By Eugene R. Schlesinger
When my family began attending an Episcopal parish, one of the most striking features of our experience was tied to one of the most off-putting. Having spent about two decades worshiping in either evangelical or church plant contexts, we were unused to having a space that was specifically set apart for worship and adorned with liturgical paraphernalia and accoutrements. And so being in a beautiful, stately space, filled with images of the sacred, wonderfully enhanced our experience of worship. There are plenty of considerations beyond the aesthetic, but it’s certainly nice to take our part in the liturgy surrounded by stained glass, crucifixes, and saints’ shields.
At the same time, though, I quickly noticed that just about everything in the church has a plaque announcing whose contribution paid for that item. This ranges from the tabernacle in our chapel to chairs, altar rails, and the baptismal font. Even ledges, it seems, can have dedicatory plaques attached to them. Initially this struck me as odd and potentially just plain wrong. Why concern ourselves with who receives credit for what contribution? Don’t these plaques detract from the glory of God and instead draw our attention to mere mortals? By installing them have the contributors forfeited their heavenly reward (Matt. 6:1–4)?
Over time, though, I have come to hold the exact opposite position, and actually find these plaques among the most precious features of our parish building. It started when I realized that some of the plaques explained who or what was depicted in a window or shield. So I began reading all the plaques I could. Sometimes my suspicions about what I was looking at were confirmed, other times I learned new facts, or gained fresh appreciation for the symbolic riches of our sanctuary. I also came to recognize a common theme in the dedicatory plaques. They were all Given to the Glory of God, and often in memory of some loved one.
It was this latter feature, their dedication to a loved one’s memory, that began to shift my understanding of their function. Of course, their being offered to the glory of God makes a difference, but I’ve been around churches long enough to know that talk is cheap on that front. The memorial function, on the other hand, is a different story. Our parish exists, by the grace of God, because the faithful women and men of previous generations worshiped there and worked to ensure that their legacy of faith and worship would be preserved and handed on to the next generation. It is by the generosity of forebears I have never met, but who in the 1960s were generous enough to contribute to the renovation of our Ascension Chapel, that I have a place to sit when I pray there. When I genuflect in honor of Christ’s real presence, it is because someone contributed to the tabernacle from which the Lord hallows our church. Just recently I discovered that the font of holy water that stands at the entrance of the nave was installed in 1875, and was first used at the mission that preceded our parish.
These dedicatory plaques serve as a tangible expression of the communion of saints, a reminder that the Christian faith is neither an individual affair nor a matter of just the here and now. We are all of us bound together in the love of Christ. I have never known the people whose names are engraved on these plaques, but they are known by Christ. When the day comes that no parishioner remembers them, their names, etched in bronze, will stand as a testament to their enduring memory before God, and the legacy they have left for those who come after them. (In separate essays, Mark Clavier has referred to this aspect of the local church as “memory inscribed in stone” and to memorials as “mementoes” of the whole company of heaven.)
Each Sunday we confess our belief in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. At the foundation of the Christian Church are the apostles (with Christ as the cornerstone), who handed down the faith to their successors, who in turn handed it on to others, and so on through history up to now. We have all received the faith from those who’ve gone before, and we are all charged with the sacred trust of passing it along, entire and intact, to those who will come after us.
I fear that, all too often, we are so concerned with the crises of the moment, or perhaps with the failures of the past, that we lose sight of our place in this process of transmission. Overly concerned with being on the right side of history, we forget that our faith has a history. We forget that we are to be the link between that history and the future. I say all of this without prejudice to any of the particular issues facing our church or the Anglican Communion. I believe there may be a variety of good-faith answers to how to carry out this vocation of being the link between our faith’s history and its future. That said, I do think an essential starting point is to recognize that this is our task and role, rather than any other goal, however worthy. This is worth keeping in mind as we consider our recently concluded General Convention and look ahead to the task of newly authorized liturgical revisions.
The day will come when all of us are dead and gone, like the names on those plaques in the sanctuary. Most of us will be remembered by a generation, maybe two. Some few of us may be of more enduring memory. All of us will be remembered by the God of love. Despite whether our name is ever embossed upon a dedicatory plaque, we are all invited to leave a legacy of faith, hope, and love by passing along the faith we have received, so that those who come after us can also experience and know the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.