By John Ohmer
As part of the celebration of the 250th anniversary of our historic church, The Falls Church Episcopal placed a plaque in the sidewalk that literally carves in stone our vision statement:
“The Falls Church Episcopal is a welcoming community, called to be an enduring beacon of faith, hope, and love to all.”
While the plaque is new, the vision is not: it is a reclaiming of The Falls Church’s earliest ethos.
This congregation was formed to minister to the booming population of this area during the early 1700s. The physical structure was built on a high plateau and could be seen for miles. It had several early names, including simply the “Upper Church,” until a reference began to stick: “The church on the way to the Little Falls” which then became “The Falls Church” — from which the city itself gets its name.
Our Historic Church — completed in 1769 — has seen much. But the congregation of The Falls Church, which predates the Historic Church by more than a generation, has seen even more. As a spiritual body, The Falls Church:
• Received its first Rector through a recommendation by the father of a Founding Father, Augustine Washington, who served on the first Vestry and was the father of George Washington.
• Flourished, then faded and was revived by two American Revolutionaries, George Washington and George Mason.
• Was a site of a public reading of the Declaration of Independence, according to local lore, and served as a recruiting station for George Washington’s Continental Army.
• Almost died in the wake of the disestablishment of the Church of England as the official state church of the Colonies, now the United States of America.
• Lay dormant from 1799 to 1836.
• Was caught between Union and Confederate forces during the great fratricide of the Civil War. Occupied first by Confederate forces, the area was quickly taken by Union forces. The Historic Church served first as a hospital for 100 soldiers at a time, then later the floors were torn out and the Historic Church was used as a stable. During this time the Historic Church was briefly looted, but total destruction was prevented by vigilant townspeople who complained to Union officers. Afterward, once the Union survived, the United States Army repaired the Historic Church, though scars on the building remain.
• Was given up on even by its bishop in 1886. Nevertheless, services continued, though irregularly, and the Historic Church also served as the home of another Christian tradition’s congregation at the same time until The Falls Church was formally reorganized in 1873.
• Closed for a month in 1918 as an influenza pandemic swept the globe.
• Almost went broke during The Great Depression.
• Saw the tragedy of the Second World War; the dawn of the atomic age; the agony of assassinations; wars; and the hopes, joys, and sufferings of the Civil Rights Movement.
• Went through a period of massive growth in the 1950s, during which time it added its Day School and Fellowship Hall, and renovated the interior of the Historic Church.
• Went through another period of massive growth in the 1980s, at a time when its church leadership began expressing increasing opposition to the wider Episcopal Church, particularly over the issue of The Episcopal Church’s full inclusion of gays and lesbians in all aspects of church life and our policy of allowing women to lead as Bishops. These differences led to a formal church split in 2006, with all but about 100 members voting to leave The Episcopal Church, and the departing congregants attempting to hold onto Episcopal Church property and finances as their own, triggering more than six years of litigation over church ownership.
Shortly after returning to our property in 2012, we began — again — the process of rebuilding, reconciliation, and renewal. We decided to concentrate on those things which unite us: loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
In fact, as part of our 250th Anniversary Celebration, every member of The Falls Church Episcopal is being challenged to give at least 250 minutes of service to the poor or others in need, by way of fulfilling our goal of being good news to the wider community.
Over the past 250 years, The Falls Church has seen much: it has been gutted, looted, occupied by armies twice; buried patriots and royalists, Unionists and Secessionists; witnessed the great visions and great horrors of the past two and a half centuries; been given up on by almost everyone; nearly died again and again and again and again; had its congregation exiled for years…and yet the church — remains.
The Falls Church was formed to be an enduring beacon of faith, hope, and love to all within its reach. As we celebrate the 250th anniversary of our historic structure, we renew our commitment to that vision.
The Rev. John Ohmer is rector of The Falls Church Episcopal.