I thought I’d stick with my current trend here and finish off this year with a church (I’m not writing next Friday cause it’s Christmas. Sorry! Hope that doesn’t change your family’s plans! It looks like Avatar is playing at 3:15, if you wanna go see that). And if I’m going to write on a church I might as well go all the way back and write on Saint Paul’s Chapel. This is the oldest existing church building in NYC, and maybe the oldest public building in general that’s still in use. Everything I’ve read seems pretty clear on that (I think). So here we go, sounds like a good way to end a year. Maybe I’ll start the next one with something new. But probably not. If you’re broke, why fix things, right?
Saint Paul’s Chapel was finished in 1766, built by Trinity Church to serve as a chapel-of-ease for some of its “uptown” patrons, who apparently couldn’t make it the five extra blocks down to Trinity. It was probably designed by Thomas McBean (no one seems fully certain) and modeled closely after the English architect James Gibbs’ St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields Church in London. James Gibbs was himself the disciple of the renowned Christopher Wren, architect of London’s famous Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and over fifty other churches. Working off of Wren’s legacy, Gibbs was a chief proponent of the Georgian style of architecture (named after the era of the four King Georges) – which stressed neoclassicism and its symmetrical and geometric proportions, as a reflection of the upper classes desire for order, balance and harmony. Saint Paul’s Chapel was a fine example, with its temple front portico and giant Ionic columns appealing to its genteel congregation. George Washington worshiped here on his inauguration day in 1789 and would continue to do so throughout the year New York City was the federal capital.
Never mind that just before the American Revolution Trinity Church had officially sided with the British (they were after all an Anglican congregation) and gladly welcomed them into the city after Washington’s retreat following the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776. In September of that same year what was known as The Great Fire broke out, ultimately destroying one-fourth of the city, including Trinity Church. American forces across the Hudson in New Jersey cheered while the church caught fire and fell. Saint Paul’s was able to avoid the same fate thanks to a hastily organized bucket brigade. It would serve as the main Anglican church (and then Episcopal – just a name change there) in the city until the second Trinity Church was completed in 1790. That second church was itself torn down in 1839 to be replaced in 1846 with the current Trinity Church we see today. Saint Paul’s stuck it out through all of that.
I’m reminded of a quote from Aguirre, the Wrath of God when the priest says, “For the sake of God, the church has always stood with the strong.” Pretty heavy stuff there and pretty spot on. That seemed to be the case in New York – once the Revolution was over the Episcopal congregation of Trinity (and with it Saint Paul’s) included some of the most powerful folks of the day, amongst them Alexander Hamilton, who’s buried in the Trinity church yard. The Anglican Church was the church of the British establishment and so the Episcopal Church in the United States would become almost the same, once the U.S. had achieved its independence, although perhaps not so officially. The split between the churches was one caused by politics, and not theology. In that sense it mirrors the Anglican churches original split from Catholicism – which had much less to do with protesting than with a king wanting to get divorced. I just like to lay this all out to keep it straight in my own mind. I mean, is there a path to history, an arc or spirit that shines through? Is there an actual direction that it’s heading – or does it just make sense retrospectively, the way that we look back on it? Was 2009 the culmination of all that came before it, or was it just a bunch of things that happened? Which reminds me, what’s everybody doing on New Years Eve? It’s gonna be the current end result of history! I don’t have any plans yet.
(Originally posted Dec. 18th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)