On Tuesday Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby preached at the service for the reopening of Virginia Theological Seminary’s Immanuel chapel which was destroyed by fire in 2010.

In his sermon the Archbishop offered an appealing and accessible vision of what church is intended to be. The Archbishop reminded the congregation that church is more than buildings. Church is people, particularly people on pilgrimage. And he pointed out,

Immanuel Chapel burnedPilgrimage is an untidy process, because we pilgrims – all of us – are untidy, often chaotic. Pilgrims, to quote the prologue of the Canterbury Tales, “from every shire’s end of England, down to Canterbury they wend … ” They are a motley collection of people, and the Canterbury Tales set out their variety and diversity. They meet up on the way to a destination. They do not know who the others are or anything about their background: it is the purpose and end of their journey that brings them together.
In this chapel of pilgrims, who have wended their way from all over the world, we bring together every joy and celebration that can be imagined – and we bring, in this building this morning, because we cannot see past each other’s faces, every sorrow and worry that exists in the human heart, and every sin and failure that would horrify us if we knew them and if they were painted on the walls of this building.

Amongst any thousand people, especially if I am one of them, all Ten Commandments will have been broken (that’s not a confession…) [laughter].  And equally, not only will every one of the Ten Commandments been broken – by those who are sitting here today – but the fruit of the Holy Spirit that Paul sets out in its nine-fold beauty will have been amply demonstrated.
So we are untidy. As a motley crew we come with our virtues and vices into this building, not knowing each other’s hearts and minds, barely sometimes even discerning our calling. Yet we are drawn together: together we discover the depths of our sin, together we recognise that we are the cause of Christ’s death on the cross, just as we also together glimpse the heights of his love.
God meets us as we are. Holiness is not neat and clean, abiding by rules. It is fire and flame, consuming the dark and the dirt. It is beauty and fear, causing us to fall on our faces, appalled by our sin, drawn by its radiant light and healing heat.

But holiness is never tidy. Let this place never, Mr Dean, be a place that seeks to tidy people up. [laughter] How the church has done that in its history… and how we must not do that. Holiness is never tidy; it cannot be boxed into a building.


There is a lot of talk these days about “Messy Church.” But, as the Archbishop points out, there is no such thing as a church with people in it that is not “messy.” We human beings are a mixed bag, each within ourselves and certainly within the wider community. We are never just one thing or another. We are a complicated jumble of contradictory motivations, thoughts and actions. There are times when we all confound our best intentions and our deepest commitments.

In his homily today during mass at Casa Santa Marta another great church leader warned the congregation against “the virus of hypocrisy.” Pope Francis said,

Hypocrisy does not have a colour, rather it plays with halftones. It creeps in and seduces “chiaroscuro”, with “the charm of the lie.”


The “lie” that can infect the pilgrims who gather in church buildings is that our gathering bestows upon us some kind of superior status, that it raises us morally above the vast unwashed mass of those who would never willingly locate themselves in a place of intentional worship.

We who choose to situate ourselves within a worshiping community are drawn to church not because we are better than anyone. We gather because we desire to live authentically acknowledging our brokenness and our need for the power of love if we are to live more deeply human lives.

First Eucharist Celebrated at Virginia Seminary’s Restored Immanuel Chapel

First Eucharist Celebrated at Virginia Seminary’s Restored Immanuel Chapel