. Lee called the day "a wonderful witness to the breadth, depth and hope of the Episcopal Church."

Host Bishop John Buchanan of Southern Virginia agreed. "I'm grateful for opportunities to do things together with other folks -- involving the other three dioceses of Virginia and and the visiting bishops from Liverpool and Ghana. These are wonderful community-building activities."

Buchanan joined West Virginia Bishop Michie Klusmeyer and Southwestern Virginia Bishop Neff Powell in commending the Presiding Bishop's sermon. "She addressed issues and reminded us of things we are not proud of," Buchanan said, "and she reminded us that we've made progress in redeeming some of these issues." 

"The humility to re-examine our certainties will begin the prophetic re-telling of those tales," the Presiding Bishop added in her homily. "None is complete villain, none completely immune to error. None of these tales is completely ended as long as we continue to tell them and search for the new life that may yet emerge. Our humility to keep telling and looking -- and even prowling around -- will bring new and better news."

This process "bears resemblance to the work of the archaeologist who unearthed the foundations of this settlement just a few years ago, even though the certainty of experts insisted those foundations had long since been drowned in the river," she said.

"Our task is neither to ignore the evil tales, nor to see them in isolation," Jefferts Schori concluded. "Our task is to humbly search for the seeds of the good news planted in this place 400 years ago, seeds not yet grown to maturity, but some of which are bearing abundant fruit. Our task is to insist that the lost can yet be found, that new life can yet grow out of stories others deem wholly evil.... What story will you tell?"

Stamped with the year 1661, another centerpiece of the service was a silver chalice used for the morning's communion and inscribed with it's own spiritual message: "Mixe not holy things with profane." Originally used at the Jamestown Church before that building fell into ruins, the historic cup and its companion paten in 1758 became part of the collection of Bruton Parish in nearby Williamsburg.

The text of the June 24 liturgy -- a progressive flow of passages from the Book of Common Prayer's 1604, 1662, 1789, 1892, 1928 and 1979 editions -- offered its own narrative of ways in which the Episcopal Church has grown and changed with history.

Hymns were "All people that on earth do dwell" (Old Hundredth), "The Lord my God my shepherd is" (Crimond), "Christ is made the sure foundation" (Westminster Abbey), and "Give thanks for life" (Sine nominee).

Service planners -- including the morning's master of ceremonies, the Rev. Same Colley-Toothaker -- said the rites were not a re-enactment, but a commemoration creating a "feel and space" of authenticity. "Thus in this rite we will offer our limited and disparate threads of warp and woof wogen together with prayer into a seamless whole to the glory of Christ," the service booklet's introduction announced.

"We are sincerely appreciative of all the effort and time that so many individuals have given toward the celebration of this 400th anniversary," said the observance's steering committee chair, Julian "Davis Hudson, of the Diocese of Southern Virginia. He emphasized the significance of the 400th anniversary observance for the full Episcopal Church.

The committee's deputy chair, Patrick Getlein, secretary of the Diocese of Virginia, thanked Hudson and his Southern Virginia colleagues for their leadership in coordinating the day.

Committee member Toni C. Hogg of Southern Virginia said the service spoke to her of the ways in which the Episcopal Church has grown since the ships' landing at Jamestown. "Look how it's blossomed," she said. "The Church is strong."

As service participants arrived and departed Jamestown Island, they passed a large obelisk inscribed with this excerpt from the Virginia Company's 1606 instructions to the settlers: "Lastly and chiefly the way to prosper and achieve good success is to make yourselves all of one mind for the good of your country and your own, and to serve and fear God the Giver of all Goodness, for every plantation which our Heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted out."

-- Canon Robert Williams is director of communication for the Episcopal Church.

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