A History of New Things
On the 150th Anniversary of St. Albans Church
“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. Surely the Lord is in this place.”
These were Jacob’s words when he woke from a deep sleep in the middle of nowhere, a sleep during which he had dreamed of a great ladder stretching from earth to heaven, a sleep during which the Lord had spoken to him and promised to be with him and to protect him.
These are also be our words this evening: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God. Surely the Lord is in this place.”
Because though we know that the church is not a building, and though we know that God can be worshiped wherever his people gather in spirit and in truth, we also know that for 150 years, we and the generations that came before us have gathered to worship in this place, and that the Lord has been in this place with us. And so this evening we celebrate something that is very old, at least by the standards of our city: 150 years of continuous worship here in St. Albans Church. That’s over seven thousand Sundays.
If you know your history, you will recall that in 1857 Queen Victoria selected the city of Ottawa to be the capital of Canada. As Confederation drew near, government officials, construction workers and many others flooded into the city to prepare for the transition. The one Anglican church in Ottawa at that time, our good neighbours at Christ Church Cathedral, could no longer accommodate the influx of population, and so the Bishop of Ontario, who resided in Kingston in the days before the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa even existed, sent a young Irish priest named Thomas Bedford-Jones to Ottawa to start a second Anglican parish.
The new parish was formed in 1865. This land at the corner of King Edward and Daly, which is the traditional territory of the Algonquin Anishinabe Nation, was acquired the next year, and the cornerstone which you can find in the corner to my right was laid in May of 1867. Construction was remarkably fast in those days. The first service was celebrated in this building on September 8th, 1867. Here we are, one hundred and fifty years later.
So far this sounds like an old story, and I suppose it is. But St. Albans Church has also had from its very inception a history of doing new things. Perhaps the original founders of St. Albans were mindful of the reading which we heard this evening from the Gospel of Matthew. In this text, Jesus reaches out to outsiders, which in his time and place meant tax-collectors and sinners, those who collaborated with Roman oppression, those who were excluded from the community. Jesus invites Matthew the tax-collector to follow him, to become one of his disciples, and then he goes and has dinner in the house with all the tax-collectors and sinners. That was something new.
Reaching out to the marginalized, to outsiders, as Jesus did, almost always requires us to do something new. Why? Because it is precisely the old ways of doing things that have made these people outsiders in the first place. The practice of Jesus’ time was to exclude tax-collectors and sinners from respectable dinner tables. Jesus’ understood that if he was to fulfill the mission that God had given him, the mission to bring good news to the poor and to let the oppressed go free, he would have to do something new.
And therefore, if the church is to faithfully serve Jesus’ mission to reach out to outsiders, to bring good news to those who are poor and free those who are oppressed, we too will have to do new things. New wine is put into new wineskins.
Inspired by Jesus, the founders of St. Albans Church determined that the main purpose of this new church would be to reach out to the disadvantaged people of the city of Ottawa. In 1867, the custom in Anglican churches was to charge rent for pews, with the most expensive pews being in the front. Not only was this the custom, but it was the principle source of revenue. But it also meant that rich and poor were separated, and in a growing city like Ottawa, it meant that the poor were forced to stand in the back if they could make it through the church doors at all. Despite considerable opposition, the Rev. Bedford-Jones and his colleagues established the new church of St. Albans as a rent-free church where rich and poor would sit and worship together. New wine in new wineskins.
But newness isn’t a once and done thing. In every generation, the church has to wrestle with the same question. How is God calling us to proclaim the good news in our time and place? What new thing are we being called to?
In the 1970s, this parish answered that question anew by opening its doors to Centre 454, a community ministry of the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa. Centre 454 was originally established to support men who had been recently released from jail and were preparing to re-enter society. Today, Centre 454 has grown into a day program with a broad range of services, serving people who are precariously housed or homeless in the Ottawa area. Through the Centre, St. Albans Church acts as a safe place and a sanctuary for over one hundred people each day, every day, seven days a week.
But God still wasn’t finished with us yet. God never is. Just six years ago, in 2011, we had to start all over again. As some of you may know, the congregation of St. Albans left the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa in 2008, and left this building in 2011. We were faced with rebuilding a congregation from scratch. And so a small group of us began to pray together, and we started to meet in the basement of the Royal Oak Pub to talk and to plan for the birth of a new St. Albans congregation. It was tempting to ask the question, what sort of church do we want? But we resisted that temptation. Instead we started with the question about mission, that same question that the church should be asking in every age: how is God calling us to proclaim the good news in our time and in this place?
And so we talked. And we walked. We walked the streets, we saw the shelters and the university and the diversity of the urban population. We looked at the census data, we saw the huge number of young adults in this neighbourhood, and we lamented the way that many young adults have become outsiders in our churches. We shared with each other our concerns and our passions, and soon we discerned that the Spirit of God was calling us to a new vision. The new St. Albans would be an inclusive, all-ages church rooted in this neighbourhood with three mission and ministry priorities: college and university students, those challenged by homelessness, and young adults.
These three priorities have shaped who we are as church. We are being and doing church in new ways, because you can’t put new wine into old wineskins. We welcomed Centre 454 back into our building, which has been a great blessing to us as a congregation. Young adults serve as leaders in this parish. Last Sunday we invited spoken word artists to do a slam sermon. Later on this evening our band will be playing and you’ll get a taste for the sort of music we sing together. Our worship is informal and contemporary; in fact usually it doesn’t look very much like what we’re doing this evening!
But I am deeply appreciative of what we are doing today, because this evening’s worship, with its Elizabethan language and the music which spans the centuries, reminds us of who we are and where we come from. We are followers of Jesus Christ, the one who called a hated tax-collector to be his disciple and who endured scorn and ultimately death by insisting on eating with outsiders. In so doing, Jesus revealed to us the heart of God. We are called to proclaim that good news in our time and place, and to follow Jesus by reaching out to those who are outsiders. In one generation that may mean making pews available free of charge. In another it might mean opening our doors to those at risk of homelessness. In another it might mean breaking with tradition so that we can better serve a younger generation. In the future? Who knows where God’s mission will take us.
Our story is still unfolding. We don’t yet know where the Spirit will lead us next. But it’s been a good 150 years. Thanks be to God.
Homily: Sept 24 2017, St. Albans 150
Readings: Gen 28.10-17, Matthew 9.9-17