Music at St. George’s, Part 4, Architecture, Music and Liturgy at St. George’s

By John Vreeland, Director of Music, St. George’s Episcopal Church

As a historic church community, St. George’s has gone through several structures and architectural changes during its lifetime. Since changes in sanctuary architecture affect movement, music and liturgy during worship, it will be helpful to review how those changes impacted liturgy and music throughout our history at St. George’s.

Churches in eighteenth-century America came in all sizes and shapes, from the plain, modest buildings in newly settled rural areas to elegant edifices in the prosperous cities on the eastern seaboard. Church buildings reflected the customs, traditions, wealth and social status of the denominations that built them.  In the colonial Anglican Church, architectural design was influenced by a controversy that began in the late sixteenth century.  At one end were the Puritans, who wanted to remove all non-biblical vestiges of the pre-Reformation past.  They favored a prominently placed pulpit and inconspicuous communion table.  At the other end, conservative high churchmen wanted to retain the ceremonial aspects that emphasized the “beauty of holiness,” the sacramental importance of the Holy Eucharist.  They favored stone altars placed against the east wall surrounded by railings to underscore the sacramental aspects of worship. (Carl Lounsbery, Anglican Church Design in the Chesapeake in Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Vol. 9 p 23) The Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century, whose proponents include Charles and John Wesley, had an impact on architecture and liturgical practice in England and the colonies by encouraging simpler forms of worship without needless ornament.

St. George’s eighteenth century sanctuary was built in the shape of a cross, with three small galleries at the projections, one for the singers and organ and the others with two pews each. (Barbara Willis, The Churches of St. George’s, Fredericksburg)  A central pulpit and reading desks at the front of the sanctuary focused attention on scripture and sermon, placing the emphasis on the Word, a nod to the Puritan view of things.  Morning Prayer would have been the predominant liturgy and would remain so until the late 20th century.  Music would have included hymns, psalms and canticles sung by choir and/or congregation. The organ, donated to the church in 1791, was placed in the singer’s gallery, most likely located in the east end near the pulpit.  The service would have been simple, with fewer vestments and ornamentation, musical or otherwise. The style of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century liturgical practice at St. George’s can be traced to the Bishop of Virginia, William Meade (1789-1862), an opponent of high church forms of worship.

The current sanctuary, consecrated in 1849 during the tenure of  rector Dr. Edward C. McGuire rector, retained the central pulpit, reflecting Bishop Meade’s influence.  Morning Prayer and the spoken word continued as the primary focus of worship.  Descriptions of the sanctuary consecration mention a procession by Bishop Meade and multiple clergy, the chanting of Old Hundredth and the Gloria in Excelsis, not too far removed from our present liturgical practice.  Although the organ was eventually moved to the west gallery, Quenzel’s History of St. George’s reports that the organ and pulpit were destroyed in the fire of 1854, which originated in the coal cellar under the chancel, leading one to believe that organ and choir were still located in the front of the sanctuary at the time of the fire.

By 1855, the side galleries were installed, and the organ and choir moved to the west gallery, presumably to get as far as possible from the coal cellar.  Regular services were interrupted by the Civil War, which heavily damaged the sanctuary.  In an interesting sidelight, some of the funds for post war repairs at St. George’s were raised by the reverend Magruder Maury, rector from 1864- 71, who convinced New York Episcopal Churches to contribute to the restoration.  Morning Prayer continued as the principal service, borne out by Maury’s report at the 1870 diocesan convention.  According to his report, he preached one hundred ninety five sermons during the preceding twelve months, but only conducted six communion services.

An Erben organ, circa 1852
An Erben organ, circa 1852

By the late 1870’s, change was coming to liturgy and music at St. George’s.  In 1876, the central pulpit was removed and the altar migrated from the floor in front of the pulpit to the center of the chancel in front of a newly constructed partition that split the chancel in half.  A new pipe organ by Henry Erben of New York was installed in the rear gallery with additions to the organ loft carried out by the choir.  Inspired by the principles of the Oxford movement, which sought to bring more complex liturgical practice and greater symbolism to worship, there was movement toward more emphasis on the Holy Eucharist.  There was also more responsibility placed on the choir.  In the 1880’s paid singers are mentioned for the first time in Quenzel’s History of St. George’s.  The presence of paid singers suggests that music for worship was not dependent on the clergy and congregation and demonstrates the increased importance of a professional sounding choir to lead services with increasingly complex music.

By 1925, the transition to a cathedral style chancel and liturgy was complete.  The addition of a transept, (now the Meditation Room,) provided space for the organ pipes and wind chests, pews were added to both sides of the chancel and the altar was moved to the rear of the chancel, far from the congregation and bordered by a communion rail.  The organ console, now electrified, and choir were moved to the reconfigured chancel, and liturgy and music continued under the influence of the English Cathedral style, with emphasis on choral singing of anthems and psalms and less involvement by the congregation.

By the early twenty first century, an increased focus on the Eucharist as the principal service, the crowded chancel, and the separation of clergy and choir from the congregation led to the most recent nave renovation that returned choir and organ to the west gallery and brought the clergy and altar closer to the congregation, creating the current community centered worship space.