On our way home last week after three days away in Maryland, my wife Ruth and I took a diversion onto route 662 and found ourselves stopping at Old Wye Episcopal Church in the diocese of Easton.
It’s an historic church which began life as a small wooden chapel in 1650 and was rebuilt in 1721. To pay for the construction, the pews were auctioned off to the highest bidders, for the (then) considerable sum of £100 sterling and sixty thousand pounds of tobacco. The Rector himself contributed four hundred pounds of tobacco. However, not everyone kept to their pledge, according to the records, and the Vestry had to ask the Governor for help in having the outstanding pledges honored.
Originally named St Luke’s, by the early twentieth century the church had fallen into disrepair and was no longer used for worship. It was only rescued by the generous gift of Arthur J Houghton Jr., a wealthy local merchant, who paid for the church to be restored.
Stepping inside the church is like stepping into the past. Instead of the standard pews most of us are familiar with, there are box pews middle, right and left. Each pew has a door and there is seating on both sides – it’s a little like being in a first class compartment on a British railway carriage, or in a booth at a diner. Children and those of small stature would be unable to see the altar, unless they stood on the seats, which presumably would draw a stern reprimand from the ushers.
In common with churches of the Protestant Reformation, the pulpit has a larger prominence than the altar, reflecting the emphasis away from Sacrament to Word – in those days sermons could last from between 45 minutes to two hours. The pulpit is situated here at the side of the nave; above the pulpit is a canopy which acts as a sounding board, “inlaid with 6-pointed star of walnut, in a field of butternut and holly wood” (according to the guide).
Around the altar are circular kneeling cushions embroidered with an exquisite design reminiscent of Renaissance painting, covered with foxes, peacocks and other wild creatures, which nicely counterpoints the church’s otherwise dry sense of decorum and formality.
The renovation work was completed in 1949, when the church was rededicated by the Bishop of Maryland as Old Wye Church; ever since it has offered a regular Sunday service.
The church is so well restored, it probably looks better now than at any other time in its history. It owes that to the vision (and generosity) of the wealthy merchant who paid for the work to be carried out and, of course, to the skill of the carpenters and builders who refashioned and made the church an attractive place of worship.
My final impression of the church, as I stood at the back behind the box pews, was of being on board a boat. That is an apt symbol for the Christian life, since we are on a journey together and we sail under the flag of Jesus Christ. Many have made this voyage before; in an old church, we stand where earlier believers once stood, and take time to consider where we are at this time in our lives. We pray too, that one day our children will stand in the same or a similar place. Preserving the past helps us to connect with other believers through the ages, and also with ourselves. A church points us towards our destination: for Christians, that means a place with God.
With every blessing on your journey.