WASHINGTON (RNS) The Washington National Cathedral will replace depictions of the Confederate flag in its stained-glass windows with plain glass but maintain adjoining panes honoring Confederate generals for at least two years while it fosters discussions about the church and race relations.
The board of the cathedral announced the decision Wednesday (June 8), almost a year after the South Carolina governor ordered the Confederate flag be removed from its Statehouse grounds. The governor's action followed the fatal June 17 shootings of nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and revelations that the man accused in the killings had embraced the flag.
A task force spent six months determining what to do with the two windows after former cathedral Dean Gary Hall, responding to the murders, declared, “It is time to take those windows out." The cathedral's board concluded that the windows should remain up for now, minus the Confederate flag panes, and serve as a stimulus for discussions, including one scheduled for July 17 titled “What the White Church Must Do.”
“(T)he windows provide a catalyst for honest discussions about race and the legacy of slavery and for addressing the uncomfortable and too-often avoided issues of race in America,” the task force stated in its report. “Moreover, the windows serve as a profound witness to the Cathedral’s own complex history in relationship to race.”
In the letter announcing the decision, cathedral board members acknowledged that there are intense feelings about the best way to handle the controversial windows.
“We have heard from those who feel strongly that the windows should stay intact as uncomfortable reminders of our shared history, others who believe that the windows should be removed entirely, and some who feel that the windows are appropriate monuments to admirable American leaders,” they said.
Asked if removing the panels featuring the flag but keeping the depictions of the Confederate generals was a compromise, Kevin Eckstrom, the cathedral’s chief communications officer, said, “The windows have prompted the questions and now we hope they’re going to be part of the discussion that helps us get to the answers.”
The cathedral is determining the cost and how soon the flag depictions will be replaced. Officials said private donors will cover the cost.
After the discussion process -- during which cathedral officials said they will examine its other artwork that refers to its racial legacy -- a decision will be made about the future of the windows honoring Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
“The Lee-Jackson windows are clear on their message of saluting heroism,” the task force said in its 17-page report. “Yet, they also present an opportunity to tell additional stories of the lives oppressed by the institutions Lee and Jackson fought to preserve.”
The cathedral, which opened in 1912, was first approached about a window honoring Lee in 1931. Bishop of Washington James Lee, who served from 1922-1944, responded that a memorial to Robert E. Lee “should be as beautiful in character as was his notable life.” The cathedral later decided to honor Jackson as well. The side-by-side panes were dedicated in 1953.
The decision comes as other congregations and religious groups are re-examining race relations and past support for Confederate flags.
A Dallas pastor has proposed a resolution for the upcoming annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention that would call on people and institutions to “discontinue displaying the Confederate Battle Flag” in honor of the nine Emanuel AME members.
Response to the proposal, which will be considered by a committee, has been mixed, said Roger S. Oldham, spokesman for the denomination’s Executive Committee.
“We’ve gotten a few emails and phone calls," he said. "Some have been affirming what some would call the heritage or tradition side of things and others affirming that the time for that flag has passed.”