[Episcopal News Service] Was Robert E. Lee an American hero or a traitorous defender of slavery? The Confederate general has been called both in the ongoing debate over whether statues, monuments and plaques in his honor should be remain on display in public places, from parks to churches.
At least one aspect of Lee’s biography is undisputed: He was a prominent parishioner at the Episcopal church that now bears his name, R.E. Lee Memorial Church in Lexington, Virginia.
And that name now threatens to tear the congregation apart.
“Change is hard, and this is about change that goes right down to our identity,” vestry member Doug Cumming told Episcopal News Service. He supports removing Lee from the name of the church.
Turmoil has grown since 2015, when the vestry first considered but failed to approve a proposal to remove Lee’s name from the church. Members began leaving the congregation in protest, and such exits continued this year after the vestry in April chose not to act on a consultant’s recommendation for a name change.
Then violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, a city barely an hour northeast of Lexington, accelerated a national re-examination of the Confederacy’s legacy. Defense of a statue of Lee became a rallying point for white supremacist groups, who descended on Charlottesville this month and clashed with anti-racism counterprotesters, leaving dozens wounded and one counterprotester dead.
On Monday, the Lee Memorial Church vestry held its first monthly meeting since the melee in Charlottesville. Again, it decided against taking steps toward a name change, instead unanimously approving a statement that began by condemning white supremacism, racism and violence in Lee’s name.
The vestry members said they “object strenuously to the misuse of Robert E. Lee’s name and memory in connection with white supremacy, anti-Semitism and similar movements that he would abhor. Lee was widely admired in both the North and the South as a man of virtue and honor and as among the leading reconcilers of our fractured land.”
“We do not honor Lee as a Confederate,” the statement reads. “Nor do we subscribe to neo-Confederate ideas in honoring him. We honor Lee as one of our own parishioners, a devout man who led our parish through difficult years in post-Civil-War Virginia.”
Anne Hansen, who helped craft the statement Monday, resigned from the vestry afterward because church leaders would not commit more definitively to discussing a name change.
“My hope had been that if we could make a unified statement, say something unanimously … that we would be able to move from there into further action in a consensual way [regarding] the implications of our association with Lee,” Hansen said in an interview with ENS. “At the vestry meeting, that became apparent to me that was not going to happen.” She added that she blamed herself for getting upset and not articulating her views clearly enough.
The vestry’s inaction on the issue is fueling tension inside and outside the congregation, creating an unnecessary distraction for the church, Southwestern Virginia Bishop Mark Bourlakas told Episcopal News Service. He favors the name change.
“The name has become not only a distraction to their Gospel mission, but … it’s dividing parishioners and causing all kinds of rancor,” said Bourlakas, who plans to visit the congregation this month to assist in reconciliation efforts. “My priority is to heal the congregation, and I don’t believe that that healing can occur while the name stays the same.”
Church renamed for Lee in 1903
The church’s history dates to 1840, when it was known as Latimer Parish but didn’t have a permanent worship space. Parish records cited by Cumming show the first church building was dedicated in 1844 as Grace Church. It bore that name when when Lee joined the congregation in 1865 after the Civil War, according to a 2015 church news release.
While serving in Lexington as president of Washington College, later renamed Washington and Lee University, the former Confederate general spent the last five years of his life, until his death in 1870, helping the struggling congregation survive.
He served as senior warden and at one point agreed to pay the pastor’s salary from his own pocket, according to a report this week by the Washington Post.
There is no record, however, of why the congregation chose to rename the church for Lee in 1903. It may, as some suggest, have been part of the “Lost Cause,” a campaign across the South to rehabilitate the image of the Confederacy and its leaders at a time when racism and segregation also were on the rise. Or, changing the name may simply have been a way to honor the congregation’s most famous parishioner.
Those who favor changing the name back to Grace note that few Episcopal churches are named after deceased parishioners. They also worry the church is failing to send a welcoming message by hanging a sign out front featuring the name of a slaveholder who was willing to go to war against the Union to preserve slavery.
The debate over the church’s name came to a head in 2015 after a white supremacist with a fondness for the Confederate flag shot and killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. That massacre prompted a nationwide re-examination of how the Confederate flag had come to represent racist ideologies.
Members of Lee Memorial Church spent several months discussing the church name in light of the Charleston shooting. After surveying the congregation and hearing a range of opinions for and against, the vestry voted, 9-5, in November 2015 in favor of removing Lee’s name, but because it chose to require a supermajority for passage, the measure failed by one vote.
Then in 2016, the church hired a reconciliation consultant, ultimately spending $16,000, and formed the Discovery and Discernment Committee of vestry members and parishioners to more carefully pursue reconciliation among the congregation and decide what actions to take.
The committee and consultant issued a 15-page report in April 2017 that summarized the various perspectives on the church’s name. “The committee discerned from its work in discovery that a significant number of parishioners remain quite uneasy with the name of the church,” the report said.
It warned that those parishioners felt marginalized, and they may withdraw from the congregation, or conflict over the name could continue to escalate.
The report contained several recommendations, including the creation of a committee to seek new ways to honor Lee’s historic ties to the parish. It also recommended this: “That the name of the church be officially restored to its former name of Grace Episcopal Church.”
The vestry met the same month to review the report. It accepted all the recommendations, except the one urging a name change.
‘A different moment since Charlottesville’
ENS left messages seeking comment from senior warden Woody Sadler, as well as a vestry member, A.W. “Buster” Lewis, who has been a vocal opponent of changing the name. Neither had responded at the time of publication, though Lewis told ENS in a March story that he felt he and his parish were being “attacked.”
After the April vestry meeting, “there’s certain members of the vestry that felt with relief that the discussion was over,” vestry member Cumming said. “But I really think on some level they weren’t paying attention.”
The discussion didn’t resume in a significant way until the violence in Charlottesville raised concerns again about how Lee had come to be a symbol of white supremacist ideology.
“We’re in a different moment since Charlottesville,” Bourlakas said. “These symbols have become too toxic. We’re a church that cares deeply about sacraments and symbols, and this symbol, whatever you might think of it or what it represented, has been co-opted and has become toxic.”
Hansen, though, fears it may be too late. “We had already missed our opportunity to change the name of the church in a deliberative, proactive way on our own terms,” she said.
Although he doesn’t intend to impose his preference on the congregation, Bourlakas said it is important for him to help guide the two sides to reconcile. He thinks that the statement the vestry issued Monday alluded to the path forward, with its concluding reference to the church’s commitment “not to Lee, but to that gospel which is his hope and ours.
“We invite all to share in it, and we aim to let nothing stand in the way of our proclaiming it with integrity,” the statement ends.
To let nothing stand in the way, Bourlakas said, would seem to include a name.
“For me this is an easy fix, because the original name of the church was Grace Church. That’s the name of the church when Lee was a parishioner,” the bishop said. “If it’s about honoring Lee, that’s the church he worshiped in. If it’s about history, that’s the historical name.
“But most important, it’s a fine name of a church. And Lexington and our country could use a lot more grace.”
— David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.