SOUTHERN VIRGINIA: Presiding bishop helps parish celebrate 400th anniversary

July 11, 2010

St. John's Episcopal Church in Hampton, Virginia, celebrated its 400th anniversary July 10-11 as the city also celebrated a similar milestone.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached during the July 11 anniversary service.

"The history of this parish is enthralling," she said. "In the early years everybody was required to go to church -- this one. People who were found guilty of staying away had to pay fines – in so many pounds of tobacco. Apparently, other interesting things were going on at the same time as church -- like horse racing or pirate festivals. We have never been able to legislate holiness, because holiness and compassion come from inside, not by imposing laws from the outside."

Jefferts Schori preached about the parable of the Good Samaritan and the lawyer's question that prompted it and the conclusion by the lawyer that the one who showed mercy to the wounded man was his neighbor.

"We're all meant to be the sort of lawyer who can answer the big question, 'Who is my neighbor?' and then go and become mercy to that neighbor," she said.

Jefferts Schori, noting that the primary job of the first St. John's vestry was taking care of the poor and orphans, said that such care was also "why everybody was supposed to come to church, and why everybody here was taxed."

"The alms for mercy-giving came from the whole community," she said. "That understanding of mercy as the reason for our existence has 400 years of history here."

English settlers established the church three years after the settling of Jamestown when a small group of civilians and soldiers moved to the fertile shores of Hampton Roads to escape the famine and disease which had decimated the residents of the settlement, according to a history of the parish on its website.

The parish notes that it is the oldest still-active English-speaking parish in America and that its members worship in a church built in 1728.

"These statements are true, but they are not the Church," the website says. "St. John's Church is the people who worship here, pray here, learn here, and serve here. There is one more ingredient which underlies it all -- God as revealed in Jesus Christ and experienced by the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is God who makes us one body and empowers us to be more than we could ever be by ourselves."