Opinion

Our church was named for Robert E. Lee — here is how we changed it

The R. E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, VA, in Aug. 2017, prior to the name change to Grace Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

The R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, Va., in August 2017, before the name change to Grace Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) — Confederate symbols in churches, especially Episcopal churches in Virginia and the National Cathedral in Washington, have followed a pattern of controversy parallel to, but distinct from, the civic battles over their removal from public spaces.

In Episcopal churches directly associated with Robert E. Lee, the controversy has been a deeply emotional, semiprivate clash of sensibilities, one side claiming to respect the sacredness of history and the other, the history of sacredness.

A bookplate with a coat of arms that was removed from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Va. Photo courtesy of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

It has been, under the surface, a re-litigating of Lee’s terms of surrender at Appomattox.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Richmond is the church Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis attended during the Civil War. Five months after the mass shooting in a black church in Charleston, S.C., by a neo-Confederate in June 2015, St. Paul’s began removing images of the Confederate flag from kneelers, bookplates and plaques.

“This decision is completely asinine,” one reader commented online in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “These are monuments to the dead and have a deep and direct connection to the history of this building. Burning books and removing historical markers will not help you resolve your juvenile white guilt, self-hatred, or racism.”

The rector of St. Paul’s, the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, resigned on Sept. 15 amid speculation that the church’s embrace of Presiding Bishop Michael C. Curry’s call for racial reconciliation — wholeheartedly endorsed by Adams-Riley — had played a part. St. Paul’s own commitment to the national project is called the History and Reconciliation Initiative, which some felt was somehow behind Adams-Riley’s resignation. A statement from the vestry rebutted these rumors.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” the vestry said. “HRI is the most vibrant and energized project St. Paul’s has undertaken in many years. This work is a mandate of the Presiding Bishop and was Wallace’s gift to the church, and we intend to live it forward fully, without reservation.”

The interior of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Va., in 2013. Photo by Ron Cogswell/Creative Commons

Meanwhile, at Christ Church, in Alexandria, a 1773 Episcopal parish that claims George Washington and the Lee family as former worshippers, a relatively new rector was pushing for the removal of heavy memorial plaques to Lee and Washington on either side of the altar, both donated by parishioners after Lee’s death in 1870.

A plaque in memory of Robert E. Lee at Christ Church in Alexandria, Va., in 2013. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

The Rev. Noelle York-Simmons, suggesting the church needed to be “radically welcoming,” had run into resistance.

“The discussion about the appropriateness of the plaques in our worship space caused friction in our parish family,” read an Oct. 26 letter signed by York-Simmons and the vestry. “We understand that the discernment process has felt confusing and exclusive. We hope all parishioners will be more fully involved as we move forward.”

In Lexington, Va., the friction began for R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in 2015 after the Charleston shooting. A parishioner who teaches Shakespeare at Washington and Lee University next door wrote a letter to the rector, the Rev. Tom Crittenden, and the senior and junior wardens calling for a “frank, Christ-centered discussion about the name.”

Father Crittenden believed that compromise was possible, with enough love and forbearance. It turned out to be a far more difficult and costly belief than anyone imagined. But in the end, he was right.

I was on the vestry of the parish for all three years of the controversy. On Sept. 18, 2017, my final year, I voted with a bare majority 7-5 to change the name to Grace Episcopal Church.

To me, it felt like a miracle, considering how unbending the resistance had been since 2015 among some lay leaders and how empty the church’s youth program had become because of the alienation of younger families. The defense of Lee’s memorial name, which would have mortified Lee the traditional churchman, had become a gothic battlement against the shifting cultural winds.

The sign at R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, Va. Photo by Michael Noirot/Creative Commons

“Grace” seems the right word, a return to what it was called in the 19th century when Lee was senior warden after he joined the church in 1865. (“Memorial” was added after he died in 1870; it became R.E. Lee Memorial in 1903).

In 2015, Father Crittenden did not try to stop the issue at the church door. But neither did he push toward a foregone conclusion. He summoned a special vestry meeting. He helped organize house meetings and parish meetings for well-run discussions. Instead of a vote, there was a survey. Nearly a third of the congregation felt there was something wrong with the name, from a Christian perspective.

Despite all of this effort at dialogue – or maybe because of it – most members were unhappy with the process. Although the vestry had imposed a super-majority requirement on itself for such an upending change (falling one vote short, 9-6, in November that year), neither side felt that the vote settled anything. The church ended the year in a dark funk.

In the face of a fractured church that one vestry member compared to our national political discourse, the rector sought outside help that turned out to be based on radical peace-building techniques from the pacifist Mennonite branch of Christianity.

Cooperative by Design, LLC, is a consortium of “peacebuilding practitioners,” most of whom have connections with Eastern Mennonite University, an hour northeast of Lexington in Harrisonburg. Father Crittenden researched the group and, with the vestry’s approval, invited two of its consultants (one an Episcopal priest) to the vestry retreat in January 2016. Two things were memorable about their visit to that retreat: A technique of giving an individual the power to speak while others listened and secondly, the idea that conflict was not something to be “resolved” but was a kind of energy that could be used for “transformation.”

Such conflict-transformation was to come from recommendations by a group of six parishioners who would experience that transformation themselves. It would be expensive: The original contract was for up to $12,000, but the work took more time and effort than the consultants had planned on. In the end, Cooperative by Design submitted bills totaling more than $16,000.

The Rev. Tom Crittenden of Grace Episcopal Church in Lexington, Va. Photo courtesy of Tom Crittenden

It was hard, wrenching work for the six on the committee. They all said as much, although they were reluctant to speak as individuals about the experience. After nine months of two-hour meetings every two weeks, plus leading about a dozen focus groups with more than 100 parishioners, this “Discovery and Discernment Committee” formed a bond of confidentiality: No grandstanding. When the committee members submitted their final 15-page report in April, they seemed to me like castaways rescued from an island after a powerful common experience.

Father Crittenden was seeking healing and reconciliation, so he did not put a limit on where God might lead the committee. But even he did not expect the committee to come back with a recommendation to change the name, or that it would cost him his job. When they first came, the consultants had insisted that the name change was only a symptom, a “presenting” issue of conflict underneath. What the underlying issue or issues might be was anybody’s guess.

Robert E. Lee as symbol, a symbol generations of white Southerners invested with almost Christ-like qualities (as historian Emory M. Thomas has noted), has been hard on the rectors of Lee’s churches. The reason Father Crittenden resigned after it was all over is complicated, and in some ways, inexplicable. A steady, patient, gifted man, Father Crittenden announced his resignation after 10 years at R.E. Lee Memorial, and three and a half weeks after the name change.

In one of his last sermons, he called the D&D report our “John the Baptist moment.”

To many parishioners, it seems he was chewed up unfairly by the name-change controversy. He was faithful to a middle way, a way that worked beautifully for him in his previous parish in Tallahassee, Fla. There, his church flourished and weathered liberal-conservative battles over doctrine that had caused six other Episcopal churches to split or close down.

In the fullness of time, it was his middle way that changed the name from R.E. Lee to Grace. The Discovery and Discernment Committee had found “identity” as an underlying issue. The answer to that identity could not be a stark binary choice, dividing “winners” and “losers.” It had to be compromise. The committee’s recommendation was to restore the historical name of Grace, but also create a subcommittee “to honor Lee and the history of this parish in meaningful and significant ways.”

It took the vestry five months to accept that compromise, and even then, it was with a close, bitter vote. But the D&D committee’s recommendation became the map. No more argument was needed. Now a sign hangs out front for “Grace Episcopal Church, 1840,” and a history committee I chair, dominated by church members who opposed the name change, is discussing an interpretive sign for the front of the Parish Hall with brief sketches of famous people who worshipped in the church.

That would include Lee, of course, but also could include Jonathan Daniels, a former cadet at Virginia Military Institute who was martyred in Alabama in 1965 while helping register blacks to vote.

Father Crittenden’s farewell sermon was on All Saints Sunday. He said that he prays we will continue to implement the Discovery and Discernment Committee’s recommendations — “all of them,” he added. “Last April, the vestry ‘tabled’ some of the recommendations. People of God, we don’t, we can’t table the work of the Holy Spirit!”

(Doug Cumming is an associate professor of journalism at Washington and Lee University and a parishioner at Grace Episcopal Church in Lexington, Va. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of RNS.)

About the author

Doug Cumming

42 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • This is not a political issue but one of morals & ethics. BTW, I’m a member of the Vestry of an Episcopal church in KY.

  • Churches are designed to teach Christ and Him crucified. Anything more is not asked of a church. Christ should be the focus.

  • How is this any different then Thomas More who caned Protestants and saw to it that six Lutherans were burned at the stake as an officer of the court, yet the Roman Church honors him and names institutions and buildings after him.

  • There are certainly differences but it does raise the problem of where to stop with this kind of iconoclasm.

  • It seems then you should be in favor of the name change at least. They removed the name of a military general, one whose name has become imbued with tremendous political significance, and replaced it with a Christian theological concept.

  • I missed the new name. I just don’t understand how people who want to worship the Lord, would go to a church and fill the church with politics. Goes right past me Arb.

  • Good point and a good reminder when naming and designing churches to just keep it focused on God and the Bible leave others out of the equation. .

  • Everyone should remember that Robert E. Lee owned no slaves but Gen. Grant and his wife did. Also, Lee’s wife taught blacks to read and write, which at that time was illegal. Food for thought for people ignorant of American history.

  • That’s one of the myths of the benevelent Lee. He did personally own a few slaves. He also managed the 100s of slaves of his late father-in-law whose will stipulated that the slaves were to be emancipated after his death as the executor (Lee) saw fit and no later than five years. Lee worked the slaves every day of that 5 years. He had any slaves who escaped, tracked down, whipped and then returned to work.

    After the Civil War he continued to believe in the inequality and racial inferiority of African Americans and spoke against ever giving them the right to vote. He based his belief on scripture.

  • I would be proud to attend a church named after a truly great American–Robert E. Lee. A mentally ill young man went into a black church and murdered innocent people. A picture was found with him holding a gun and a Confederate battle flag. That does not make him a neo-Confederate–it makes him a mentally ill young man. Now there is a rush to erase history, rewrite it, all to satisfy the liberal media and the liberal agenda in this country. Now we are to dishonor the great figures in our history, while we are supposed to honor people like Michael King (aka Martin Luther King) who did nothing more than incite riots, looting, and promote domestic unrest–working for the KGB–for those who dispute this–let’s open up the FBI file that was sealed for 50 years in 1984!! Shame on those of this church that changed the name just to be politically correct!

  • You are so correct, but there are those who would argue with you! Also, Jefferson Davis did own slaves, but the slaves actually ran the plantation. The slaves decided what work would be done that day, who would do the work and for how long. They decided when to stop working, or not to work at all. If any slave did wrong, the slaves would decide the punishment. Jeff Davis only stepped in if he thought the punishment was too harsh. The slaves also had schools and were taught to read and write. All this, because Jefferson Davis knew that mechanization and modernization of farming would soon render slavery as an outmoded form of labor and he was preparing them for a changing world, when they would soon be free men who could fend for themselves. The Northerners had other ideas. Sad.

  • One of your moral values should be is NOT to erase or rewrite history to satisfy a few ignorant liberals, who by the way are not Christian, and are mostly atheists!

  • Your the one spreading myths! But, one fact remains is that the front lawn of Robert E. Lee and his wife is now known as Arlington National Cemetery, where US soldiers of many wars have been laid to rest, including a US President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert F. Kennedy. If Robert E. Lee was such a vile person, then his land should not be used as a sacred place for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. Are you willing to dig them all up and move them to a more liberal spot???

  • I have evidese to point to regarding REL. Nothing that I have stated is myth, but borne out in histories about the man.

    I wonder how he took care of that giant front yard before it became ANC.?!?!

    None of the things that you speak about have anything to do with whether Episcopalians should have renamed one of our churches after him. Especially when they did so during such a suspect time period with regard to racism in the US..

  • No one is erasing history. A museum is where such history is remembered, not a church.

    There are millions of liberals who are not athiests, but devout Christians.

  • The man was a racist, not mentally ill. The only one showing signs of mental illness is you in your extremely biased rants in this thread.

    What difference does it make that someone’s name was changed?

    King was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. (1899–1984) and Alberta Williams King (1904–1974).[1] King’s legal name at birth was Michael King, and his father was also born Michael King, but the elder King changed his and his son’s names.[2] The elder King would later state that “Michael” was a mistake by the attending physician to his son’s birth,[3] and the younger King’s birth certificate was altered to read “Martin Luther King Jr.” in 1957?

  • What the Roman Church does in naming it’s parishes doesn’t have anything to do with what Episcopal parishes do regarding their name.

  • It’s perfectly fine to change one’s name, but the elder King just decided to call himself Martin Luther after the Reformer who sparked the Protestant revolution. He then called his son Michael, Martin Luther Jr. No legal papers were ever filed for a LEGAL change of name. So legally, King’s name is Michael King–not Martin Luther. I can assure you that I suffer from no mental illness. I’m only SICK of the lies about this man, and those who continue to erase or rewrite history.

  • Even then, people did WORK for a living and got paid wages for their work. Oh my, an original thought that you could never think of!!! The only “racism” (not a real word) I see in this country today is the discrimination against white males!

  • By removing statues of Southern leaders, and hiding historical flags, erasing history is exactly what is being done today! Hell, let’s go all the way–let’s rename Washington, D.C. –after all our first president, also a Southerner was a slave owner! I bet you can’t name 10 liberals who are also devout Christians! Over 99.9% of liberals, support abortion. If anyone supports the killing of the unborn, then they are not truly Christian. End of discussion–period!

  • I’m not convinced that you have no illness of the mind. Reading through the comments of this thread only yours are mindless rants. Only you resort to calling other folks names. Only you can’t carry on a civilized conversation. In my experience, it’s folks with no real evisence that their ideas are accurate and true that must stoop to the blevel of blathering and hyperbole found in your comments.

    Ciao, I will be ignoring your trolling in this thread now.

  • His birthday isn’t until this Friday, the 19th. I share that day with him, for that is my birthday as well.

  • Yes I know it’s January 19,but I celebrate it on the National Holiday — the Monday like all the other holidays! That must really upset you being born on the same day.

  • That’s because you have nothing to stand on but lies, myths, and falsehoods! I’ve stated nothing but facts, while it is you have done nothing but rant and rave nothing more than nonsense. I will pray for you, being you seem to need prayer very badly!

  • No, as my comments convey, I don’t get upset and blow such trivial matters out of proportion. I have nothing personal against the man, I think that there is no reason to name one of our parishes after him, or any other man for that matter. I wouldn’t be in favor of naming a church after Abe Lincoln, Thomas Cranmer or MLK, Jr either.

  • You sound just like my ignorant arrogant SBC “preacher” brother a Calvinist, not a Christian. He committed heresy, blasphemy, and sacrilege at our father’s funeral by holding an altar call and pointing out those who were and were not going to heaven, according to him. He also commits idolatry by falsely claiming the KJV of the Bible is “inerrant” and “inspired” by which he means absolute elevating it above God and also elevating himself above God as being one of the few who can accurately interpret it. BTW, the KJV was commissioned to give credence to the heresy of the Divine Right of Kings.
    ,

  • You are simply proving David, myself and all the other liberals you rail against correct. You are a non-reconstructed Confederate, not a Christian. Your words are the proof as you place traitors who committed state sponsored murder above Christianity.

  • Yes, you’re right about one thing–I consider myself a Confederate American. My ancestors fought for freedom from tyranny by the northern states against the southern states…learn your history! It is obvious that you don’t…or only the myths and lies that have been taught in schools for over the last 155 years! History is written by the victors, but the truth will prevail. You also complain about your brother judging others, yet you, not knowing me at all, pass judgement on me. Let he who has no sin cast the first stone! Don’t think you should be throwing any rocks yet!

  • First of all. the KJV of the Bible is just that, the Bible re-written to suit King James. I have told many people who quote from that version of the bible, that the KJV is not the word of God, but of King James. There are many churches that will NOT allow the version of the Bible to be used in their churches! I had a friend, (who died in 2003 of cancer, I mention this so you can laugh at something) who had a bible that was named The New International Bible . In it there was every excuse for any sin you could commit. He had them ALL circled and underlined! It was ok to get drunk, have all the sex without the benefit of marriage, steal, lie, do drugs, whatever one could think of or do! He believed that when he died, he would appear before Jesus, who would ask him if he accepted him as lord and savior. If he said yes, he would go to heaven. It didn’t matter the sins committed while on the Earth. While I disagreed, I let him believe what he wanted. I have this habit of not judging other people, no matter how good or bad they live their lives. But, after reading your response to me, I’m afraid I will not be seeing you in Heaven after my death, unless you decide to repent for your sins! Do not judge lest ye be judged!

  • By the way, just who are those traitors who committed state sponsored murder? Are you referring to Sherman, or US Grant that killed innocent civilians, women and children through their march through the Southern States who were only defending their homes from tyranny??? Who only wanted freedom, not war. You forget, it was that traitor named Lincoln who violated his own constitution during the war numerous times, which included deporting a journalist who was an American citizen because Lincoln didn’t like an article he wrote about him. Once again, you need to learn your history, which you haven’t done! As for myself, having a PHD in history and political science–I speak from facts, not myths! If you want to learn the truth–read the book THE SOUTH WAS RigHt! by James Ronald Kennedy and Walter Donald Kennedy. Well, that is if you dare–most of the references made in the book come from the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion–as the US government called it. These records contain ALL documents from both the North and South during the entire War For Southern Independence. The facts are there, but I doubt if you want to know facts! DEO VINDICE!

  • Re: “Everyone should remember that Robert E. Lee owned no slaves but Gen. Grant and his wife did.” 

    Aha, I get it! Two wrongs make a right … is that it? 

    I don’t subscribe to that fallacy, nor do many other people, but you do. I guess. 

    Re: “Jeff Davis only stepped in if he thought the punishment was too harsh.” 

    So maybe he thought being flogged 10 times was OK, but 20 times was “too harsh.” Perhaps? 

  • Re: “A mentally ill young man went into a black church and murdered innocent people.” 

    He was verified mentally healthy before his trial. 

    Re: “A picture was found with him holding a gun and a Confederate battle flag.” 

    That is not the only evidence of his racism. He had said explicitly that he’d planned to provoke a race war — among many other very-racist sentiments. 

    Re: “Now there is a rush to erase history, rewrite it, all to satisfy the liberal media and the liberal agenda in this country.” 

    Who’s “rewriting” anything here, except the shooter himself? He freely admitted his virulent racism. The “liberal media” didn’t shove words in his mouth, and nothing he did was the result of a “liberal agenda” (which you disparage, as though conservatives don’t have any “agenda” of their own). 

  • Just because ONE mentally ill young man went on a murder spree, does not make anyone who wishes to preserve history “racist”. The only agenda I have is to preserve the facts of history, and to prevent liberals like you from warping young minds into believing all your lies and myths–from rewriting history or promoting ‘climate change” which is the biggest hoax ever in the history of man!

  • Re: “Just because ONE mentally ill young man …”

    He’s not “mentally ill.”

    Re: “… does not make anyone who wishes to preserve history ‘racist’.”

    Calling the Charleston shooter a racist &mash; which is something he admitted to, himself, voluntarily and in his own words — doesn’t make anyone else a racist. So I’m not sure where you got that from.

    Unless, maybe, you yanked it out of your own persecution complex.

    Re: “The only agenda I have is to preserve the facts of history …” 

    The central “fact of history” here is that the Confederacy was a failed state which was soundly beaten during the Civil War, founded — as clearly stated by the Confederates themselves, voluntarily and in their own words — on white supremacy and a desire to perpetuate slavery.

    If you want to root for a long-destroyed, miserably failed state, you can go right ahead and do that — but don’t blame anyone else if it makes you look like a sanctimonious moron. Most people don’t eagerly and loudly profess their undying love and veneration for catastrophic failures of history. Well, reasonable people don’t, anyway.

    Re: “… and to prevent liberals like you from warping young minds into believing all your lies and myths …”

    Two things. First, I’m not a liberal … no matter how vehemently you think I am, I simply am not. No way. Second, the only “lies and myths” I see about the Civil War tend to come from Neoconfederates like yourself. So thanks for accusing me of something that YOU are guilty of, yourself, but it can safely be dismissed as psychological projection.

    Re: “… from rewriting history or promoting ‘climate change” which is the biggest hoax ever in the history of man!”

    I dare you to show me when and where I’ve ever said a damned word about “climate change.” Go ahead. Cite it. Tell me what I said about “climate change”! You won’t be able to — but I also am pretty sure you won’t show the courage to admit it.

  • I attempted to explain how devastatingly wrong you are — about me, about the Civil War, about the Charleston shooter — but RNS blocked multiple attempts to do so. I’m not sure why they want you to be a raging ignoramus, or why they wouldn’t want verifiable historical fact posted as comment on their articles, but it’s their Web site, and I suppose they can promote your ignorance if they want to. 

    So congratulations for being a buffoon. Well done! You must be SO proud. 

  • I’m not wrong–I am right! By the way, there was NEVER a civil war fought in this country. A civil war is a war in which too factions are fighting for control of a government. The South was not fighting to take over Washington, D.C. it was fighting for it’s independence from the Northern tyranny. But, you’re too uneducated and opinionated to hear anyone else’s viewpoint! So remain ignorant if you want–you’re the buffoon! Enjoy your ignorant buffoon liberal anti-Christian life. You need to stop passing judgement on others!

  • Re: “I’m not wrong–I am right!” 

    You’re dead wrong. You have no idea what you’re talking about. 

    Re: “By the way, there was NEVER a civil war fought in this country.” 

    Of course there was. Denying it is asinine. 

    Re: “A civil war is a war in which too factions are fighting for control of a government.” 

    I can see you haven’t studied history. If you had, you’d know this isn’t entirely true. Some civil wars fit this definition, but not all do. 

    Re: “The South was not fighting to take over Washington, D.C. it was fighting for it’s independence from the Northern tyranny.” 

    Yeah, I know, how awful there were people in Washington who actually objected to human beings being owned! Oh, how awful that was! There there, little thing, let me hand you a hanky … 

    Re: “But, you’re too uneducated and opinionated to hear anyone else’s viewpoint!” 

    “Viewpoints” are irrelevant. “Veracity” is all I care about. Lots of people have “viewpoints,” but unfortunately, most human beings are stupid (you Neoconfederates much more than most) which in turn means most “viewpoints” are B.S. 

    Re: “So remain ignorant if you want–you’re the buffoon! Enjoy your ignorant buffoon liberal anti-Christian life.” 

    So because I deny your Neoconfederate pseudohistory, that makes me “anti-Christian”? Do you mean to suggest that all Christians must be pro-Confederate? If so, what about non-Confederate Christians (who do, I assure you, exist … both during the Civil War and now)? 

    Re: “You need to stop passing judgement on others!” 

    And you need to grow up and stop telling your Neoconfederate lies. 

    As for my judgments, I make them based on what I see. And you have absolutely no power whatsoever to stop me. I dare you to try. In any event, I wouldn’t judge you an ignoramus if you weren’t spewing ignorance all over the place. Stop doing it and I’ll change my judgment of you. 

ADVERTISEMENTs