Sunday, October 31, 2010

Fire at VTS Chapel ruled accidental

It started in the sacristy of the chapel at the Virginia Theological Seminary.  According to ENS, "The fire began in a trash can left near a heater in the sacristy, Susan Shillinglaw, VTS director of communications, told ENS."  From here:

The National Response Team (NRT) from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), along with agents from the ATF Falls Church Field Division and Alexandria Fire Marshal's Office investigators have completed the on-scene investigation into the cause of the Oct. 22 fire at the chapel located at the Virginia Theological Seminary at 3737 Seminary Rd.

The cause of the fire was ruled to be accidental, announced Alexandria Fire Chief Adam Thiel and Willie Brownlee, Special Agent in Charge, ATF National Response Team Special Agent in Charge. Investigators can say conclusively that the fire did start in the sacristy of the Chapel and was accidental in nature.

Over the course of six days, a team of investigators from ATF and the Alexandria Fire Marshal's Office methodically removed the debris from the heavily damaged structure. The team of investigators took photographs, recovered fire debris from the scene for laboratory analysis, and conducted more than 40 interviews throughout the campus. The ATF National Response Team departed Alexandria Thursday.

The fire at the historic chapel was reported to the Fire Department at 3:49 p.m., Oct. 22. Firefighters reported heavy smoke and fire coming from the Chapel located on the Seminary campus upon their arrival. A second alarm and subsequent special alarm were dispatched to assist in fighting the fire. The chapel sustained significant fire damage including a roof collapse.

"Because of the safe and effective firefighting operations by Alexandria and our surrounding jurisdictions, we were able to save the adjacent historic structures, as well as a number of irreplaceable religious artifacts," said Thiel. "Because our fire and EMS personnel train on safe fire ground practices along with continuous oversight by our Health and Safety Unit we were able to avoid any firefighter injuries during this major incident."

Due to the size of the incident, Alexandria Fire Investigators requested assistance from the NRT. Alexandria Fire Marshals and ATF investigators worked together as a team over the course of the investigation to determine the origin and cause of the fire.

"This investigation highlights what happens when investigators work together with a common goal in mind," said Brownlee. "Our agents and laboratory personnel worked seamlessly with the Alexandria Fire Department and Fire Marshal's Office to determine the cause of the fire that damaged the historic chapel at the Virginia Theological Seminary, which has special meaning and memories for many people."

A Saturday afternoon in Washington DC

... three days before an election.  Note to Park Service: Don't book the Marine Marathon, a Major National Charity Walk, and another Political Rally on the Mall on the same day.  Note to Metro: Take Sunday off.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Presiding Bishop interviewed by The Washington Post

From The Washington Post:

Question - who in heaven's name is she talking about in the opening statement? "If you are going to stay as a leader in THIS organization you HAVE to be engaged even if you don't like this decision over here, AND if you are not willing to be engaged it's time to let go of your leadership position."

Engaged in what??  What does that mean?

Is she referring to The Rt. Rev'd Mark Lawrence, the Bishop of South Carolina?

One wonders what Dr. King would make of such a statement.

Blessed be Your Name - How Great is our God

Monday, October 25, 2010

Is the Presiding Bishop looking to do a "Juan Williams" on the Executive Council?

There have been a number of posts concerning the finances and leadership of the Episcopal Church. As the chair of the finance committee and a member of the audit committee, I want to address what I understand to be the key issues and the steps we are taking to address them.

The first issue is the money we have borrowed to pay for the renovations to the Church Center and the purchase of a parking lot as a future site for the national archives.

When those needs arose, the staff and Executive Council chose to borrow a combined $47 million dollars from our $50 million line of credit. The terms allowed us to pay as much or little principal as we chose - and we have made primarily interest payments and only about $500,000 in principal payments over the past six year. I and other members of finance and audit committees as well as previous members of those committees with extensive financial expertise whom we have asked to advise us, believe that a loan of that amount should not be made with a line of credit. It is not a standard financial practice to use a line of credit for major capital expenditures. The purpose of a line of credit is to cover cash shortfalls for small amounts of time and is normally repaid as soon as possible (generally within a year).

In retrospect, this loan was undertaken at the time when banks encouraged all of us, individual homeowners and organizations, to over-extend ourselves and to take on loans that were not adequately secured. I believe that is what happened to us. But now the time has come for us to put our financial house in order.

It was entirely appropriate and necessary for us to do the renovations at Church Center and some of the costs were a result of the need for asbestos abatement and not optional. Concerning the proposed future site of the Archives in Texas, (the parking lot) some of us were convinced that the availability of the parking lot was a good purchase at the time, especially since the Archives had been asked to vacate the space to the Seminary of the Southwest, the current home of the Archives. The parking lot is a functioning enterprise and its income is sufficient (at the currently low interest rates) to make interest and some principal payment. If interest rates increase, as well they may, this situation would change. In any case, we need a new site for the Archives and the current parking lot is one option for that.

I and others believe we now need to obtain mortgages or private financing, using the properties as collateral, just as most of us use our homes as collateral for our mortgages. With interest rates at record low levels, we believe we should secure loans and make both interest and principal payment to service our debt - preferably paying principal at an accelerated rate, so less of the church's funds goes towards interest payments and we can again be debt-free.

Several posts have suggested a conflict between the Treasurer, Kurt Barnes, and me. That assessment diminishes the importance of the issues before us undermines the commitment both Kurt and I feel for this Church. We simply have a difference of opinion as to how we should address these questions. Kurt, and others, including members of the staff, want to have the maximum amount of flexibility so if there is a shortfall in income from the dioceses, they can use more of the line of credit to fund the operations of the church and Church Center programs and pay less or no principle. That is understandable - the staff of an organization normally wants this kind of flexibility to do the work they have been given to do.

On the other hand, I believe that we should pay our debt first and make whatever cost reductions are necessary to allow us to do so. That is also understandable - the role of the finance committee is to look at the big picture and the long view.

Another recent thread that has been on the HoB/D list is reflections on the decline in members. I share these concerns. If we project the decline in members and income into the future, it is clear that we can not maintain the size of the operations we currently have. We have lost about 1/3 of our members in the last 50 years - but we have a structure that has stayed pretty much the same. We need to "right-size" our structures and reduce about 1/3 of our costs. That includes General Convention, Committees/Commissions as well as Church Center programs. And it probably also will mean combining dioceses, reducing the number of bishops and committees, on the diocesan and parish levels as well. I believe these are the points Bishop Jefferts Schori was making in her comments to Executive Council.

If we begin to make those structural and organizational changes expeditiously now and focus whatever savings we can generate on our true "mission" of building the church (by which I mean, making disciples for Christ), we can turn this matter around. I keep a copy of Claude Paine's book, "Reclaiming the Great Commission" on my desk to remind me of our mission. (after all, my wife is a priest!)

If we all continue to focus on our dwindling resources, we will simply continue down an unhealthy slope. While the most current manifestations of this have focused on declining membership and finances, it is, at the end, really about vision. The system we are now in is producing what it is designed to produce. I believe we need to challenge what we are doing, change direction and ultimately change the system. That will need the hard work of many, so I hope others will do their part.

I expect these comments will generate resistance - especially from those who now have the most power and resources in the system. I hope they and we all can stop, listen to what God is saying to us and refocus on what our Book of Common Prayer says so well about God's church (i.e., God's people) existing to be the arena by which God restores all people to God and each other in Christ. If we are not about doing that, we have truly lost our way!

Del Glover,
Chair of the Finance Committee of Executive Council

WED UPDATE: ANGLICAN CURMUDGEON has another excellent analysis on Executive Council here called "Cracks at the Top."  In his post he writes:
We find out that in approving a reduced budget for 2011, the Council approved the Church taking out a new loan of up to $60,000,000, and securing its note by mortgaging its headquarters at 815 Second Avenue, as well as by pledging unrestricted endowment funds.

The new loan is necessary because the Church has already borrowed $46.1 million, the note for which falls due at the end of this year. Of that amount, nearly $10 million was used to acquire land for a new site for the Episcopal Archives in Austin, Texas, and the balance was used for improvements at 815 Second Avenue -- a good part of which has now been rented out to third-party tenants.

The Church has bought raw land when it does not yet possess the additional money required to construct a building on it, and the raw land itself is not financeable -- that is, since it is non-revenue producing, it cannot be used to secure a loan. Other income-producing assets of the Church must be pledged in its place. The $10 million property will just sit there, incapable of being developed for the time being, because, according to the last resolution adopted by the Executive Council on the subject,
A diversity of individual gifts is needed for the next phase of oversight and effective completion of the many tasks that lie ahead for the successful raising of funds; relations with development partners, neighborhood businesses, governmental agencies; finalizing design; and, the selection of appropriate consultants and construction contractors. The number of members is not as critical as the skills available; individual members may possess several of the desired skills.
The $37 million spent to refurbish the headquarters on Second Avenue obviously will not finance all of the new borrowing the Church now needs to make as a result of the past decisions made by its leadership. It is left to Mr. Kurt Barnes, the Church's Treasurer, to (a) decide how much he can borrow on behalf of the DFMS (the Church's corporate arm), up to $60 million; and (b) how much of that amount he can finance with a mortgage on the building at 815, and how much additional the DFMS can put up in unrestricted trust funds.
Curmudgeon goes on to review what has happened since Katharine Jefferts Schori assumed the Presiding Bishop's role:

Look at what has happened, due to threats of and resorts to litigation, just in the space of a few years on Jefferts Schori's watch:
  • For the first time in its 221-year history, the Church has mortgaged its prime property to help pay for lawsuits;
  • Church leadership (and the lack thereof) has caused the DFMS and its treasurer to play fast and loose with the stated purposes for drawing on donor trust funds to finance diocesan litigation;
  • The Church has loaned more than a million dollars of its sorely needed funds to groups with no ability to repay such amounts, even if they finally prevail in the pending lawsuits;
  • The Church has gone to inordinate lengths to prop up groups as Potemkin dioceses, just so they can serve as plaintiffs in the lawsuits, while having little potential to remain viable on their own;
  • General Convention, 815 and the Executive Council are all running in different directions, with no regard for the limits imposed by the Constitution and Canons; and, last but not least,
  • The Church is in a deadly, downward spiral of declining membership, declining revenues and greatly increased debt.
Prolonged litigation is one of the most toxic forms of stress to which humans can subject themselves. The constant worry of what future decisions by distant and poorly informed judges will bring eats away to the raw nerves, while the outlays required leave no resources for survival in tough times. It is time to remember the words of St. Paul:
6:5 I say this to your shame! Is there no one among you wise enough to settle disputes between fellow Christians? 6:6 Instead, does a Christian sue a Christian, and do this before unbelievers? 6:7 The fact that you have lawsuits among yourselves demonstrates that you have already been defeated.
The rest of his post is a must-read - and I might add a prayerful must-read.  It is fascinating that it is taking women leaders to confront Bishop Schori (at least publicly) with the exception of Bishop Lawrence of South Carolina.  I am not so sure this is as much about gender (though that does seem to be playing a role) as to the tensions between the ordained and the laity.  What it does seem reveal however is the real tension between the hired "clergy" and the laity who financially support the whole operation.

MONDAY UPDATE FROM ENS: Here is the report of today's work from the Executive Council meeting - click here.  What is rather fascinating is the difference between the ENS report and the official "message" from the Executive Council.  It doesn't even sound like the same meetings.  It sounds like all sunshine and light reading the Executive Council "message," but here is what ENS is reporting:
During the course of the discussion during the FFM committee sessions on Oct. 24, Episcopal Church Treasurer Kurt Barnes reported that the Mission Funding Office, created by General Convention in 2003 and chartered by Executive Council in February 2005, has received $355,000 in "actual cash through the door." Its initial fund-raising goal was $250 million and has grown to nearly $375 million as other projects were assigned to the office, according to conversations during the committee's sessions. The General Convention-adopted budget for 2010-2012 allocated the office (in lines 185-196 here) $1.5 million in operating expenses.
The approved 2011 budget also includes payments of $1.1 million in interest and $1.2 million in principal towards a $37 million loan used for Church Center renovations authorized by council in 2004 and completed in 2007.
By way of a related resolution proposed by FFM, the council approved borrowing of up to $60 million to refinance $46.1 million in debt that comes due at the end of this year. The $37 million renovation loan makes up the bulk of that amount. In addition, close to $10 million was spent on property in Austin, Texas, as a potential site for relocating the Archives of the Episcopal Church. The resolution said that the borrowing authority is also meant "to provide continuing working capital and liquidity."
The resolution requires that any refinancing agreements include a mandatory repayment schedule for the $37 million at a fixed interest rate. FFM chair Del Glover told his committee earlier in the meeting that because of past budget decisions, only about $500,000 of the principal has been paid off.
"To the extent that we are not paying debt, we are borrowing money to do the ministry of the church," he said.
The resolution calls for mortgaging the Episcopal Church Center in Manhattan and securing the rest of the borrowing with unrestricted endowment assets. The current debt is in the form of a line of credit.
Finances for Ministry initially discussed the borrowing authority during an Oct. 23 session that grew somewhat heated when Barnes objected to Glover having appointed a subcommittee to look into the refinancing possibilities and the borrowing philosophies behind them. Barnes said he was told that the subcommittee was to be a council of advice for him, but said "the council of advice never invited my opinion, so I don't feel it's a council of advice.
He said that the subcommittee's report did not take into account the work that he and Margareth Crosnier de Bellaistre, the church's director of investment management and banking, had been doing for many months to explore refinancing options and solicit proposals from lenders. "It acts as if we've been asleep," Barnes said of the report.
"The way it was approached, my staff and I absolutely felt that our intelligence or ability was always being challenged," Barnes said. "We give 10 hours a day to this church and then we have other people who say, 'but you don't know what you're doing.' That's our problem and if we have misread it, then I am sorry.
Glover said that the finance office staff had misread the subcommittee's intent. He said the group, made up of former members of the Joint Audit Committee of Executive Council and the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society and those with expertise in the area, was in fact offering advice and contacts, not implementing policy. He said the need for the subcommittee grew out of the audit committee's concern about the level of debt the church has and about the payment coming due at the end of the year.

Read the rest here - it isn't pretty. Bishop Schori points to something wrong in the system but doesn't seem able to take responsibility for her own lack of leadership.  Now they are going to mortgage 815.  And still we don't know how much is being spent on litigation.

In an interesting development, the Executive Council is suddenly abandoning the embryonic shadow diocese being created in the Diocese of South Carolina.  Instead, Jim Simons is going to take Mark Lawrence to lunch and swap stories over old times, metaphorically speaking.  "There are canonical limits to how her (the Presiding Bishop) office and the Executive Council can intervene.  So much for more lawsuits - fascinating!  In fact, Bishop Schori told Jim Simons that "the more bridges we can build, the better." 

TUESDAY UPDATE: The Anglican Curmudgeon comments on the development of the The Executive Council punting the request of the embryonic SC shadow diocese to launch an investigation and thus get the ball rolling as Schori has in other dioceses that aren't marching to the NPR Tune.  Curmudgeon writes:
 do not assume that the complaint by the Episcopal Forum has been "denied" -- the Executive Council has nothing to do with any such complaints. The Presiding Bishop may have decided to refer it to the Title IV Review Committee, or she may have not. If she didn't refer it, it will end there. But if she did -- and look with whom we are dealing -- then all the proceedings will remain under wraps until that Committee decides whether or not to bring a presentment, or to charge Bishop Lawrence with "abandonment of communion." 
If it does the latter, then Bishop Jefferts Schori is required by Canon IV.9 to obtain the consent of the three most senior bishops in the Church before she declares him "inhibited" -- but she ignored that requirement twice before, in the cases of Bishops Cox and Duncan. However, Bishop Lawrence will not, I predict, stand idly by and allow the PB to ignore the Canons. We should know by January or February just how far this is going.

Guess Jim+ and +Mark won't just be swapping old stories and singing Dylan tunes after all.

In addition - without comment - the Executive Council "Adopt a revised whistleblower policy for DFMS employees (GAM008)."  What's up with that?  What is the story here?  What exactly is going on?  And why release the sunshine and roses "message" that seems to bear no connection to what actually took place at the Executive Council.  From that message we are lead to believe they spent most of the time eating and looking at the Utah foliage.


Anglican Curmudgeon digs deep and asks some good questions in his post today.  The Executive Council of The Episcopal Church is meeting in Salt Lake City and the Presiding Bishop's remarks were indeed - at best - peculiar.  Just exactly who or what is she talking about?  Is she indeed talking about the Executive Council itself - it does seem as though she is calling into question the role of The Executive Council.  ENS reports:
[The Presiding Bishop] urged the council to claim its "rightful function" to help the whole church focus on the "big-picture, long-distance view, not just bean-counting."

"The budget needs to be managed, personnel need to be treated justly; that's not our primary focus, those are vehicles for mission," she said. "We do have the capacity to think bigger and more strategically for life in the future."
But is it not the focus of the Executive Council to provide oversight to the budget and be the governing authority of General Convention between conventions?   What is this phrase of "committing suicide by governance" she is throwing in the direction of the very body that is charged with oversight?  Is she attempting to distract the Executive Council away from their duties and charge?  ENS writes:
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori challenged the Episcopal Church's Executive Council Oct. 24 to avoid "committing suicide by governance."

Jefferts Schori said that the council and the church face a "life-or-death decision," describing life as "a renewed and continually renewing focus on mission" and death as "an appeal to old ways and to internal focus" which devotes ever-greater resources to the institution and its internal conflicts.
ENS also writes:
"However, I think we're in some danger of committing suicide by governance by focusing internally rather than externally," she said. "Dying organisms pay most attention to survival. Our Haiti initiative is a positive counter-force to that. It's an example of what's possible when we turn outward rather than inward."
But isn't that the responsibility of the Executive Council - to provide oversight to the internal workings of the church?  What is happening inward - especially with the call of major cuts in the budget, so much so that the budget cuts of General Convention 2009 (which were saved for last and were intensely painful to the staff) are not enough and more cuts will be done. There is a call to raise money for Haiti (how does $10 million sound?) as if to be a diversion to what appears to be serious issues in the internal governing of The Episcopal Church.

And who is raising concerns that would cause such language as "committing suicide by governance?"

ENS reports:
Jefferts Schori said, there is what she called "a sometimes rather adversarial attitude" in the council that is the result of "confusion about roles."
"Sometimes committees try to do the work of staff," she said. "Council sometimes forgets that its job is about policy-making and accountability, and we live with the challenge of having 40 people challenged to make decisions together. There's a reason why Jesus called 12 disciples, it's a manageable group for conversation."
One did not know that governing councils need to be small enough so that they can be managed. Managed by whom?

The Audit committee also met in executive session and discussed the retention of a law firm to deal with issues raised by the audit. A report should be made at this council now underway. But what are the results of the audit? And what issues are so severe that that a law firm (and its costs) is being retained?

ENS reports that the Executive Council:
met in executive session to receive an audit committee report. At their June 16-18 meeting, the council also met in executive session and later approved a request (via Resolution FFM022) from the Joint Audit Committee of Executive Council and the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society to retention McDermott Will & Emery as outside legal counsel to assist in the evaluation of employment and personnel practices and provide an update to council at this meeting.
What issues would warrant the retention of yet another law firm?

And speaking of legal costs - why do we still not have an official accounting of all the costs associated with pursuing a litigation strategy against dissent, as opposed to allowing individual dioceses to pursue less expensive and less draconian methods of negotiation? Anglican Curmudgeon estimates that the legal costs are $21.65 million so far - enough to take care of Haiti two times over with some cash to spare.

Read more of Curmudgeon's analysis here. As we also attempted to decipher the Presiding Bishop's remarks, it does seem clear that that she is questioning some kind of internal dissent within Executive Council (and not just of course within the ranks of what are now the Anglican Church in North America dioceses and parishes), but within the Executive Council.  Is she looking for a more "manageable" group of people (say, like the so-called Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion which has also lost substantial members for it's attempts at "managing conversation")?  What of a public accountability to the litigation costs - one does wonder whether these questions are finally being raised within Executive Council itself as they face cutting the budget even more than was done at General Convention?  What of the Presiding Bishop's remarks about "bean counting," when such oversight is the distinct responsibility of Executive Council?  Who will count the beans if they don't?

It is not wise to rock a boat when it's name may be the Titanic.

Does this not seem like a strategic game (euphemistically called "mission") where outwardly a manageable group projects to the outside world that all is well and no one is afraid?  Does this sound familiar?  What if internal questions are indeed being raised and individuals serving on the Executive Council do admit to serious concern that the current trajectory of this particular denomination is in a spiral downwards?  Why the silence on the mounting litigation costs?

Is there not a concern that one will be shown the door one way or the other if such questions are raised - and hence the odd remarks from the Presiding Bishop - (that they are unmanageable, that they are committing "governance suicide") and in doing so will they not too as be shown - one way or the other - the door as one particular journalist was this past week at NPR?

Read the Anglican Curmudgeon here and the ENS report here and here.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Fairfax Circuit Court schedules hearing for Nov. 12th

via email:

From the Fairfax Circuit Court:


TRURO CHURCH, et al., Defendants.




The Court has received the attached Orders from the Supreme Court of Virginia, which require prompt action. The Court requests that Counsel for the Episcopal Church and the Diocese confer with opposing counsel and prepare orders in accordance with the directives from the Supreme Court and submit such orders for entry by the Court within ten (10) days.

Further, if any recipient of this e-mail is aware of any counsel who has a new e-mail address, please forward the new e-mail address to Ms. Fields immediately.

Finally, the Court will hold a hearing in order to determine the appropriate procedure and schedule to resolve all outstanding matters, and set briefing and trial schedules as necessary. That hearing will be held at 2:00 pm on Friday, November 12, 2010 in Courtroom 4G.    Each party who wishes to be heard at the hearing shall file by November 7, 2010 their position with regards to the matters to be taken up on November 12.

IT IS SO ORDERED this 15 day of OCTOBER, 2010.

Judge Randy I. Bellows Circuit Court Judge

Friday, October 22, 2010

BREAKING NEWS: Historic Virginia Theological Seminary Chapel destroyed by fire

PM Update - From the Washington Post:

Fire caused heavy damage Friday to a historic chapel on the grounds of the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria.

The blaze, which raged through the 19th-century Immanuel Chapel, was described by the Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, dean and president of the Episcopal seminary, as a catastrophe.

The blaze was reported about 3:55 p.m., and "the moment the fire took hold, it went down rapidly," Rev. Markham said of large sections of the 129-year-old building.

No injuries or damage to other buildings were reported at the facility, on the western side of the city, at Seminary Road and Quaker Lane. The cause was not yet known.

"I watched it," Rev. Markham said. "Within 40 minutes, the heart of the chapel was destroyed. It was a trauma that will stay with me."

Many members of the Episcopal clergy were ordained in the chapel. It had also been the site of marriages and funerals.

According to Rev. Markham, former president Gerald Ford, once a Virginia resident, had attended services at the chapel, including the Sunday after taking the oath of office.

In addition, he said, the worship space was used three times daily, with students required to attend at least one of the services.

Such a space, he said "really forms you."

Emblazoned above the arched stained-glass window behind the altar were the words: "Go Ye Into All The World And Preach The Gospel."

The window and the words of exhortation were lost to the fire, the seminary said in a statement.

"There are literally thousands of alumni who are devastated," Rev. Markham said.

Read it all here.

From FoxNews:

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - A historic chapel on the grounds of the Episcopal Church's Virginia Theological Seminary has suffered extensive damage in a fire.

Alexandria Fire Department spokesman John North said the fire broke out Friday afternoon and the 129-year-old Immanuel Chapel was fully engulfed in flames when the first crews arrived. He said the final damage is likely to be a "terrible loss."

Seminary officials said the stained glass windows were lost.
No injuries were reported and North said it was too early to determine a cause.

More info here.
[Alexandria, VA] – This afternoon, at 3:55 p.m., the Virginia Theological Seminary community became aware that the historic 129 year old Immanuel Chapel was on fire.
9-1-1 was immediately called, buildings were evacuated and the emergency services responded quickly and efficiently. It is clear that significant damage has occurred, including the loss of the stained glass windows and iconic words “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel.”
“At this stage, the cause of the fire is unclear. The VTS Community is saddened and devastated by this catastrophe,” said the Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary. “The buildings nearby are intact and safe. The ministry and mission of VTS continue, even as the community grieves.”
Founded in 1823, Virginia Theological Seminary is the largest of the 11 accredited seminaries of the Episcopal Church. The school prepares men and women for service in the Church worldwide, both as ordained and lay ministers, and offers a number of professional degree programs and diplomas. Currently, the Seminary represents more than 40 different dioceses and nine different countries, for service in the Church.
From the Washington Post:

Alexandria firefighters were battling a blaze Friday at a chapel on the grounds of the historic Virginia Theological Seminary, authorities said.
Seminary officials issued a news release saying they became aware shortly before 4 p.m. of a fire at the 129-year-old Immanuel Chapel. Fire officials were notified immediately and the building was evacuated.
No injuries were reported.
Battalion chief John W. North said when firefighters left their Duke Street station they could see smoke coming from the grounds of the seminary. By the time they arrived, about three minutes later -- they saw flames.
"They went on a defensive attack because of the volume of fire," North said. The building was too unstable to send firefighters inside, he added.
In the statement, seminary spokesman Curtis Prather said significant damage had occurred, including the loss of the stained glass windows and the iconic words above one, "Go ye into all world and preach the gospel."
"At this stage, the cause of the fire is unclear. The VTS community is saddened and devastated by this catastrophe," the Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, dean and president of the seminary, said in a statement.
The seminary was founded in 1823 in an Alexandria storefront. One of its founding fathers was Francis Scott Key.
Tony Rogers, a former member of the vestry and an usher at the seminary, said the chapel was occupied by Union troops during the Civil War.
Fire reported at Va. Theological Seminary - 5:21 p.m. 
Alexandria firefighters continue to battle a blaze at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, authorities said.
The seminary was founded in 1823 in an Alexandria storefront. One of its founding fathers was Francis Scott Key.
The fire has shut down Seminary Road between Fort Williams Parkway and North Quaker Lane, and North Quaker Lane is closed at the intersection of Seminary Road and Janneys Lane up to King Street.
Commuters are asked to use alternate routes. 
4:21 p.m.
Alexandria firefighters are responding to a substantial blaze at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, authorities said. The fire at the seminary, at 3737 Seminary Road, broke out not long ago.

Friday at the Cafe: The Boxer

Casting for "The Hobbit" announced

With Lord of the Rings Director Peter Jackson now at the helm, casting for the new film The Hobbit is announced, via email:

The Cast (as announced so far)

Martin Freeman – Bilbo Baggins
Richard Armitage - Thorin Oakenshield
Aidan Turner - Kili
Rob Kazinsky – Fili
Graham McTavish – Dwalin
John Callen – Oin
Stephen Hunter – Bombur
Mark Hadlow – Dori
Peter Hambleton – Gloin

BREAKING: While Peter Jackson and Warner Bros are figuring out where they'll shoot back-to-back installments of The Hobbit, Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh have begun to set his cast for the ambitious projects that will begin shooting in February for release in December 2012 and 2013. The castings were announced by New Line Cinema COO/president Toby Emmerich, Warner Bros COO/president Alan Horn, MGM co-CEO Steve Cooper, and Jackson. As Deadline told you last week, Martin Freeman is set to play Bilbo Baggins, the adventurous Hobbit whose adventures and discovery of the One Ring leads the story up to The Lord of the Rings. Freeman has appeared in films ranging from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Hot Fuzz to  Love Actually.

Jackson has cast several other significant Dwarf characters. Richard Armitage (MI-5 and Captain America: The First Avenger) will play Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the Company of Dwarves which sets off to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from a thieving dragon. Aidan Turner (Being Human) and Rob Kazinsky (EastEnders) will play Kili and Fili, members of the Company of Dwarves. Graham McTavish (Secretariat) will play Dwalin, John Callen (Power Rangers Jungle Fury) will play Oin; Stephen Hunter (All Saints) will play Bombur, and Mark Hadlow (King Kong) plays Dori, while Peter Hambleton (The Strip) will play Gloin.

James Nesbitt and David Tennant are up for roles, and that Ian McKellan and Andy Serkis are expected to reprise Gandalf and Gollum, though I don't believe they have made deals. Stephen Fry, Saoirse Ronan and Bill Nighy (as the voice of the dragon Smaug) are possible participants, and Aiden Turner is in contention for the Elf King.

"Despite the various rumours and speculation surround this role, there has only ever been one Bilbo Baggins for us," Peter Jackson said. There are a few times in your career when you come across an actor who you know was born to play a role, but that was the case as soon as I met Martin. He is intelligent, funny, surprising and brave -- exactly like Bilbo and I feel incredibly proud to be able to announce that he is our Hobbit."

Of Armtage, Jackson said: "Richard is one of the most exciting and dynamic actors working on screen today and we know he is going to make an amazing Thorin Oakenshield. We cannot wait to start this adventure with him and feel very lucky that one of the most beloved characters in Middle Earth is in such good hands."

On his choices of Turner and Kazinsky, Jackson said, "Rob is an extremely talented young actor with a huge career in front of him. I'm thrilled that he has agreed to take on the role of Fili. Besides his talent as an actor, Rob is also a champion sword fighter and I'm looking forward to seeing the damage he can do to a horde of marauding Goblins ... Aidan is a wonderfully gifted young actor who hails from Ireland. I'm sure he will bring enormous heart and humor to the role of Kili."

As for the rest of the Dwarves played by McTavish, Callen, Hunter, Hadlow and Hambleton, Jackson said: "Graham is a terrific actor, with a great depth of experience, which I know he will bring to the role of Dwalin. I have worked with Mark Hadlow on many projects, he is a fantastic actor...I am also proud to announce the casting of New Zealand actors as Peter Hambleton, John Callen and Stephen Hunter. Fran and I know that they will bring great depth and talent to our Company of Dwarves."

Read more here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bob Dylan's America

Princeton professor Sean Wilentz, author of The Age of Reagan and The Rise of American Democracy has a new book: Bob Dylan in America. Time Magazine writes, that Prof. Wilentz "traces Dylan's influences across wide swaths of 20th-century history and culture — from the socialist movement of the 1930s to Bing Crosby's Christmas carols — to explore his place in America, and America's place in his music."

From Time Magazine:  
Let's get one thing straight. This is not a biography of Bob Dylan.
No, not at all. I never wanted to write a biography of Dylan because there are so many good ones already out there. This focuses on his influences and the way he has drawn from different aspects of American culture.
You're the in-house Dylan historian on his official website, How did you get that job?
I did a little bit of writing about him in the '90s for a magazine. Around 2001 I got a call from asking me to write something for the website about his new album Love and Theft. I said I'd only write about it if I liked it, and I did. So I wrote that, and then I wrote the liner notes to the release of his 1964 Philharmonic Hall live concert album — which I'd actually attended — which got nominated for a Grammy. I didn't win, but I got to go to L.A. and hang out with Alicia Keys and Usher and Green Day, which is a weird sort of experience for a Princeton professor.

In your book, you liken Bob Dylan to Picasso.
There are some artists who stay the same their whole careers. Their paintings or their songs never stray much from one sound or look. But then there are artists who take these sharp turns into uncharted territory. Picasso is one of them and Dylan is one of them.

What are some of Dylan's sharp turns?
Over the years, his style changes in seemingly dramatic ways that often disturb or unsettle his loyal fanbase. He moved from protest, statement-oriented tunes to more personal songs, then from folk to rock 'n' roll at the Newport Folk Festival. For a while, he got into black gospel music from the deep South. Later he became an evangelical Christian. He hits a kind of barren period in the 1980s. Then, his creative outburst over the last 10 years sounds unlike anything else he's done.

What about Bob Dylan, the crafted persona? You say he is a character, a performance. But on stage he seems so effortless.
A great performer is someone who can take a style and make it real. That's what Dylan has managed to do all along. When you go to see him live, he knows it's a show and you're there to be entertained. He's putting on an act to perform his art, and that act includes his boots, his hat and the way he is standing. He alters his intonation and the way he plays around with the songs almost every time. People get upset that "The Times They Are A-Changing" doesn't sound like it did on the record.

Well the song is called "The Times They Are A-Changin,'" so...
Exactly! How can you expect a performance of "The Times They Are A-Changin'" to not itself change?

Your dad owned a bookshop in Greenwich Village during the 1960s so you actually met many famous beat figures. In fact, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg met in an apartment right above that bookstore. Growing up, did you realize the significance of what you were witnessing?
I just thought it was normal. When you're 10 years old you think that whatever way you live is average. My dad owned a bookshop with his brother and it was a crossroads of New York literary life in the 1960s. There was a big buzz in the air, a movement that would later be called "the counterculture" and I witnessed that happening, but I also had this double life because my family still lived in working-class Brooklyn. I could tell that not everywhere was as vibrant — in terms of art, music and literature — as the Village. But I didn't realize the historical meaning at the time, no.

If you had to describe Bob Dylan's artistic significance to someone who had never heard him — or to someone who had, but maybe didn't like the way he sang, or didn't like his folk music — what would you say?
The thing about Dylan is that he can write songs that are tender and tough at the same time. He is a man who writes with a mixture of defiance and vulnerability that comes close to explaining what it means to be human. He sings about the human experience. That's why he's a poet.

Read it all here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Questions are being raised on whether Episcopal Presiding Bishop will be included in Anglican Primates meeting following actions of the Diocese of Los Angeles

Questions are being raised on whether Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori will be included in the Anglican Primates meeting.  Questions are also being raised as to the timing of Kenneth Kearon's actions in breaking the bonds of affection with the Southern Cone before the SC House of Bishops meet.  Learn more in this cam2cam interview from Anglican TV:

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Yes - MONO is BACK!

If you haven't heard, Bob Dylan is releasing the box set of The Original Mono Recordings (which includes the original mono versions of his first eight albums) as well as the Witmark Demos (a collection of forty-seven demos from the early 1960s), and both sort of send stereo packing.  Many of us only grew up with stereo and so to hear original mono recordings (humorously satirized in this video) and so it's been a bit of a mystery as to why they are so highly valued by recording artists like Bob Dylan and his collectors.  It certainly is something new for this current generation.  Bye bye, Stereo!

Remember, friend - two ears, but only one brain.

On the road with the PB

Time for a cup of tea?

From the Wall Street Journal, Why Liberals Don't Get the Tea Party Movement:

Born in response to President Obama's self-declared desire to fundamentally change America, the tea party movement has made its central goals abundantly clear. Activists and the sizeable swath of voters who sympathize with them want to reduce the massively ballooning national debt, cut runaway federal spending, keep taxes in check, reinvigorate the economy, and block the expansion of the state into citizens' lives.

In other words, the tea party movement is inspired above all by a commitment to limited government. And that does distinguish it from the competition.

But far from reflecting a recurring pathology in our politics or the losing side in the debate over the Constitution, the devotion to limited government lies at the heart of the American experiment in liberal democracy. The Federalists who won ratification of the Constitution—most notably Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay—shared with their Anti-Federalist opponents the view that centralized power presented a formidable and abiding threat to the individual liberty that it was government's primary task to secure. They differed over how to deal with the threat.

The Anti-Federalists—including Patrick Henry, Samuel Bryan and Robert Yates—adopted the traditional view that liberty depended on state power exercised in close proximity to the people. The Federalists replied in Federalist 9 that the "science of politics," which had "received great improvement," showed that in an extended and properly structured republic liberty could be achieved and with greater security and stability.

This improved science of politics was based not on abstract theory or complex calculations but on what is referred to in Federalist 51 as "inventions of prudence" grounded in the reading of classic and modern authors, broad experience of self-government in the colonies, and acute observations about the imperfections and finer points of human nature. It taught that constitutionally enumerated powers; a separation, balance, and blending of these powers among branches of the federal government; and a distribution of powers between the federal and state governments would operate to leave substantial authority to the states while both preventing abuses by the federal government and providing it with the energy needed to defend liberty.

Whether members have read much or little of The Federalist, the tea party movement's focus on keeping government within bounds and answerable to the people reflects the devotion to limited government embodied in the Constitution. One reason this is poorly understood among our best educated citizens is that American politics is poorly taught at the universities that credentialed them. Indeed, even as the tea party calls for the return to constitutional basics, our universities neglect The Federalist and its classic exposition of constitutional principles.

For the better part of two generations, the best political science departments have concentrated on equipping students with skills for performing empirical research and teaching mathematical models that purport to describe political affairs. Meanwhile, leading history departments have emphasized social history and issues of race, class and gender at the expense of constitutional history, diplomatic history and military history.

Neither professors of political science nor of history have made a priority of instructing students in the founding principles of American constitutional government. Nor have they taught about the contest between the progressive vision and the conservative vision that has characterized American politics since Woodrow Wilson (then a political scientist at Princeton) helped launch the progressive movement in the late 19th century by arguing that the Constitution had become obsolete and hindered democratic reform.

Then there are the proliferating classes in practical ethics and moral reasoning. These expose students to hypothetical conundrums involving individuals in surreal circumstances suddenly facing life and death decisions, or present contentious public policy questions and explore the range of respectable progressive opinions for resolving them. Such exercises may sharpen students' ability to argue. They do little to teach about self-government.

They certainly do not teach about the virtues, or qualities of mind and character, that enable citizens to shoulder their political responsibilities and prosper amidst the opportunities and uncertainties that freedom brings. Nor do they teach the beliefs, practices and associations that foster such virtues and those that endanger them.

Those who doubt that the failings of higher education in America have political consequences need only reflect on the quality of progressive commentary on the tea party movement. Our universities have produced two generations of highly educated people who seem unable to recognize the spirited defense of fundamental American principles, even when it takes place for more than a year and a half right in front of their noses.

Read it all here.  Frankly we are thinking that it may be wise for the leadership of both The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of North America to read the Federalist Papers, perhaps for the first time. One thinks that those documents are not covered in seminary education, but certainly played a major role in the establishment of the branch of what became the Anglican Communion in the United States.

Tuesday at the Cafe: Is Anybody There?

From the musical 1776.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Time Out for Film Update! Confirmed: Hobbit to be directed by Lord of the Rings Director, Peter Jackson

From here:

Filming on The Hobbit is set to begin in February after it was finally given the go-ahead by film studio bosses.

Warner Bros also announced that Peter Jackson, who directed the Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy, would helm the two-part prequel.

The films, based on JRR Tolkien's book, had been delayed for months due to MGM Studios' - which owns half the project - ongoing financial woes.
No release dates for the movies have been given.

According to industry paper Hollywood Reporter, Warner Bros and MGM reached a deal allowing MGM to cover its half of the production, estimated to cost a total of $500m (£313m).

Jackson, who co-wrote the screenplays and is also producing the films, originally hired Mexican-born Guillermo Del Toro to direct, but he pulled out in June citing almost two years of delays.

Last month, the project was threatened further after Jackson warned production could cease or be moved from its location in New Zealand over a pay wrangle with acting unions.

The two movies will be shot back to back using digital 3D cameras.

In a statement, Jackson said: "Exploring Tolkien's Middle-earth goes way beyond a normal film-making experience.

"It's an all-immersive journey into a very special place of imagination, beauty and drama. We're looking forward to re-entering this wondrous world with Gandalf and Bilbo."

The Lord of the Rings trilogy grossed nearly $3bn (£1.88bn) at box offices worldwide and in 2003 the final chapter, Return of the King, dominated the Oscars, winning in all of the 11 categories in which it was nominated, including best film.

Read it all here.  More info here.  Can we just say, "yay!"

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina meets in special reconvened convention

Dr. Kendall Harmon speaks on the gathering this week of the Diocese of South Carolina in a special reconvened convention:

Bishop Mark Lawrence addresses the Diocese of South Carolina:

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Sarah Hey is right - this music just works perfectly as you watch the extremely moving video of the extraordinary rescue of 33 miners trapped for two months thousands of feet underground in Chile.  I suggest you play the music below and then the video - muting the sound of the video (and keep a couple of tissues handy).  It is very powerful - thanks, Sarah.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Rowan Williams and Daniel Deng not optomistic about the Sudan; holds press conference at Lambeth Palace

UPDATE: Here is a video of the press conference, with gratitude to Ruth Gledhill.

BB NOTE: Besides the urgent topic of the press conference itself, which the BBC does a good job covering, I am interested to see Archbishop Daniel Deng and Archbishop Rowan Williams hanging together.  It's interesting to note that they would do this press conference at Lambeth Palace together right after the Primates Meeting is called and questions are being raised of a possible boycott.  Archbishop Deng was the bishop who spoke out so strongly at the Lambeth Conference regarding the unilateral actions of The Episcopal Church and basically shut down the Episcopal Church protest.  Here is Archbishop Daniel Deng's statement at the Lambeth Conference in 2008:

Interesting timing to see the two archbishops together on the same platform at Lambeth Palace - and for certainly what is grave situation in the Sudan. Very interesting - this is an important issue not just for the nations of the world, but for the church.  Maybe it's time to refocus on the call of the Church - and to listen to our brothers and sisters in the Global South.

From here:
The Archbishop of Canterbury has added his voice to those warning that Sudan is sliding back towards civil war.

World leaders, from President Obama to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, have raised concerns in recent weeks.

Now Dr Rowan Williams has said he is "not optimistic" that war can be averted in Africa's largest country.

"I am very concerned indeed, the forces pulling the country apart are getting stronger," he said, ahead of a news conference making public his concerns.

"The chances are, as somebody said, that this could put Darfur in the shade if it really explodes."
Twenty years of fighting between the mainly Muslim north and largely Christian and Animist south, which ended in 2005, left 1.5 million dead.

Friction has grown as a referendum on independence for the oil rich south, which was agreed under the peace agreement which ended the civil war, gets nearer.

It, and another referendum in the oil region of Abyei, is due to be held on 9 January 2011.

However, delays in arranging the registration of voters, agreeing border demarcations and the distribution of oil resources, mean the vote could be delayed.

Many in the south claim the delays are largely the result of foot dragging by the north. They point out that Khartoum will lose control of many lucrative southern oil wells if the south, as widely expected, votes for independence.

It is thought that a lengthy delay could lead the south to declare independence without waiting for referendum, a move which would breach the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the last civil war.

Some, like Daniel Deng, Episcopal Archbishop of Sudan, who will be at today's press conference at Lambeth Palace, believes this would then give the north the excuse it is looking for to invade the south.

"It was not in their thinking that one day the south would break away. But now it has become a reality the only way is to delay everything," he said.

"Then they have to find a way of bringing the country back to war in a technical way so that they are not blamed by the public in the north tomorrow."

It is a claim the north firmly denies.

Dr Williams, who is holding a press conference at Lambeth Palace to voice his concerns, believes that any return to conflict in Sudan could bring terrible suffering to civilians there.

He points to a recent warning from the Khartoum government that southerner refugees from the last conflict who are still living in the north, would be expelled if the south split away.

It is estimated that this could mean the mass expulsion of as many as four million people.

Dr Williams insists that Britain, which is a former colonial power in Sudan, should do all it can to prevent conflict when it takes control of the presidency of the UN Security Council next month.

They should do this, he says, not just for Sudan's sake but for that of surrounding Commonwealth countries too.

"We (Britain) have obvious regional interests," he said. "Commonwealth countries that border Sudan are going to be even more vulnerable if things go badly wrong in Sudan.

"If Sudan dissolves into chaos, which it may well do, then that is not going to be confined to the Sudanese borders it will spill over into Uganda, into Kenya.

"I think we have moral and practical reasons for being deeply concerned about this."
I asked the Archbishop how optimistic he is that a return to civil war can be avoided in Sudan. I had expected an upbeat response. That was not what I got.

"I couldn't honestly say that I'm optimistic at the moment because I don't yet see the forces lined up that will actually step in to try and prevent it.

"We've got a few months, so, I'd rather say I'm feeling urgent about it rather than optimistic." 

Read it all here.  Also the BBC has an audio recording of an interview between the BBC and Rowan Williams.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Uh Oh - Primates Meeting in Peril?

BB NOTE: I agree with Matt Kennedy.  Archbishop Ian Ernest should be considered a moderate amongst the Global South bishops in that he was willing to work closely with Canterbury and the Anglican Communion office and was tapped with a leadership position during the Lambeth Conference in 2008.  If he is making his position known to the Archbishop of Canterbury now, in all likelihood, he is not alone.

From here:

The Archbishop of the Indian Ocean, the Most Revd Ian Ernest, has confirmed that he will not attend the meeting, due to take place in Dublin, 25-31 January.

Archbishop Ernest said last week that he had written to the Archbishop of Canterbury in the summer to convey his distress at the election in the United States of the Rt Revd Mary Glasspool, a partnered lesbian, as Bishop of Los Angeles. He had urged Dr Williams to exclude Dr Jefferts Schori from future Primates’ Meet­ings.

“There were conditions attached in that letter,” he said last week, “and I can confirm I will not attend if those conditions are not fulfilled.”

Dr Jefferts Schori has already con­firmed that she will attend the meeting.

Primates of the Global South are expected to meet this month to discuss whether they will refuse en masse to attend.

They are being encouraged to attend by, among others, the presid­ent of the American Anglican Coun­cil, the Rt Revd David Anderson, a suffragan bishop within the Con­vocation of Anglicans in North America, who has posted a letter on a website urging traditionalist bishops to go to the meeting.

In a bizarre suggestion, he advises that Dr Jefferts Schori be shut out of the room, or removed “by force of numbers” if she attends. If Dr Williams objects to this, the meeting could go ahead in a separate room without him.

He writes: “Dr Williams is being advised that numerous provinces won’t attend the Primates’ Meeting if Jefferts Schori attends. Having booked the venue, he might as well have the meeting since he is com­mitted to paying for it, but without the orthodox Primates in attendance it could be a dangerous meeting, giv­ing opinion and credence to teachings and beliefs that are not representative of orthodox Anglicanism.

“If asked my opinion, I would strongly advise the orthodox Prim­ates to: 1) organise before the Prim­ates’ Meeting; and 2) attend and remove by force of numbers the Pre­sid­ing Bishop of the American Epis­copal Church (not physically, but by either voting her off the ‘island’, or reces­sing to another room and not letting her in).

“The meeting is a place to gather and potentially to settle some of the issues that are pulling the Anglican Communion apart, and to begin to restore health to a most wonderful communion.

“In the above case, if Dr Williams did not go along with Jefferts Schori’s exclusion, then I would suggest having the next-door meeting with­out him. I just don’t believe staying home from the field of battle helps win a war over the truth and nature of Christianity within Anglicanism.”

Lambeth Palace declined to com­ment. 
Read it all here. Photo is from the Lambeth Conference Launch press event and includes both the Archbishop of Canterbury as well as the Archbishop of the Indian Ocean.

Today at the Cafe: Yes, Prime Minister

From Yes, Prime Minister:

Tip of the Tinfoil to RL!  Thanks!

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The End of the Pew?

Graham Tomlin asks the question in the current edition the Church of England Newspaper, via email:

What is the biggest obstacle to the growth of the church in Britain today? Creeping secularization? Richard Dawkins? Infighting over women bishops or gay clergy? Let me make another suggestion: how about the continued existence of pews?

For the first 1,500 years of the church’s life, pews were extremely rare. In most medieval churches people stood or sat on the floor, with only a narrow bench around the edge of the building for seating. Eastern Orthodox churches never got around to having pews – still today in Russia and Greece, worshippers stand. When they did gradually get introduced, pews were a mixed blessing. They were intimately connected with social division and hierarchy, with pews ranked according to social standing. The rich would have large grand stalls at the front and woe betide anyone who sat in the wrong one.

They were exclusive then, and they are exclusive now. Pews today effectively exclude the 90 per cent of people who are not regular attenders of services. The problem is that pews render the space in churches virtually unusable for anything other than around two hour-long events a week. The building becomes curiosity, hardly visited midweek except for a few ecclesiastical tourists who want to drop by, and the cleaners.

A recent survey sent unchurched visitors to slip into churches up and down the country. Ninety per cent of them found the experience uplifting, finding a real sense of community. Three- quarters said they would go back. Over 50 percent felt comfortable and welcomed. It suggests that half of the battle is actually get- ting people into a church in the first place.

There is also evidence to suggest that one of the main helps in getting people to feel more inclined to visit their local church is if they are familiar with the building. Imagine for a moment we could wave a magic wand and all fixed pews could be removed from churches up and down the country. Churches could then develop into open, attractive space that could become a resource for their local community. This has a number of key benefits.

At the most basic level, it could become a source of income for the church that would help it fund extra staff, such as a youth worker, administrator or community pastor. Football clubs faced this same issue in the 1970s. Clubs began to realize they were sitting on stadia that were only used on Saturday afternoons and occasionally for night matches. So they began to excavate space under the stands and build on the car parks to provide conference facilities, cinemas, bars, anything that would increase revenue for the club, realizing that it was a criminal waste of resources to sit on a building that was used so seldom.

Removing pews would also make churches more welcoming. With the best will in the world, whoever designed pews did not have comfort uppermost in their minds. Many clergy during a dull sermon have at least had the reassurance of knowing that pews are very hard to fall asleep in.

When people are used to visiting pubs, cinemas and theatres the least they get is a padded comfortable seat. If they are expected to sit for over an hour in church, pews can come as a bit of a shock.

More importantly for the church itself, opening the building for local community use makes it friendly, rather than foreign, territory. Local groups - further education sessions, fitness classes, after-school clubs and the like - could begin using the building regularly. Increasing numbers of churches are taking out the pews and not looking back. They are now imaginatively reordered, well decorated and lit and provide flexible, attractive meeting space for all kinds of local uses. If local people are used to visiting the church for all kinds of other activities, as they did in the Middle Ages and before, the idea of entering the building for Christian worship rather than just the gardening club becomes a little less scary. It also makes the space much easier to use for the church itself. Any church wanting to run its own prayer groups, meditative worship, after-school club, Alpha course, fund-raising dinners, marriage preparation sessions, suddenly has flexible, pleasant space in which to do. My local church in London has removed the pews so that at various times it operates as a drop-in homeless centre, a venue for marriage preparation courses, conferences, theology classes, and on Sunday of course for regular worship that attracts many in their 20s and 30s attracted at least partly by warm, open, attractive space.

Is this yet another example of the church forsaking its rich heritage for something trendy and fleeting? Nothing of the sort. How many cathedrals have pews? Precisely. Pews were a modern invention that served the mission of the church at one time, but arguably no longer do so today.

As Sir Roy Strong, former Director of the V&A says: “Until the 20th century, the country church could be altered and adapted in response to the religious changes that affected the Church of England. Now the church is all too often frozen in time.” This is an argument for the return to proper old traditions of the church, with churches as genuine community spaces, for the service of the whole community and the mission of the church.

Such a change need not sacrifice a sense of the sacred. Sanctuaries and side chapels can be kept apart, almost as a reminder of the origins and true nature of the building for those who use it – a gentle nudge that this is not just another functional building, but a place where prayer has been offered for centuries, a reminder that even in the middle of an exercise class, we are in the presence of God. Art exhibitions, sensitive use of decoration, even notice- boards can all serve as semi-permanent witnesses to the faith for those who use the building.

If we are serious about the survival and future of the church, we need to thank the pews for their sterling service, but tell them politely that their day is over.

Graham Tomlin is Dean of St Mellitus College, London.