Thursday, December 1, 2016

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church: a place of sanctuary, by the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook, Priest-in-Charge

We are a sanctuary for those who are searching, grieving, hurting, lonely, or in recovery, and a place where people can heal and be equipped to live as God intended, in peace and love.
from The Affirmations of St. Mary's Church

About five years ago the Bishop's Committee and I spent several months discussing what we value about St. Mary's Church. What came out of those discussions became the five Affirmations of St. Mary's Church that you see on the inside back cover of the Sunday order of worship. They remain unchanged from the time they were adopted. The promises from the Baptismal Covenant (Holy Baptism) were added two years ago to make clear the context in which the Affirmations derived.
The wording of this Affirmation is interesting, and no one has yet asked me about it. (Remember, these things were written by a committee!) We are a sanctuary… We, the people of St. Mary's Church, are clearly not a sacred, holy space within a building…but in a way we are. We are clearly not a nature reserve…but perhaps our gardens express that more than we usually notice. We are the temple of the Holy Spirit…that is what I was taught in Sunday School, that my body in some contains the Holy Spirit.
That We properly should refer to something personified, human, social. No, the statement clearly says that We are a sanctuary.
Anglicans have a long history of being a bit fuzzy about the Communion of Saints and the Priesthood of All Believers. Within those concepts there is something clearly individual as well as corporate, something clearly personal but also organizational, a thing that has structure. I suppose that our Affirmation about Sanctuary has that sort of sense: it is individual (the thing is there for the individual and it is expressed often individually) but it is also corporate (the thing is both received and expressed corporately). The sense, then, is that the sanctuary we express is a human one—trust, mutual support, protection for the hurting—and a physical one—the property and facilities that “look like” St. Mary's Church.
In early medieval England the level of violence among the various dukes, knights, earls, and occasional kings was so high that the Church in England called two different conclaves to deal with it. In the first, the bishops handed down a rule that no battles could be fought on Sundays. Out of the second came a declaration that any church in England that had red doors is a sanctuary, into which fugitives from the law—who were liable to be killed on the spot just for the bounty—could go and not be pursued by the local sheriff, duke, earl, etc. As long as they were in the sanctuary, that is the space in the church bounded by the altar rail and in which the altar sat, they could not be touched by pursuers. The bishops also declared that anyone who violated the law of sanctuary would be immediately excommunicated and their souls condemned to everlasting damnation. Serious folk, these bishops!
We usually understand this statement about sanctuary as being about people who are hurting, etc., and who may come to one of the several support groups or even show up on Sundays and sit in the back of the church without identifying themselves. We have also extended that to our LGBT neighbors (1-1 and group meetings), and to their parents and friends (PFLAG). The members of the various groups that meet at St. Mary’s Church tell us that they appreciate that we have provided a safe place (sanctuary) in which they can meet. Our church building is used by individuals as a quiet and private place in which to pray and meditate: a sanctuary.

How do you understand sanctuary? How does our Affirmation about sanctuary speak about you to those with whom we come in contact? What kind of sanctuary are you?

The authors of this blog welcome comments.


  1. This message speaks to me on a very personal level... I came to St. Mary's as part of the PFlag Group, and found sanctuary as I sorted out my feelings at having a Gender Fluid child...

    When it became apparent that my current faith tradition would no longer work for me, I came to St. Mary's to find sanctuary from that old faith, and to perhaps find a new community to worship with...

    Now that I have found myself welcomed, and embraced by my new "Faith Family", I continue to come to St. Mary's to offer sanctuary and comfort to others who may be troubled, wandering or just needing t know they are loved... And, I am so grateful!!

  2. St. Mary's has also been a sanctuary for me in a receiving and giving way. I felt I needed a faith community that would help me to be more Christ-like in actions, not just words. I was thrilled to find that at St. Mary's through the work with Food and Care Coalition and the warmth of the members of the congregation. With the community garden I hope that I have been a part of maintaining that "sanctuary" feeling.