WILLIAMSBURG — George Washington stood here. Thomas Jefferson sat there. Strolling around the sanctuary of Bruton Parish Episcopal Church is a walk through America’s history.
“It goes on and on,” marveled the Rev. Christopher L. Epperson, the church’s rector. “There’s no place quite like it.”
This month, the church kicks off a 15-month celebration of the 300th anniversary of its building on Duke of Gloucester Street.
The celebration begins in earnest today, highlighted by the presence of a rather notable guest preacher in the Bruton Parish pulpit: the Bishop of London, the Rt. Rev. Richard Chartres, who delivered the sermon at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in Westminster Abbey. During the Colonial period, Anglican churches in America, including Bruton Parish Church, were overseen by the Bishop of London. That’s no longer the case, of course, but Epperson said the invitation was extended as a nod to history.
Bruton Parish dates to 1674, but the current structure, completed in 1715, is the third to house the church.
The church has undergone a number of makeovers — in good times and bad — but has made it to 300, a lot of years for any building. “I don’t live in anything that’ll be around 300 years from now,” Epperson said. What makes Bruton particularly remarkable — and is perhaps the primary reason it remains in such good shape as it embarks on its fourth century — is what Epperson calls the “vitality” of its congregation, which numbers 2,000. Four services are held on Sundays, and special events, such as evening candlelight concerts, are regularly scheduled. The church seems to be always open.
When he was called to be the 35th rector of Bruton Parish, Epperson, who is in his fourth year, said he was nervous initially because he feared any church in the middle of Colonial Williamsburg must be “more of a museum than a parish.”
“All along the way in the search process, everyone I spoke to was really committed to the mission and ministry of the church,” he said. “It is a church first and historic second.”
But historic it is.
At first, Bruton Parish was shared between two wooden churches that existed when the parish was created in 1674 by the merger of Marston Parish of York County and Middletown Parish of James City County, according to a church history. The name “Bruton” came from the English ancestral home of the Ludwells, a prominent Colonial family, as well as Royal Governor Sir William Berkeley.
A new, brick church was completed in 1683 in Williamsburg, just to the north and west of the present church building. However, it wasn’t long before the structure was overwhelmed by all of the people brought to Williamsburg with the founding of the College of William and Mary (1693) and the relocation of the Colonial capital from Jamestown to Williamsburg (1699).
A newer, bigger, cross-shaped church was completed in 1715, and Bruton Parish in the coming decades became a center of community activity. When the legislature was in session, political leaders such as Washington, Jefferson and Patrick Henry worshiped at the church, which was the scene of special services leading up to the American Revolution. It also is a privileged resting place for local luminaries buried beneath the sanctuary and in the churchyard, and it is filled with artifacts such as the stone baptismal font that Epperson described as “the oldest piece of ecclesiastical hardware in the Western Hemisphere.” The font was moved from Jamestown, he said, and most scholars believe it originated in England.
With the end of its affiliation with the Anglican Church (and the loss of tax support), Bruton Parish experienced a decline in the 1800s. The church lost membership and influence, and the building fell into disrepair. During the Civil War, the church served as a hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers.
The church regained some of its luster in the early 1900s, but visionary Bruton Parish rector W.A.R. Goodwin brought it all the way back.
“He loved the church and the history of the whole town, and he wanted to see it preserved,” said Marcia Hibbitts, a Bruton Parish member and coordinator of the guides who lead daily tours of the church. “His goal was to get the funds to do that.”
Goodwin accomplished that by finding time to meet John D. Rockefeller during a visit by the latter to the College of William and Mary. Goodwin must have been convincing.
“Because of Mr. Rockefeller’s deep pockets and Dr. Goodwin’s dreams,” Hibbitts said, “we now have Colonial Williamsburg.”
As part of the development, Bruton Parish underwent a major restoration in the late 1930s, though it is not officially part of Colonial Williamsburg. However, the church is open almost every day of the year and happily opens its doors to tourists. There is no admission charged, but a small donation is requested.
An estimated 60 guides, nearly all of them members of Bruton Parish, lead tours and otherwise welcome visitors to the church. Hibbitts, who has been a guide since 2005 and coordinator since 2008, described it as “a special ministry.” Though precise numbers aren’t kept, the church surely welcomes through its doors a large percentage of the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to Colonial Williamsburg each year.
It’s a complicated and expensive dynamic — maintenance alone represents a significant portion of the church’s annual budget approaching $2 million — or, as Epperson put it: “It’s a living, breathing, active and vibrant parish situated in the midst of one of the top five tourist destinations in the country. It’s incredible.”
It’s also, he said, an opportunity and, for a church deeply committed to mission and ministry, one not to be squandered. Connecting with someone in a way that “may set them down a path that gets them thinking about their own spirituality, their own faith” can be powerfully important, he said, “even if it doesn’t directly impact Bruton Parish.”
To that end, the church created “Friends of Bruton,” an outreach effort that includes a quarterly newsletter as a way to keep in touch with visitors who stop by the church periodically on trips to Williamsburg. The aim is to “create a kind of community among that group of people that care about the place,” Epperson said. “Sort of a 21st-century kind of offering to an extended congregation.”
There are almost 1,000 worldwide members of Friends of Bruton, he said.
Hibbitts had been one of those regular visitors from away. She and her husband lived in Cincinnati, but had a vacation home in Williamsburg and moved there after retirement. An interest in genealogy led to the discovery that her French Huguenot ancestors had worshipped at Bruton Parish 300 years ago and might be buried in the churchyard.
“It’s a powerful feeling,” she said of worshiping at the church and leading tours. “Without a doubt, I know I’m in the right place.”