Iconic Virginia church facing up to climate change

Christ and St Luke’s Episcopal Church in the Ghent are of Norfolk, VA has seen increasing flooding in recent years.  The church may have been hoping these incidents were one-offs, but now the blinders are off and they have chosen to accept the reality of increasing sea level rise and increased flooding.

from the Virginia-Pilot

“The 107-year-old church, an iconic stone masterwork in the Gothic Revival style, faces Olney Road in a Ghent historic district. Most important, for the purposes of this story, it’s across from one end of a crescent-shaped inlet of the Elizabeth River known as The Hague.

Before developers began putting up seawalls to bring order to it about a century ago, Smith Creek sloppily fingered through the marshy lowlands, rising and falling with the tides. These days, with sea levels inching higher by the decade and coastal storms increasing, The Hague has been overtopping its manmade walls a lot more often. It’s apparent that the creek wants its old bed back.

Church leaders have decided to cede some ground.

By 2020, they plan to withdraw all remaining activities from the lowest level of the adjacent parish house.”


The Rev Canon Win Lewis, Rector, said “We’ve finally in the last five years come out of any denial that we still had” about the rising waters. The cost of battling it on every front would be too high. Better to live with it, manage it where possible and fortify and make the most out of the church’s higher spaces.

“Lewis says pulling out has never been a consideration for his congregation(though a nearby church has done so), which numbers slightly more than 1,000. Not even after an evaluation last year by a Florida-based firm called Coastal Risk Consulting. It predicted that by 2045, some portion of the church grounds would experience “non-storm flooding” on as many as 68 days of the year, up from less than a handful a year now.”


Many coastal areas are experiencing similar flooding, with some concerned that areas such as the Hague in Norfolk may be uninhabitable in the not so distant future.  Because of its location, Canon Lewis has found himself at the center of the unfolding crisis, seeking to address the reality of sea level rise from a warming climate while also maintaining the church’s role as a place of welcome for all amidst a hotly charged political topic.

“Lewis says he treads the subject carefully because it has become so politicized and he doesn’t want to violate a key underlying tradition of his church: as “a safe place for people with all perspectives, to be able to engage in respectful conversation.”

Still, he says, the problem of sea level rise has become urgent enough that he feels duty-bound to raise its already-high profile even more within his congregation.

He plans to do so, in late August, by teaching an environmentally themed class. It will be based on “Laudato Si,” an encyclical letter in 2015 from Pope Francis. Subtitled “On Care for Our Common Home,” the letter is a call to people of all faiths to embrace the sacredness of Earth and halt what the Catholic leader describes unequivocally as a breakneck “destruction” of the environment.

“Whether you believe it’s natural in the environment or it’s man-induced, there’s no doubt that the water is rising,” Lewis says. “I would be failing our congregation if I didn’t connect faith and theology to real-life issues. And this is a real-life issue.”

While ending the use of the lowest level for activities like the choir’s robing and warmup on Sunday mornings was a difficult decision, Lewis says the problem also has presented the church an opportunity to rethink its approach to environmental matters.”


image by Stephen Katz, the Virginia-Pilot 

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