Pressure mounts to remove Confederate symbols from Episcopal institutions

By David Paulsen
Posted Aug 25, 2017
Polk plaque

This plaque honoring Leonidas Polk, an Episcopal bishop and Confederate general, is displayed in Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati, Ohio. Dean Gail Greenwell says it should be removed or relocated. Photo: Sarah Hartwig/Christ Church Cathedral

[Episcopal News Service] Parishioners who attended Sunday worship at Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Aug. 20 should not have been surprised that Dean Gail Greenwell’s sermon addressed the issue of racism, given the national outcry over a large white supremacist rally in Virginia the weekend before.

Those hate groups had gathered in defense of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville. What may have surprised some Cincinnati parishioners is the Confederate symbols in their own cathedral.

Greenwell used her sermon to draw their attention to part of a stained-glass window honoring Lee and a plaque dedicated to Leonidas Polk, an Episcopal bishop and Confederate general. She called for both to be removed.

“The church itself has been complicit in enshrining systems and people who contributed to white supremacy, and they are here in the very corners of this cathedral,” Greenwell said in her sermon.

The growing secular debate over Confederate statues and monuments, amplified by the violence in Charlottesville, also is fueling renewed scrutiny of the numerous Confederate symbols that long have been on display at the Cincinnati cathedral and other Episcopal churches and institutions around the country.

Crew working with the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island saw into one of the plaques commemorating Robert E. Lee at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, New York. Photo: Episcopal Diocese of Long Island

Two plaques honoring Lee had long stood outside a New York City church where he once worshiped and served on the vestry, until a bishop hastily ordered them removed last week.

At Sewanee: The University of the South, a school with Episcopal roots and Confederate connections, administrators say the school has been engaged in an ongoing discussion of Confederate symbols on campus, where a monument to a Confederate general still stands.

Washington National Cathedral in the nation’s capital is deliberating over whether to remove its stained-glass windows honoring Confederate generals Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Depictions of the Confederate battle flag already have been removed from the windows.

Such scrutiny even extends to an Episcopal church’s name. The congregation in Lexington, Virginia, decided in April it would remain as R.E. Lee Memorial Church, but the vestry faces new pressure to reverse that decision.

Vestry members, at their Aug. 21 meeting, approved a joint statement condemning racism and the deadly violence in Charlottesville. They also defended Lee’s reputation as a Christian and his five years as a parishioner after the Civil War. The vestry took no action toward removing Lee’s name from the church, a stance senior warden Woody Sadler supports.

“We would love to be all things to all people, and unfortunately we can’t. And I don’t think any church can,” Sadler told Episcopal News Service in a phone interview.

Just as Episcopal clergy members rallied Aug. 12 in nonviolent solidarity against hatred and bigotry in Charlottesville, Episcopal leaders are turning the focus inward and seeking opportunities for racial reconciliation churchwide in the debate over the legacy of the Confederacy.

“There’s nothing simple about this discernment,” the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation and creation, said in an emailed statement to ENS. “Removing church windows, statues and plaques that honor and valorize the Confederacy may be necessary. I would say they so deny the spirit of Jesus Christ that they have no place in his house.”

But true reconciliation requires more than simply removing Confederate symbols from view, Spellers said.

“Removing them doesn’t change the reason they were originally installed,” she said. “It doesn’t change the way certain groups practically worship those figures. It doesn’t change the fact that our schools are now rife with revisionist history books that whitewash the evil perpetrated against indigenous, black, Asian, Latino and some whites who weren’t white when they got here.”

Charleston massacre was earlier catalyst

Even so, an unprecedented dialogue has occurred in America in the two years since Dylann Roof opened fire June 17, 2015, at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people. After Roof’s arrest, details of his fondness for the Confederate flag prompted some Southern leaders to order an end to displaying the flag at statehouses and other public places, a sudden and dramatic reversal after years of resistance to calls for the flag’s removal.

The Episcopal Church’s General Convention also weighed in, passing a resolution in 2015 condemning the Confederate battle flag as “at odds with a faithful witness to the reconciling love of Jesus Christ.” The resolution also advocated the removal of the flag from public display, including at religious institutions.

That resolution’s scope was limited to the flag, but racism has been a regular focus of General Convention for at least four decades. Through its resolutions, the church has committed to “addressing institutional racism inside our Church and in society,” ending “the historic silence and complicity of our church in the sin of racism,” and researching the historic ways the church benefited from slavery.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has identified racial reconciliation as one of three priorities during his primacy, and this year, his staff issued guidelines under the title “Becoming Beloved Community” intended to help congregations succeed in their local efforts.

This emphasis on racial reconciliation has aligned the church with people who oppose display of Confederate statues, monuments and other symbols. They argue the Confederacy cannot be absolved for leading the country into a brutal civil war with the goal of preserving slavery, and they say Confederate symbols now are inextricably linked to the racism espoused by the hate groups that rally behind them.

Others, while disavowing white supremacist groups, have cited history and heritage in arguing against removing Confederate monuments. They note slavery is a stain on the lives of many heroes of American history, not just Confederate generals, adding that removing statues succeeds in obscuring the past, not eliminating racial hatred.

Attempts by congregations to bridge such a divide can be painful, but the process also can be healing. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, is a case study.

St. Paul’s, located in the former Confederate capital, was once known as the “Cathedral of the Confederacy.” Lee worshiped there, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis was a member. Until recently, a plaque hung on a wall in the church honoring Davis and featuring the Confederate battle flag.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Photo: Courtesy of St. Paul’s

After the 2015 Charleston shooting, the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, St. Paul’s rector, challenged the congregation to think deeply about whether Confederate symbols belonged in their worship space. That challenge grew into the History and Reconciliation Initiative, and through an invitation to discernment, the congregation decided to remove all battle flags but keep family memorials to fallen Confederate soldiers.

“We Southerners have often made it an either-or thing,” Adams-Riley recently told the Daily News Leader in Staunton, Virginia. “That we either recognize our ancestors for their bravery or we get honest about all that was so dark, so terribly dark, about our culture that rested on the back of enslaved men, women and children. But the truth should set us free. We can afford to tell the whole story. What we want is more history, not to erase history.”

Plaques still mark the pews at St. Paul’s where Lee and Davis once sat, and the pair are featured in stained-glass windows.

National Cathedral windows

Stained glass fabricator Dieter Goldkuhle, who worked with his late father to install many of the stained glass windows at Washington National Cathedral, replaces an image of the Confederate battle flag after cathedral leaders decided in 2016 that the symbol of racial supremacy had no place inside the cathedral. Photo: Danielle E. Thomas/Washington National Cathedral

Washington National Cathedral, like St. Paul’s, chose to remove all depictions of the Confederate flag from its stained-glass windows after the Charleston massacre. But the cathedral is only halfway through a two-year process of discerning whether to remove the Lee and Jackson windows also, Dean Randy Hollerith said in a June 30 letter to the congregation.

“These windows, and these questions, have exposed emotions that are raw and sometimes wounds that have not yet healed,” Hollerith wrote. “They have helped to reveal how much we still have to learn as we work toward repairing the breach of racial injustice and building the beloved community.”

A cathedral spokesman said this week the events in Charlottesville have added a sense of urgency to the process.

‘What we choose to revere’

Greenwell, the Cincinnati dean, was more direct in calling for the vestry to re-examine two memorials in the cathedral with the hope they will be removed.

One of them depicts Leonidas Polk, who was consecrated in 1838 in Cincinnati and served as the missionary bishop of the southwest. Polk, one of the founders of Sewanee, was bishop of Louisiana when he served as a Confederate general. He was known to wear his Episcopal vestments over his military uniform, “a thoroughly offensive merge of his professed faith and his fervor to see the institution of slavery endure,” Greenwell said.

Lee window in Cincinnati

Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, is depicted as receiving a blessing from Virginia Bishop William Meade in this stained-glass window at Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo: Sarah Hartwig/Christ Church Cathedral

The other memorial, a stained-glass window showing Lee receiving a blessing from Virginia Bishop William Meade, was a gift from a Lee descendant, Greenwell said.

“We need to be very careful, very thoughtful about what we choose to revere on a plaque or put on a pedestal,” she said in her sermon.

The vestry is scheduled to discuss the memorials at its Sept. 13 meeting.

Sewanee, too, embodies the complex task of bridging this divide, given how its heritage, like that of the South, is interwoven with Confederate history.

The university in Sewanee, Tennessee, known in the Episcopal Church for its seminary, was founded in 1857 by several Episcopal dioceses under Polk’s leadership, though the Civil War delayed its opening until 1868. (Polk was killed 1864 as he and other generals scouted Union positions near Marietta, Georgia.)

Should Polk be honored at Sewanee? Even the relocation of a historic portrait of the school founder sparked debate in 2016, though university’s efforts to re-examine Confederate symbols extend beyond Polk and date back more than a decade.

A 2005 New York Times article reported on ways Sewanee and other Southern universities were trying to appeal more to students outside the South. In Sewanee’s case this meant removing controversial symbols, including Confederate battle flags in the chapel and a ceremonial mace given to the university and dedicated to a Ku Klux Klan founder.

Such moves alienated some of the school’s alumni, though traces of the Confederacy remain on campus, such as its monument honoring Edmund Kirby-Smith, a Confederate general who later taught math at Sewanee.

Kirby-Smith monument

Edmund Kirby-Smith was a Confederate general who later taught mathematics at the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee, where this monument to the general is located. Photo: Caroline Carson

Sewanee has removed “many of the most visible and controversial representations of the Confederacy,” Vice Chancellor John M. McCardell Jr. said in a written response to an ENS inquiry.

“It is too easy, however, to get consumed with the metaphor that the Confederate symbols represent and thereby miss the real need to combat hate, bigotry, and racism,” he said. “The University of the South has made intentional and effective strides in the past several years to address these very issues and will continue to do so.”

But what should a church do when its very name is associated with the Confederacy?

Lee Church sign

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

Lee had been dead for 33 years when the church in Lexington was renamed R.E. Lee Memorial Church, and some members of the congregation see its identity closely tied to its most famous parishioner.

“Some say he even saved the parish,” Sadler, the senior warden, said.

Changing the name would alienate many members of the congregation, Sadler said, and he dismissed arguments that the name has become a distraction and makes the church less welcoming to those in the community who find Lee offensive.

“I feel that if the congregation wants to keep the name, then that’s what we want to call ourselves,” he said. “And we should not have other people who will never worship in our church … demand that we change what we call ourselves.”

Southwestern Virginia Bishop Mark Bourlakas is among those who warn the name is distracting the congregation from its gospel mission. He plans to discuss the issue during a visit to the Lexington church on Aug. 30.

But Bourlakas, who attended Sewanee in the 1980s when Confederate flags still were displayed in All Saints’ Chapel, also thinks it is important for Americans everywhere to open their minds to the pain such symbols can bring.

“People, especially white people, go along thinking, what’s the harm? It’s just a monument. What’s the harm of this flag? Big deal. It’s been up there forever,” he said, and unfortunately, it takes an outbreak of violence, as in Charleston and Charlottesville, for some people to consider a different perspective.

Spellers hopes the conversations underway in places like Cincinnati, Sewanee and Lexington will be steps on a longer journey toward racial reconciliation.

“Removing the symbols from their current places of honor and using them elsewhere for education and repentance has to be one part of a comprehensive effort to tell the truth, proclaim the dream of God, practice the way of love, and repair the breach in society,” Spellers said, “all of which are necessary to move toward Beloved Community.”

— David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at


Comments (44)

  1. Terry Francis says:

    A bit of self examination is never wasted Ms Dobbind ? I totally agree. And may I humbly suggest you follow your own advice.

  2. James Grillot says:

    Words of agreement from a fellow Episcopalian:
    I totally agree Jim. I am continually amazed and saddened by those I’ve known for so many years who buy into what’s being sold now. I’ve loved the worship services at the Episcopal Church for many years but I can’t support what it has become. I keep praying it will turn back into what it once was but don’t see that happening in my lifetime.
    Then when my priest told me that everything we had learned in the Baptist church was all wrong I knew I had been abandoned by my church. I had a choice to make – was the Bible the Word of God, or did I simply discard the parts that weren’t deemed to be “politically correct” by TEC leaders? It wasn’t a hard decision to make, but it was an incredibly sad one.
    I keep hoping that a new rector might make a difference in our parish, but I think the “holier than thou” attitude extends too far up in the hierarchy. When a church becomes political they have lost what they are about.
    IN ADDITION, FROM SNOPES: Public Law 810 refers to Part II, Chapter 23 of U.S. Code 38 which says that the government should, when requested, pay to put up monuments or headstones for unmarked graves for three groups of people:
    (1) Any individual buried in a national cemetery or in a post cemetery.
    (2) Any individual eligible for burial in a national cemetery (but not buried there), except for those persons or classes of persons enumerated in section 2402(a)(4), (5), and (6) of this title.
    (3) Soldiers of the Union and Confederate Armies of the Civil War.
    QUESTION: Do members of TEC feel it justified to flaunt federal law which paid for monuments and/or headstones of Civil War soldiers which were authorized by Federal Law by removing or otherwise disturbing them?
    The historical revisionist movement continues to sicken me. To quote my friend, Ron: “These idiots who are out destroying statues have no idea what they are destroying!

  3. bob wadkins says:

    Brothers and Sisters
    Those of us who are descended from “rebels” must remember one salient point, i. e., we are a conquered people. To the victor belongs the spoils. The United States of America defeated the Confederate States of America and forced the defeated states back into the union. We went through a rough time during the war and it continued through several years of “reconstruction.” It has continued into the present. We lost.
    And now the battle flag (St. Andrew cross) has been co-opted by the stupidest and most ignorant amongst us (much like TEC has hi-jacked christianity.) We and our ancestors are branded as vile and evil by the conquering nation. Did we not expect it? It has been building for a long time. We lost.
    Do you find it interesting that U.S. Grant owned slaves but R.E.Lee never owned a single slave. Lee was married into a family which owned a large number of slaves and he undoubtedly benefitted from the system but he was a man who lived a Spartan life and taught his children to do the same. Lee espoused that the existence of the “peculiar” institution should and would cease to exist in due time.

    Lee and Jackson have been branded as traitors to their country by clergymen in this forum. These clergymen do not understand that Virginia WAS their country. Don’t we all long for the days when the clergy were educated? But, we lost.

    Jesus was not a social worker desirous of sweeping changes. TEC has latched onto this theme because it creates a feeling of superiority. Does anyone know a Bishop who doesn’t just reek of superiority?

    Well, we lost and they will do everything they can do to humiliate us and there is nothing we can do about it. So, frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

  4. mike geibel says:

    The Civil War has been over for more than 150 years, and the scars are still there. But the current TEC leaders understand only their political-utopian ideology. This social justice agenda stems partly from indoctrinated beliefs of atonement based upon “white guilt” and “white privilege,” terms which themselves are inherently racist.

    This social cleansing agenda is not unifying the membership, but is the voice of division and discord. Every week it’s a new demand that we all kneel at the altar of politico-religio correctness: no guns, no oil pipelines, no cars, no borders, one world order, communal bathrooms and showers for all, and now—no statues to the demi-gods of the evil Confederacy. There is no tolerance for those who may urge caution, and negative reactions by some members are of no consequence. The comments posted here will fall on the deaf ears. Their course is charted, the ship has been steered sharply to port, and the abandon ship siren is sounding in your ears.

    I am no Southerner, but I would not be surprised if the foreseeable backlash to the removal of symbols of the Confederacy may result in having to rename each Episcopal Church in the South as “The Little Church of Nobody Home.”

  5. Hugh Hansen, Ph.D. says:

    I wonder who will pay the salaries of the bishops and priests that are instigating the nonsense of airbrushing the church? Most sensible people will go anywhere to get away from this tyrannical nonsense. While the TEC focuses on sins of the past, they overlook this sense of judgment, self-righteousness, in their own form of idolatry. Will he start airbrushing the Bible next?

  6. Hugh Hansen, Ph.D. says:

    I wonder who will pay the salaries of the bishops and priests that are instigating the nonsense of airbrushing the church? Most sensible people will go anywhere to get away from this disrespect for history. While the TEC focuses on sins of the past, they overlook this sense of judgment, self-righteousness, in their own form of idolatry. Will he start airbrushing the Bible next?

  7. mike geibel says:

    The TEC has already airbrushed the Bible by omitting references to passages that appear inconsistent with its “social justice,” alternative lifestyles, agenda. The Episcopal Church has apparently adopted the revisionist ideas first put forward by Jack Spong that all the traditional truths of the Christian faith are negotiable. The upcoming 2018 convention, (where the TEC threatens to “boycott Texas” over the Bathroom Bill), will include proposals to the Book of Common Prayer that fundamentally alter how and to whom we should pray so as to more closely follow the political re-imaging of the Church. Undoubtedly, gender sensitive language, and social / ecological justice themes will be front and center. Based upon the flurry of negative ENS articles on Confederate statues, we should now anticipate there will be proposed insertions condemning “white privilege” and promoting the demonization of historical figures judged by the Church under current mores to be guilty of the human flaws of their times.

  8. Jawaharlal Prasad says:

    Being an immigrant, I fail to understand so much controversy surrounding Confederate symbols. At this point in history, we must try to look forward as a society knowing full well that past is past and many in past era did and said things that were socially acceptable to majority of the people. Yes, it is true that symbols do send a strong message but then what are we do to do with matters concerning religion and many other social issues.
    I really felt appalled when University of Ghana decided to remove the statue of Mahatma Gandhi accusing him of being a racist. Gandhi was a worldly man when he went to South Africa but over a period of time, his views on race, human psychology, religion, etc. kept on changing for the better. Those intellectuals who accuse him of being racist, casteist, sexist have really not done their homework. Gandhi’s statements and actions are taken out of context, and a smear campaign has begun against him.
    If this line of thinking is to be pursued then why have mosques. After all, Prophet Mohammed indulged in violence and war, the older he got the younger wives he acquired, and larger his harem became! Or for that matter Jesus…I have heard psychiatrist talk of Jesus as someone who enjoyed tormenting his parents. Remember the incident when Jesus stayed behind at the temple talking to the priests while Mary and Joseph left thinking he had gone ahead. Why should we have statues of Nelson Mandela; after all, he indulged in violence at one stage of his life? Or for that matter Dr. Martin Luther King?
    Was Nelson Mandela, Dr Martin Luther King, Lech Walesa, n number of people, and many other notable personalities fools to regard Mahatma Gandhi as a saintly person?
    Perhaps, I am naïve but we should channel our energy for constructive activities.

  9. Cynthia Katsarelis says:

    People are missing the point. Most of the monuments and naming (e.g. Robert E. Lee Memorial Chapel) were created to distort history and re-impose white supremacy. Plenty of them were put up at the beginning of Jim Crow and in the 1960’s as a reaction against Civil Rights. So this crap about “erasing history” is a complete red herring – even more so as people who call for the removal from our churches are suggesting putting them in museums and cemeteries, with context. Few people are calling for destroying them altogether – but would it not be a good idea to finally tell the whole story and the actual truth? Why not put black heros like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass along side the generals? Why not include the documents of succession that make it crystal clear that the states succeeded to continue the “sacred” institution of slavery and God ordained white supremacy? If this is about history, then make it about history and tell the story from the African American point of view. Include how blacks were redlined out of FHA loans and cheated out of using the GI Bill after fighting for our country? Talk about the FBI report that states that white supremacists have infiltrated local law enforcement and ask the hard questions about whether that contributes to the fact that unarmed black men get killed by police at a far higher rate than any other unarmed victims of police abuse. Tell the real story of how the wounds of the Civil War are not healed.

    As Episcopalians, our concern has to be loving our neighbor, all our neighbors, black and white, gay and straight, etc. Jesus didn’t allow for exceptions (that’s what the questioner was seeking when he asked “who is my neighbor?”). Given the level of pain that is still out there, isn’t it our job to seek healing? Redemption? Reconciliation? Isn’t it our job to be welcoming to all people? How could an African American feel comfortable and welcomed with symbols of their oppression in the windows, names, plaques, whatever, in the church? Why does white attachment to totally fabricated warm fuzzies take precedence over the the obvious pain of our sisters and brothers who are people of color?

    Why does this myth hold such sway? The truth is really painful, but none of us were there. We can look to our Saviour and know that the job is bring peace and healing, and the truth is that those windows and whatnot are an impediment. You can’t worship a false narrative and expect to be welcoming to people who suffered the real deal.

  10. Jawaharlal Prasad says:

    It certainly helps to know the true history. We live in a strange world. Those in power always wish to continue pursuing policies that will keep them in power. At some point in history, there seems to have been a marriage between the Church and the Government. Many Christian priests (some well meaning) went to tribal areas to spread the Gospel; little did they know that they would be caught in a tug of war between multinational corporations, govt policies and church politics. The tribal found themselves in a situation of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”. They saw some improvement to their lot and in turn, lost their identity, lands, minerals, etc. History has written much about this. This continues to be played out in different parts of the world.

    Cynthia – I can empathize with you given my own experiences in graduate school, at work and also in social settings. I know it was not pleasant for me and was hurt in more ways than one. I realized that evil is powerful and found comfort in all that is good. I can only imagine the pain and the hurt that the African Americans carry. I am not sure if there will be reconciliation/healing between the African Americans and the Whites; I fear there will be more bloodshed. If you believe in the Second Coming of Christ, there is hope then.

    “Who is my neighbor?” We all know what Jesus said. Many years ago, I got to know an elderly white gentleman who was bitter about his life – fought in WWII, lost his home in divorce, poor health, children gone, was managing somehow. He had a dog that he loved very much. The dog was very protective and always stayed with him. On few occasions, the gentleman told me – a dog is the best friend one ever has!

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