Editor’s note: Go here for the Blade’s Q&A with Robinson.
The Episcopal Church’s first out gay bishop joined more than 100 members and guests in a Saturday reception at D.C.’s St. Thomas’ Parish near Dupont Circle to promote plans for rebuilding the church’s sanctuary, which was destroyed by fire 40 years ago.
V. Gene Robinson, who was elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003, called the LGBT-welcoming church “my home away from home.” He said he would play an active role in fundraising efforts to cover the costs for the new church building.
“This congregation reaches out to all of God’s children without shame, without apology,” he told the gathering during the reception, in which a model and several drawings of the proposed new building were displayed.
In an interview after the reception, Robinson told the Blade that St. Thomas’ long history of embracing progressive causes, including LGBT equality and its status as one of the first D.C. area churches to perform blessings of same-sex unions, were examples of how the Christian church in many ways has changed for the better.
“You know, asking an LGBT person to go back to the church that has been the source of so much pain and abuse is a little like asking an abused spouse to go back to her husband,” he said.
“The fact of the matter is in many places the church is changing. And the church realizes that for years it got it wrong about LGBT people,” he said. “And what I love about St. Thomas’ Parish is that it is really leading the way in that kind of radically inclusive message.”
The original St. Thomas’ Church, a distinctive English Gothic structure, first opened in 1893 at 18th and Church streets, N.W. Among its most famous parishioners were President Franklin Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Current church officials say that by the late 1960s, the church had become known as a welcoming place for residents and visitors in the diverse, changing neighborhood of Dupont Circle, where gays, hippies, and anti-Vietnam War protesters, among others, had settled in the then-inexpensive apartments and townhouses.
The church’s mix of new and longtime residents of the Dupont Circle area reacted with sadness and resolve in August 1970, according to current members, when the church was destroyed by a fire that authorities listed as arson. The exterior stone structure remained standing, but city building officials declared it an imminent safety hazard, forcing the congregation to suffer the additional trauma of paying for the demolition of their cherished place of worship.
The perpetrator or perpetrators of the arson were never identified.
For the past 40 years the congregation has worshiped in an adjacent building on Church Street, which members converted from the original church hall to a new sanctuary. The site of the demolished church building was transformed into a park, with the ruins of one of the church walls left standing as a monument to the congregation’s will to persevere.
“We are a community of radical hospitality,” St. Thomas’ rector, Rev. Dr. Nancy Lee Jose, said in a statement. “That means we invite everyone not only to belong, but to participate fully in all levels of parish life and leadership.”
The contemporary new structure will consist of an 8,500-square-foot sanctuary seating 275 people, according to literature released by the congregation. It will be built on the park where the original church stood and will incorporate within its walls the “Gothic High Altar” from the ruins of the old church, which will serve as a chapel, the literature says.
Matthew Jarvis, 33, the lead architect of the building, who is gay, said his design was inspired by the church’s history and the diversity of its members.
“The essence, if there is one, is that it embodies openness, transparency, and inclusivity in a physical building to match the theology of the people,” he said.
John Johnson, St. Thomas’ senior warden, a volunteer administrative post, said the total cost of the new church building is expected to come to $5.1 million.
He said funds for the new building will be raised through pledges by parishioners, a $2.9 million external fundraising campaign, the sale of a church rectory building located nearby and existing funds obtained from an insurance payout from the fire.
Robinson, whose election to the post of Bishop triggered a tumultuous debate within the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and abroad, said the church has taken a “dramatic step forward” in the years since his election.
He said many people, including gays, who have left the church due to a perceived anti-LGBT bias may not be fully aware of these changes.
“And so I would say to the gay community, take another look,” he said. “The church you left may be different now. And certainly St. Thomas is modeling I think the kind of inclusive love that God is all about.”
Gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson (left) and Matthew Jarvis, the lead architect of the new St. Thomas building, who is also gay, attended a meeting on Saturday to unveil plans for the church. (Photo by Colleen Dermody)