Virginia congregation deeply divided over church’s name honoring Robert E. Lee

By David Paulsen
Posted Aug 23, 2017
Lee Memorial Church

The sign in front of R.E. Lee Memorial Church bears the name of the church and, therefore, also the Confederate general who was a parishioner there. Photo: Lee Memorial Church via Facebook

[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.”

The statement defended Lee’s reputation as a Christian, though not as a Confederate.

“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.

Lee Church sign

The sign in front of R.E. Lee Memorial Church in Lexington, Virginia. Photo: Doug Cumming

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 dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


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Comments (69)

  1. Perhaps this concept is more important than a Name? CHURCH. [Charitable Humanity Utilizing Resources Creating Hospitality]. Jesus taught us that it is what we do than what we call ourselves. Behavior is the key to living in Covenant with God and Jesus did by word and example!

  2. Nick Stieglitz says:

    In the 1980’s the sign out front still said Grace Episcopal. When did the Lee sign go in, and do they still have the old one? And, Lee Chapel is only about 100 yards away, so the General would probably think it’s a bit much to have two of them so close like that. The old metal Grace sign is probably still there, just switch them back.

  3. Father Mike Waverly-Shank says:

    I worshipped at Lee Church while attended W&L from 1959-63. It seems to me that it would be appropriate to change the name back to Grace Church and on a plaque acknowledge that General Lee was a member as was Blessed Jonathan Myrick Daniels. Yes, I am a Yankee. And am part of an interracial famiiy.

  4. Susan Copley says:

    Jesus must be brokenhearted. If his church has a name that makes any person feel unwelcome ~ I can’t believe it is even up for discussion.

  5. Katherine Tupper Gray says:

    I was privileged to serve at R E Lee Memorial Church from 1999-2003. There had been some controversy for several years about the name of the church, with some parishioners wanting to revert to Grace Church, or Grace Memorial as it was first renamed after the death of Gen. Lee. It is a fine congregation, historically teaching black children to read in a school on the top floor of the rectory during the years of slavery, and having been active for many years in the education, immigration and relief of the companion Diocese of the South Sudan. It was my understanding that the church was named after the General at the request of his wife. She very generously gave the church a stained glass window of the resurrected Lord, in thanksgiving to God, and in memory of her husband (and perhaps the brass pulpit also if my memory serves me), which is the focal point of the sanctuary. That said, there is a Mead Memorial Church in Farmville, Va., so the naming is not without precedent. I pray that the good people of R E Lee will do the right thing, and that the wounds festering from this division will heal. The church exists to glorify God, celebrate the Paschal Mystery, and send us all forth into the world to love and serve Christ, transformed by His Love. General Lee would not want his memory to eclipse the mission of the church, regardless of the politics and prejudices of his day.

    1. Mary Doyle says:

      Kathy, Lee’s wife died in 1873. It was 30 years before they changed the name. I do not believe that she was the catalyst.

      1. Katherine T Gray says:

        Hmmmm…..Adelaide was my source for Mrs Lee’s request , Mary. I didn’t question it. Sorry.

  6. Helen Kromm says:

    Absent a name change, why don’t they simply seek to withdraw from the Episcopal Church? That may be an overly simplistic way to view this, but I think it’s also accurate to say that this congregation, and specifically the Vestry, don’t reflect values that are in alignment with our church. Let them embrace the name Lee and become a repository for confederate artifacts under a name that doesn’t include “Episcopal”.

    This is an issue that transcends the name of this church. It goes well beyond that. A good, if not perfect example of how far off the rails this has become are some of the recent actions of the vestry.

    In August of 2016, and one year after the Vestry by minority vote decided to keep the name Robert E Lee Memorial, they then (by unanimous vote) endorsed a plan that included the solicitation of financial assistance for a restoration project from the sons of confederate veterans. The restoration project was for brass artifacts that are primarily associated with confederate generals. The project cost was $22,000.00.

    The SCV is regarded as a neo-confederate group. In the recent statement by the Vestry regarding the name controversy of just a few days ago, they stated: “Nor do we subscribe to neo-Confederate ideas in honoring him.”

    So while they supposedly don’t subscribe to these ideas, they voted unanimously to reach out to the SCV seeking funding for a church project. The link for the August 2016 minutes appears below, and a brief excerpt of that deliberation:

    “In addition, Woody noted that he plans to meet with representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The organization has expressed interest in supporting the brass restoration, based on awareness that most of the figures in the project were given in memory of Confederate officers. Vestry members noted that the brass restoration project might be included in calculating the total spent for the projects eligible for the historic tax credit. The Vestry unanimously approved the motion to send Woody’s letter to the Trustees.”

    http://www.releechurch.org/images/August_2016_Vestry.pdf

    It’s inconceivable to me that we have a church that is named Robert E Lee Memorial Church. It goes beyond inconceivable to me that an Episcopal Church anywhere, under any circumstances, is reaching out to an organization such as the sons of confederate veterans seeking funding and an alliance.

    The veneration of confederate generals is not what we are supposed to be about. Becoming repositories for confederate memorabilia in association with the sons of confederate veterans is clearly not what we should be about and goes beyond the pale. This simply can not stand under the name “Episcopal”.

    1. M. J. Wise says:

      Really, so congregations that have some disagreement with what you perceive is popular nationally should head for the exits? I think you’d find the EC very small indeed if that were the case and I don’t think we need to encourage that.

      You mention “confederate memorabilia” and “confederate artifacts” but that is clearly not supported by what you quoted, which states that “figures in the project were given in memory of Confederate officers.” That is not confederate artifacts or memorabilia.

    2. Mary Doyle says:

      Fortunately, the funds from the Sons of the Confederate Veterans never came to our church. The inappropriateness of a contribution from that group was pointed out to the senior warden and funds for the project were procured from within the church.

  7. Harold Cowherd says:

    I’m with Susan Copley. I’m appalled that this is up for discussion. It’s ironic that we have a black Presiding Bishop as well as a tradition of black Episcopalians that this can even be seen as acceptable. I would not feel unwelcome there. Unfortunately, how African Americans feel doesn’t seem to matter. I’m hoping that those who disagree with the current name continue to fight for change, be active, consume resources, but stop giving. Or, continue leaving; and the matter will take care of itself.

  8. Barbara Pace says:

    History is history! You can’t change it, by removing names and destroying monuments! Al need to just move forward, and live with it! Removal will not change history!

  9. P.J. Cabbiness says:

    If you believe that the name of the church should be changed then I am sure you will agree that anything named after Malcolm X, a violent, racist radical should have a name change as well.

  10. Suzi. Bailey Stone says:

    I attend The Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in the Mandarin area of Jacksonville, Florida. Ironically, if our church had been named after a founding parishioner, it would be Stowe Memorial Episcopal Church in memory of one of our founders, Harriet Beecher Stowe and her husband. We had a Stowe Tiffany window in one end of the church until Hurricane Dora destroyed the old church and shattered it. We recognize the Stowe’s in our foundation and funding societies. However, Church of Our Saviour has been a name that has served us well (and an Anglican parish at Jax Beach must think so too, because they are Church or Our “Savior” (no u–ironically, right? The Anglican one omits the “U” and the American church keeps it). Grace Episcopal Church sounds lovely to me.

  11. Doug Desper says:

    One thing is certain. The more that commenters marginalize the church for having the name “R. E. Lee Memorial” the more resentment will grow and resolve will harden to remain as is. I know those people and they are great. They are an excellent church. Most love their story. The devastation and war against civilians of the South and of their town of Lexington are part of their story and in their mind a reformer and leader among them was and is worthy of emulation. Lee was a great man to lead the way forward, and he did. Piling on with “name shaming” and expert opinions does not respect the dignity of those great people in that church. Before anything else there needs to be the plain respect to understand their “family story”. So far lots of verbose advice has taken the tone that implies that they are somehow deficient and in need of remediation to be “proper Episcopalians”. I haven’t understood why the people who were so offended about the name ever bothered attending the church to start with. So, yes, there is a feeling by some if not many that they are being attacked. They don’t deserve such treatment from fellow churchmen and churchwomen. There is a lot to be understood and it starts by listening and learning and not advising.

    1. Cynthia Katsarelis says:

      I think, Doug, that we’ve all had enough of the blatant racism of the past 4-5 years, with things like racial injustices caught on tape. And now having a POTUS supporting a white supremacist movement that uses these symbols as a lightning rod for hate, violence, and oppression. In addition to hating African Americans (and trying to turn the clock back on Civil Rights), they hate Jewish people, gay people, immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, and gay people like myself. Some of us are just done. Apparently, it’s a minority that wants to keep the name, so the majority are not “deficient.”

      No matter what, that church bears the symbol of Jim Crow. It bears the symbol of unbelievable hatred, indignity, and evil. Whether or not that is “fair” to General Lee hardly matters. The Gospel call right now is for repentance and reconciliation. And for once, for the love of God, could a group of entitled white southerners please prioritize the needs of America’s African Americans? And the need for a reconciliation that has yet to happen, since 1865?

      I’m writing as an incredibly entitled white southerner myself. (9th great-grandfather was a founding vestry member of Bruton Church, Williamsburg).

  12. Jose Mendoza says:

    Oramos por que nuestros Hermanos de la Iglesia R.E. LEE MEMORIAL de Lexington, sean guiados por el Espíritu de Dios, y sean inspirados a tomar una decisión apegada a nuestra fe y principio de respeto a todos, ya que si en nuestra Iglesia todos caben, no nos debemos dejar de sugestionar por lo que las distintas épocas de la sociedad están dictando, ya que hoy en nombre de la evolución social han tomado partidos dentro de la Iglesia en la que los de pensamiento liberal y progresista lesionan el pensamiento de los que piensan de manera conservadora y se someten a lo que las Sagradas Escrituras nos ordenan amar a todos y perdonar al que nos ofende, La iglesia no debe dejarse llevar por lo que dicta la sociedad, sino por lo que dicta Dios , Amarnos unos a otros y aceptarnos tal como somos, eso es lo que nos hace diferentes, y Honrar a un Fiel de nuestra Iglesia no es pecado, pecado es promover cambios dentro de nuestra Fe: ignorando las Sagradas Escrituras o tratar de adaptarlas a conveniencia de los que tienen el poder económico y político dentro de nuestra Iglesia, ya que ellos son los que han influido para que Hoy la Iglesia Episcopal se encuentre dividida como esta

  13. Ronald Davin says:

    With all the suffering and devastation going orn in Texas today from the hurricane, I hope your not wasting too much time and energy on this, instead of helping victims of Hurricane Havey.

  14. Richmond Parker says:

    My name is Richmond ; I had a cousin named Virginia , and when I was in grammar school , my best friend was named Lee . My Great- Grandmother Parker was a Richmond . ( All this is absolutely the truth . ) I once explained to a reasonably intelligent young man , a high school graduate who worked at Wegmans , that my name is not Richard , and told him how to remember it by telling him the above …. I was flabbergasted when I discovered that he did not even know who Robert E. Lee was . ( I thought everyone knew who he was . ) I recently attended my 60th high school re-union . We all had to study American History in 5th , 8th , 11th & 12th grades . There is a great deal of ignorance about our country nowadays . Rich

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