In 1653, construction began on Holy Trinity Chapel in Leicestershire, England. Sir Robert Shirley wanted to have a Church of England chapel built on his own estate there. What makes this church building so special is the period of history when it was built. In 1653, Oliver Cromwell had just begun his Protectorate. Under his leadership King Charles I and Archbishop William Laud were beheaded and many loyal to Charles or the Church of England fled for their lives in Scotland or Europe.
During this dangerous time, Anglican churches were demolished and turned to buildings for Puritan worship. However much we see our world changing, it’s hard to imagine living in a world where basic foundations are overturned, like the existence of a Supreme Court. Or to see the government literally tearing down churches of those who opposed its regime.
It was at this time that Sir Robert Shirley built an Anglican, Episcopalian, Church of England chapel, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, on his estate. Before it was completed, he was arrested for his crime and died in the Tower of London.
But over the chapel door is a plaque with this inscription:
“When all things sacred were throughout ye nation Either demollisht or profaned Sir Robert Shirley Barronet founded this Church whose singular praise it is to have done ye best things in ye worst times And hoped them in the most calamitous. The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.”
Our Grace Episcopal Church has a building with a history with remembering, too. Our congregation worshiped in East Concord from 1883 to 1913—thirty years—without any building. We met either above what is now the Quality Cash Market, then the general store, or what is now the community center, then the fire station.
But on June 18, 1914, Bishop Edward Parker consecrated a church for us. It was a little building, about half as long as it is now. There was no parish hall yet, which was built in 1953. There was no office. Just a place, as the certificate in the hallway says, “for offering to [God’s] glorious Majesty the Sacrifices of Prayer, Praise and Thanksgiving.”
After the church was consecrated, less than one week later, a massive fire in downtown Manchester injured 19 firemen and caused $400,000 in damage. Before the end of the month, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and World War I was underway.
It must have seemed that the world, locally and globally, was coming completely undone. In the face of that, what did our forefathers and foremothers do? They built a church, a place “for offering to [God’s] glorious Majesty the Sacrifices of Prayer, Praise and Thanksgiving.” Instead of giving into fear and despair, they did “ye best things in ye worst times And hoped them in the most calamitous.”
Having a church building means a lot of things. It is an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace, a sacramental symbol of the presence of God in this place. It is an area set aside for listening to God and receiving his grace, like Moses removing his sandals on the holy ground before the burning bush.
But why do we need one? We can pray anywhere, listen to God anywhere and receive God’s grace anywhere. Why not just stay in the upper room of the Quality Cash market? Why shouldn’t Sir Robert Shirley just pray in a spare room in his Leicestershire manor?
One way we might look at is this: For him and for our East Concord ancestors, building a church and building up the church was an act of defiance. It was resistance (nonviolent but nevertheless resistance) to evil in the world.
For example, when we live in a culture of shrinking, failing and dying congregations, improving and growing our building is a bold act of hope in the way God is making disciples here and now.
For example, when stores in Steeplegate Mall pack up and leave when the going gets tough, keeping a church building is a defiant way to say, “We are sticking with Concord, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.”
For example, when the gap between the rich and the poor grows staggeringly fast and seems impossible to fix, making more room for Take-a-Tote is an act of rebellion as we say, “I don’t care that the odds are against us, I’m going to try to help anyway.”
For example, when the terror of mass gun violence grips us with grief and fear, the church building remains obstinately a place of peace and faith in the goodness that God works in sinful, broken, vulnerable people.
This is why we own, maintain and even grow what seems so superficial, our church buildings, because we long to do “ye best things in ye worst times And [hope] them in the most calamitous. The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.”