The Episcopal Church in Virginia, 1607-2007

Article excerpt

The Episcopal Church in Virginia, 1607-2007, an exhibition at the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia, 14 July 2007-13 January 2008. Guest curator, Patrick H. Butier III. Hours: 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $5.00 for adults, $4.50 for seniors, $3.00 for students; free for members of the Virginia Historical Society and on Sunday.

The Anglican/Episcopal experience began in North America in the spring of 1607. It arrived in Virginia in three little ships with 104 men and boys who founded a new colony at Jamestown. From then until January 1786 the Church of England was the official state church of Virginia, and for most of that time it was a robust institution that deeply influenced the lives of the English-speaking people who lived there. The first Great Awakening, the American Revolution, and the disestablishment effectively killed off the Church of England in Virginia, and it reinvented itself at the end of the eighteenth century as a small and struggling little band of low church Episcopalians whose collective influence in the society and government of the new state was almost negligible.

The Episcopal Church in Virginia changed several times and in many ways after that, and its members embraced a wide array of theological positions. The Diocese of West Virginia split off from the Diocese of Virginia after the Civil War, the Diocese of Southern Virginia split off in 1892, the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia split off in 1919, and seven Northern Virginia congregations split off in December 2006 in frustration with trends in the national church and aligned themselves with an Anglican community of Nigeria. If any one of the approximately seventy-five artifacts and images in the Virginia Historical Society's exhibition on the history of the Anglican and Episcopal Churches in Virginia demands the visitor's attention as exemplifying the degree and nature of the changes that have taken place during four hundred years, it is an enlargement of the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch of 18 December 2006, which contains two articles about religion in Virginia. One reports the departure of the seven congregations from the Diocese of Virginia, and the other (of the two, it is the one that is illustrated, as if it were more interesting or more important) reports on the celebration of Chanukah in Richmond. The Episcopal Church had once been the only church in Virginia, the official state church; now it is but one of many and not the largest, and it is threatened with division.

This well-conceived and well-presented exhibition is derived principally from the excellent collections of the Virginia Historical Society, in Richmond, and the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary, in Alexandria. The holdings of those institutions relate primarily to the Diocese of Virginia, and the twentieth-century items in the exhibition are consequently focused more on that diocese than on the whole of Virginia. The items are well chosen and the text panels and captions clearly written and informative, although a beautiful Bible that the label identifies as a first edition of the 1611 King James translation clearly bears the date 1633. It would have been nice if the names of the artists whose works are on display had been included, also. Visitors will enjoy seeing the many versions of the Book of Common Prayer, including a first edition of the 1662 revision, the first United States revision, an edition for Episcopalians in the Confederate States, and right down to the revision of 1979. Changes in the Book of Common Prayer help place the experiences of Virginia's Episcopalians into long and changing national and international perspectives.

Portraiture, most of it in the form of original works of art, depicts the bishops of the diocese. …