For the last five years, Christ Reformed Church (URCNA) has met for worship in the historic Grace Reformed Church building, located on 15th Street in downtown Washington, DC. Like other Gothic Revival style churches, the building features lofty spires and luminous stained-glass windows. But the architecture stands alone in its sculptural tributes to key places and persons of the Reformation.
About to enter the front of the building, you’d see an arch over the double doors that bears the name “Grace Reformed Church” and depicts Christ’s ascension. You might pause in surprise when you noticed the arch is flanked by shields for the cities of Zurich and Geneva. Lift your eyes higher, above the soaring stained-glass window to the very top of the building’s facade, and you’d see a carved figure holding the coat of arms for Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate, who commissioned the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism.
A Sunday School building echoes the Gothic Revival style as well as the theological emphasis. Dr. Brian Lee, Christ Reformed Church’s minister, calls the building’s outside wall on the south, “Washington DC’s version of the Reformation Wall.” Sculpted elements list Zwingli and Calvin, Bullinger and Beza, Ursinus and Olevianus.
How did the structures come to be embellished with such distinctly Reformed touches? The history page on the church’s website provides the answer. In order to appropriately represent the church’s philosophy, architect Paul J. Pelz studied the history of the Reformed church and became inspired by it. Sculptor James F. Earley incorporated the unique names and symbols, contributing to a final appearance that Pelz believed made Grace Reformed “more artistic than any church in this city.”
The Reformed Church Messenger, the denomination newsletter, agreed with that assessment while affirming the clarity of the building’s Reformed witness. An article about the church’s dedication in 1903 reported, “In erecting this building the Reformed Church has done an appropriate thing in a beautiful way…. Within and without it is as beautiful and artistic as it is substantial and complete…. It stands as a monument first of all to the power and grace of the kingdom of Jesus Christ but it represents at the same time the history and genius of the Reformed Church….. The style of architecture; the shields of Geneva, Zurich and the Palatinate; the emblems cut into stone arches over the entrances to the church and the memorials in the windows and the chancel, combine to make one harmonious story easily understood by anyone who knows the Reformed church.”
A structure with such Reformed elements seems the perfect place for the newly-organized URC congregation to meet, except for the fact that the building is for sale and Christ Reformed Church needs to find a new meeting location once it sells.
The building belongs to Grace Reformed Church, formerly a Reformed Church in the United States congregation, but now part of the United Church of Christ. The dwindling congregation, composed primarily of elderly parishioners, has realized for some time that it could not continue to maintain the building. In the summer of 2016, the church informed Christ Reformed that current rental arrangements would conclude soon.
Although the owners appear willing for the building to remain a place of worship and encouraged Christ Reformed to put together a proposal, that possibility does not seem likely. Church buildings in the DC area bring a premium sale price because real estate developers are keen to convert them into high-end condominiums or other lucrative secular uses. Because Grace Reformed Church, with its Sunday School building and parish house, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991, its value could be even higher than average. While Dr. Lee hates to speculate, recent sales lead him to estimate the building could be sold for around $5 million. He foresees the proceeds being placed into a trust that would eventually benefit UCC charities.
While the loss of this unique location poses extreme challenges to the fledgling congregation, leaders and lay members are embracing the opportunity to assess and solidify the church’s vision and mission.
“This is a blessing,” Dr. Lee says, “especially for a newly-organized church like ours, a precious opportunity to ask anew where the Lord would have us plant our pilgrim flag and how he would have us serve him in this time and place.”
About a dozen volunteers, representing a broad range of the congregation’s demographic, are meeting for prayer and discernment. Part of their task is to determine questions and issues to bring before the entire congregation. Do they want to continue meeting downtown as the only Reformed witness in the city? Or do they want to move out to the suburbs, where most of them live? Do they want to continue focusing exclusively on Sunday worship and fellowship or find a facility that will permit the implementation of mid-week programs? Parking in DC is a problem, and many residents prefer not to drive in or out of the city. Church leaders feel it is important for members of the congregation to have input and play an active role in the important decisions that must be made.
Dr. Lee views this as a two-step process. The first step is figuring out, “How do we want to live our life together?” And the second step follows. “If we do that, what kind of building do we need?”
He explains that doing ministry in the midst of a city with a highly-transitory population is very different from the situation experienced by many URC congregations. Churches in smaller towns often enjoy a “generational aspect” that provides continuity and foundational resources. By trial and error, Christ Reformed Church has been discovering the “little details” that work within its metropolitan context. Although many city churches have updated worship or made compromises in other areas, Dr. Lee believes the congregation remains committed to the priority of worship that centers on the preached Word. Nevertheless, the church faces what he calls a “covenantal renewal moment.”
“This is a big step in the life of our church,” he says. “We’ve always been somewhat ‘accidental’ in our worship space, and we desire now to make a more intentional and long-term commitment in a particular neighborhood with a particular vision.”
Christ Reformed Church began meeting for worship on November 4, 2007, under the supervision of Zeltenreich URC (New Holland, PA). Classis Eastern U.S. concurred with the request for organization on October 14, 2015, and a celebratory worship service was held on January 21, 2016.
The congregation consists of about 70 total souls, although its composition is constantly changing. One family recently moved out of state, but two young women are being instructed toward membership. In addition to Dr. Lee, the church is served by two deacons and an elder. A former elder, who served for many years, continues as a member of the church.
As Christ Reformed Church faces the challenge of what may well be the loss of its historic and unique location, the congregation requests prayer for unity.
“We’re not so much seeking a particular outcome, as we desire spiritual unity through this process,” Dr. Lee says. “And stay tuned to see how the Lord blesses us during this time. He is the Lord of Provision, and we know he will.”
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 18-20 of the October 12, 2016, issue of Christian Renewal.