Written for The Anglican Digest
The Church of the Holy Spirit, on the campus of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, stands as an unusual and compelling exemplification -- in native materials of olive-brown Freestone, blue and green slate, dark oak, and yellow pine-- of the Evangelical movement in the American Episcopal church in the 19th century. This movement was championed by Charles Pettit McIlvaine, second Bishop of Ohio and one of the great figures in the history of the Anglican Communion. Evangelical Anglicanism has, until recent years, been all but forgotten; but it was and is of especial relevance to the season of Pentecost, with its annual invitation to remember the enabling power of the Holy Spirit in illuminating God's Word.
The Church of the Holy Spirit was substantially the gift of the Church of the Ascension in New York City to its former rector, Gregory T. Bedell, who left to come to Gambier in 1859 as Dean of the Bexley Hall seminary. Gambier was the seat of the Diocese; Bedell soon became assistant Bishop, and his former parish gifted him with $32,000 to construct a new church. Gordon W. Lloyd was the architect, an Englishman who designed a number of other Episcopal churches in this trans-Allegheny area, including Trinity in Pittsburgh, St. John's and Christ Church in Detroit, and St. Andrew's in Ann Arbor. The cornerstone was laid in June of 1869, and, under the close and defining interest of Bishop Bedell and his wife, the church was built to its completion in 1871, when it was consecrated on Ascension Day.
In 1871 The Standard of the Cross described it as "purely Old English in style"-- more accurately of course, it is an example of the Gothic Revival style -- "built in the form of a Latin cross, with gothic arches, an apse chancel and a tower of remarkable massiveness and grace." The cruciform shape is dramatically apparent: the nave is 95 feet long and 30 feet wide, and the two transepts are 25 feet square.
But what most surprises visitors (and discomfits preachers) is the arrangement of the pews. They stand at right angles to the chancel, and face each other across the central aisle-- there are sections of pews in the two transepts from which the Communion Table cannot seen at all. The impetus for this is generally credited to Lloyd's personal familiarity with "English College Chapels,'' or to a vague intention to commemorate the Britons, including Lord Kenyon, Lord Bexley, Lady Rosse, and Admiral Lord Gambier, who gave the funds whereby the College and Seminary had been established (and whose contributions are actively commemorated in the nicknames of Kenyon College's varsity teams, the "Lords" and "Ladies"). But a more profound reason surely lies in the Evangelical tradition of Bishop McIlvaine, to which Bishop Bedell-- who would succeed McIlvaine as the third Bishop of Ohio-- was dedicated.
Charles McIlvaine himself had succeeded Philander Chase as Bishop of Ohio in 1832. McIlvaine's Evangelicalism opposed the sacramental, ritualistic traditions of the "High Church" party of Bishop Hobart and the eastern Episcopal establishment, and emphasized that salvation could come only to those "'who have truly embraced the gospel, have been born from above-have been the subjects of a radical and thorough change of heart."' Yet at the same time, McIlvaine's movement also opposed the radical Protestantism promoted by Charles Finney and embodied in the frenzied, revival-meeting tradition of the frontier. In genuine, heart-transforming worship, McIlvaine preached, "'all things should be done decently and in order,"' and should be marked by "'quietness and soberness."'
At its zenith in the 1840s and 1850s his Evangelical party enlisted almost half of the American House of Bishops, and about a third of the clergy. A brilliant preacher and a prolific author, McIlvaine wrote the Anglican church's single most seminal and profound rebuttal to the Oxford movement, Oxford Divinity Compared with That of the Romish and Anglican Churches, which was published throughout the world-wide Anglican Communion. He died in Italy in 1873, and as his body passed through England on its journey home, it rested for four days in Westminster Abbey, after which the Dean read the service for the Dead, and psalms and hymns were sung by the great choir. The central window in the Church of the Holy Spirit bears his name, and the Church building witnesses his particular kind of Episcopalianism with dramatic and minute fidelity.
It was built on land belonging to the College, and could readily have been laid out so that its chancel lay to the east. Yet, surely because of the Evangelical repudiation of sacramentalism and the mystical apparatus identified with it, the Church of the Holy Spirit has no such geographical orientation-- the central aisle is on a north-south axis.
The purposeful intention of its interior design is implicit in The Standard's 1871 description of the "chancel arrangements." They are "those of the old Basilicas in the age preceding the novelties of worship and heresies of doctrine introduced by the Church of Rome. The Bishop's chair is in the rear of the centre of the apse, with the clergy seats on either side and the chancel in front; and with a good, honest, solid Communion Table standing before him which leaves him no excuse for turning his back on the congregation."
In 1846, Bishop McIlvaine had in fact refused to consecrate the new St. Paul's Church in Columbus because instead of such "a good, honest Table," it had an "altar"-- a closed box -- "'as if,"' McIlvaine said, "'some sacred mysteries were concealed therein. "' But the Word of God, McIlvaine's Evangelism emphasized, is openly accessible to all.
This Evangelical, "low church" tradition was rigorously honored for the better part of a century. The Communion Table remained bare of hangings, flowers or candles until 1908. Franklin Peirce was President of Kenyon from 1896 to 1937, and when he entered to conduct Evening Prayer in the wintertime, he was wont to toss his hat and coat on the Table, to affirm that it was indeed just that-- a table.
The Gospel-side pulpit was added in 1902. Old photographs show that the oaken, Eagle-shaped Epistle-side lectern was initially furnished to serve as a "Bible Stand and pulpit," and it stood immediately in the center of the steps up to the Chancel rail, with the bare altar behind it and the baptismal font directly below.
Thus God's Word, open to all, stood at the literal center of the building, and the rector stood amidst his fellows as a man among.men, bearing not some mystical mediating power, but sober personal witness to the truth of that Word. The presence of the Holy Spirit and the power of Word were not invoked through the ritual ministrations of some single, distant figure, but could be witnessed in the faces of your fellows across the aisles, and in the lives of those gathered around you. And the Holy Spirit, always ready to descend and bring that Word to quickening life, hovered all around, in illuminations on the walls and in the ceiling bays, and in five different configurations in the windows around the chancel.
The original windows in the Church date from "a period when stained glass art was at a low ebb" (and, by one account, were purchased only from Ohio artisans), and are aesthetically unhappy, at best. Yet each of five in the apse illuminates some manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The central window shows the Dove brooding upon a Chaos of murky browns and greens: in the left-most first window a Moses with a distractingly muscular forearm is bringing the ten commandments, and opposite, St John stands in the fifth window, writing the words of the Apostles' Creed. In the second window the Holy Spirit hovers above Christ's baptism, and in the fourth, Pentecostal tongues of flames-- thought to be ears of corn, by generations of Gambier children-- flare above the heads of the human figures.
In 1874, an article in a Cleveland newspaper said that "the assertion is not extravagant that declares" the Church of the Holy Spirit "to be the most beautiful church in this country." You can test this for yourself; but be warned that the Church stands now denuded of the ivy that once graced its exterior; is remote now both from Bexley Hall, which severed its Gambier ties in 1964, and from the Seat of the Diocese, which is in Cleveland; is maintained now as one of numerous buildings by Kenyon College, which honors its historical ties with the Episcopal Church, but must give higher priority to other buildings which are more central to its mission as a residential liberal arts College; and is used now -- pace that 19th century Evangelical hostility towards "the Church of Rome"-- by the Kenyon Catholic Community on Saturday afternoons as well as by the tiny Episcopal congregation, Harcourt Parish, on Sunday mornings.
Thus its walls are stained with age and its fabrics worn with use, and the racks in the pews cluttered with the worship books of two different communions and the detritus left by multiple worship services and many weddings. But nevertheless-- and not so much despite but because of these very things-- it is suffused with light and with history, and will still strike you as a place where prayer has been, and yet remains, valid.
In addition to materials in the archives of Kenyon College, this account is considerably informed by Diana H. Butler's study of "Evangelical Episcopalians in Nineteenth-Century America," Standing Against the Whirlwind (Oxford, 1995).