The Falls Church is actually two houses of worship in one. The old church, built in 1769, is a quaint, red brick Federalist building straight out of Colonial Williamsburg. Inside its spartan white-walled sanctuary, priests don long robes and clerical collars, and an organist pounds out hymns from the official Episcopal hymnal; many of the tunes date back to the 18th century when George Washington himself worshipped here. But behind the old church, amidst a parking lot filled with Volvos and Subaru Outbacks, is a bigger, newer church, tastefully made to look old, with lush strands of ivy cascading down pillars. The inside is laid out amphitheater style with floor-to-ceiling windows that bathe the vast sanctuary in sunlight. The priests wear suits, and although they still recite the Nicene Creed and the rest of the traditional Episcopal liturgy, they mix it up with characteristically evangelical, ad-libbed prayer. Instead of organ music, there is a worship team of guitarists, vocalists, and a drummer. Occasionally the congregationthe women in pearls and khakis, the men in blue blazers and khakisclap along to the songs, or lift their hands up, although their pew mates sometimes look slightly uncomfortable at such overt expressions of praise.
These are the Sunday school nerds of yore, the kids who memorized their Bible verses before everyone else. They went to graduate schools and worked on Republican Senate campaigns. And now they have their very own church. That man walking in with the soft, slightly chubby face and horn-rimmed glasses, with his son dangling from his armit’s Michael Gerson, the president’s chief speechwriter! And that tall guy with the bow tieit’s Tucker Carlson! Indeed, The Falls Church membership directory reads like the White House Christmas card list. CIA director Porter Goss and his wife, Mary, are members. So are The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes and Robert Bork Jr. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) belongs to the church. So does Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), who counts among his constituents Judge Roy Ten Commandments Moore. The congressman has dutifully introduced the Ten Commandments Preservation Act in every session since he entered Congress in 1996. But on Sundays, he worships at The Falls Church where he can get a taste of evangelicalism without having to associate with run-of-the-mill evangelicals.
There are no overhead projectors or Good News Bibles at The Falls Church. And that liquid in the communion chalice is Taylor’s Vintage Port, not the grape juice they serve down the street at the Baptist church. This isn’t a watered-down mega church, observes Joseph Loconte, a Heritage Foundation fellow who has attended the church. Theologically and aesthetically, it draws a certain kind of believer. One parishioner told me that, before discovering The Falls Church, I had been to a number of evangelical churches, but frankly, I didn’t relate to the people. Another confided that evangelical churches can be kind of wacky, but that The Falls Church stands out because the faith is more intellectually grounded.
The unique feel of The Falls Church is due in part to Virginia’s quirky Episcopal history: Early churches in colonial Virginia grew up unfettered by Anglican bureaucracy, and stayed true to their revivalist roots. They were consequently free to focus intently on an individual’s conversion experiencea common denominator of evangelicalism. Two hundred years later, The Falls Church seamlessly incorporates its stodgy Episcopal heritage with a vibrant, contemporary evangelicalism. It’s a heady fusion of power and praise.
The stress, however, is often on the power. While liberal churches preach about the dispossessed and evangelical churches focus on the unsaved, The Falls Church very consciously aims its ministry at the ruling class. Among other things, the church sponsors a fellowship program for recent college graduates that combines theological coursework with internships at lobbying firms and think tanks like the Heritage Foundation. On the Sunday after the election, the rector, Reverend John Yates, gave a sermon on the idea that Christians are called to live their faith not only in private, but in their professional roles as well. The theme is central to the church’s theology, if not the entire Christian conservative movement. [Congregants] have a broader view of calling and vocation, says Loconte. The committed Christian person is not necessarily called to work as a missionary or as a pastor, but perhaps is putting in 70-hour weeks at the White House.
The Falls Church wasn’t always a conservative redoubt. Indeed, in years past, there wasn’t much politics there at all, and the church drew members from across the ideological spectrum. But as with so many institutions in Washington, the days of bipartisanship ended when conservatives came into the majority. The Falls Church officially opposes gay marriage and civil unions, and embraces the belief that homosexuality is a choice. (A bundle of pamphlets near the entrance trumpet the work of an outside organization named Regeneration, a group seeking to cure homosexual men and women.) The Episcopal Church USA’s decision last year to elect its first openly gay bishop drew howls of protest from The Falls Church clergy and most of its congregants. Last summer, the vicar, Kim Swithenbank, gave four sermons in a row on the subject, prompting many of the parish’s remaining liberals to leave the church.
But there are limits to how far The Falls Church faithful will stand up for principle. Many members, for instance, would like to see the church secede from the Episcopal Church USA, as a few other conservative congregations have already done. But because the church building and property are owned by the diocese, the congregants would be forced either to migrate to one of the mega churches (banish the thought) or to build an entirely new church of their own, one where George Washington did not worship. So for now, while they may preach against the liberal-homosexual onslaught, the clergy and laity of The Falls Church will be staying right where they are.