Removal of Robert E. Lee from church’s name was just start of healing for Virginia congregation

By David Paulsen
Posted Oct 18, 2017
Grace Episcopal banner

Grace Episcopal Church’s new name is seen in a banner in front of the church in Lexington, Virginia, though a more official sign is still in the process of being replaced. Photo: Doug Cumming

[Episcopal News Service] Grace Episcopal Church in Lexington, Virginia, has begun growing into its new name. Its website homepage is updated. The stationery is new. And perhaps more consequentially, the annual stewardship appeal has been sent to members under the new church name.

A month ago, the vestry voted to remove Robert E. Lee from the name of the church he once attended, changing it from R.E. Memorial Church back to its previous Grace. That move ended two years of sometimes tense debate over the Confederate general’s legacy, both as a prominent member of the congregation’s past and a symbol of racial hatred in contemporary America.

At least one couple has formally left the congregation in protest of the name change. At the same time, the congregation faces a change in leadership: The Rev. Tom Crittenden announced this month he plans to step down as rector, going on sabbatical after Nov. 5 before leaving the parish at the end of the year.

Despite the recent upheaval, some parish leaders who had disagreed over whether to remain as R.E. Lee Memorial now express a mutual desire to move forward together as Grace Episcopal.

“There’s still some hurt feelings, but [the congregation] seems to be pulling together,” senior warden Woody Sadler told Episcopal News Service this week by phone.

Sadler had long opposed the name change and voted against it Sept. 18, partly because the vestry hadn’t polled the full congregation.

The vestry’s 7-5 vote adopted a change recommended in April by a Discovery and Discernment Committee of vestry members and parishioners. A more recent and direct catalyst for the Lexington vestry’s decision was the Aug. 14 violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hate groups had gathered in Charlottesville to “unite the right” in support of a Lee statue that the city had slated for removal. Clashes with anti-racism counterprotesters left one of the counterprotesters dead.

Doug Cumming, one of the Lexington vestry members who supported removal of Lee from the church’s name, said he thinks resolving that issue last month has put the congregation on the path to spiritual renewal.

“We’re coming back together. We’re now in a period of real healing and reconciliation,” Cumming said in an interview with ENS, and he already senses that people who had shied away from the church during the debate over the name have started returning to Sunday services.

The changes have been difficult, though, for those who felt the congregation’s identity was closely tied to Lee.

“I think it just hurts some people so much to see the name changing and to see things happening so fast,” Cumming said.

As fast as change is coming, it is hardly complete. The website that advertises services at Grace Episcopal Church is still hosted on the domain A new domain is in the works, Cumming said.

Lee Church sign

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

Grace is the name on the outdoor sign listing worship times and on a banner advertising an upcoming bazaar. But the main sign out front has not yet been replaced and still welcomes passersby to “R.E. Lee Memorial Church.” Cumming, as chair of the church’s History Committee, presented the lowest bid on a replacement sign to the vestry at its most recent meeting, Oct. 16. The cost will be $930.

Sadler said he signed off on that expense the following day. The new sign should be installed in a few weeks.

Deeper change in the congregation may take time and require more than a new name and sign. Crittenden is personally well liked, Cumming said, but his resignation reflected the congregation’s desire for new leadership as it looks to the future. Its Discovery and Discernment Committee’s report identified “a loss of confidence in the ability of the current rector to lead the parish forward.”

Diocese of Southwest Virginia Bishop Mark Bourlakas met with the congregation, vestry and Crittenden in the months leading up to Crittenden’s decision to resign, and Bourlakas plans to attend the November vestry meeting to discuss calling an interim rector while Grace recruits someone new to the role permanently.

The Discovery and Discernment Committee also singled out the vestry as part of the leadership “vacuum” in the congregation, including but not limited to its role in the debate over the church’s name. The committee recommended the vestry focus on coordinating its vision, mission and long-range planning and communicate better with parishioners.

The vestry will have several new faces leading those efforts starting in January. The congregation on Oct. 15 elected five new vestry members to the 12-member body, out of 10 people who were interested in serving, an unusually high number, Cumming said. (He was one of the vestry members who will be replaced because their terms expire at the end of this year.)

The new vestry members appear to support the name change, Cumming said, but it is more difficult to gauge the change’s effect on the larger congregation. Cumming sensed increased attendance since the name change, due to the return of families who had stopped attending. Sadler, on the other hand, said he hadn’t noticed Sunday attendance swell in the past month.

The Oct. 15 service was well attended, but it also was unique: The congregation combined its 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. services for a special joint service that will be repeated every three months.

“There’s a lot of reconciliation and healing that has to go on,” said Bourlakas, who had encouraged changing the church name. He told ENS he is pleased by the progress. “People seem to be trying to work together. I know it hasn’t pleased everybody but there seems to be some acceptance and voices for moving forward.”

Cumming, despite voting to remove Lee from the church name, doesn’t think the church is erasing history. His committee is discussing other ways of highlighting Lee’s historic role.

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. There is no record, however, of why the congregation chose to rename the church for Lee in 1903.

One suggestion received by the History Committee was to rename the parish hall after Lee, but Cumming said the committee also is looking for ways to highlight other historical figures’ ties to the church.

An interpretative historical marker might include info on Lee, but also on Jonathan Daniels, a civil rights worker who was killed in 1965 while saving the life of a black teenage girl. Daniels attended R.E. Lee Memorial Church while a student at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. He was class valedictorian when he graduated in 1961.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify Crittenden’s role with the congregation after Nov. 5.

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


Comments (13)

  1. Donald Heacock says:

    This whole thing reminds me of a recent decision of the Bloxie, Miss junior hi school to take To Kill a.Mockingbird out of the reading list because there had been a complaint about the use of the N word 1 time . Now a local.bookstore is offering every student of that school a free copy . If the whole congregation had overwhelming sought the change you would not see lipstick being put on the pig !

  2. Arthur E. House says:

    The last public act of General Lee’s life was attendance at a vestry meeting at the church, where he, as senior warden, pledged the funds necessary to meet a budget shortfall. He was stricken on his way home from the meeting and died a few days later. So sad that the history oblitorators have done so again in Lexington.

    1. David Paulsen says:

      As noted in the story, the congregation is not turning its back on the history you are referencing. Grace Episcopal members actually are increasing their efforts to highlight the historical role Lee and others have played at the church.

      1. Richmond Parker says:

        I am currently reading a book ” THE RELIGIOUS LIFE OF ROBERT E. LEE . ” He was a truly great American who favored of gradual emancipation of slaves ( before THE CIVIL WAR ; ) opposed secession ; refused command of the Union Armies because he could not bring himself to fight against his own relatives , people , and state ; and sought to remain neutral in the WAR until President Lincoln called for volunteers to suppress secession after Virginia seceded . His first political loyalty was to Virginia . He was a great General , commanded the respect and affection of his men , and admiration even of most Union Generals . After the WAR , he counseled acceptance of the results , and sought reconciliation between The States . He also was a great President of WASHINGTON AND LEE UNIVERSITY . Respectfully Submitted , Richmond Parker

      2. Charles Allen says:

        Did the entire congregation get to voice their vote or just the Vestry? If not, why not.

        1. Doug Cumming says:

          The entire congregation voted for the vestry members. That’s the way an Episcopal church operates. This particular vestry was downsizing, so had five members first elected in 2014, four elected in 2015, and four elected in 2016. One member had resigned on principle after failing to get the vestry to agree to re-start the discussion about being named R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in the wake of Charlottesville. Unable to re-visit that debate, a majority of the vestry went ahead and voted 7-5 to change the name and accept a compromise, as Mr. Paulsen points out above, to find better ways to celebrate and express Robert E. Lee’s significant role in the church’s history.

          1. Charles B. Allen II says:

            Actually, several Episcopal Churches have provisions in their by-laws allowing for special meetings of the Parish. They may be called by the Rector, Senior Warden or a majority of the Vestry. I appreciate your response.

  3. Doug Desper says:

    The decision to restore the name makes sense in that R.E. Lee didn’t want monuments to the Civil War or for his name to create division. If that was the only thing being heard in this matter one could easily agree that it is all a very noble idea and overdue. Yes, it’s a good decision but more is underfoot among some of the name change advocates. Some of the advocates make it known that they do not believe that a person such a Lee (a ‘racist’) should be acknowledged. On this there is a terrible amount of ignorance (and arrogance) that slings the word “racist” with ease and condemns Lee and others for living in a complicated time where they had to choose between hopelessly entangled situations. Such a change advocate will have to continue their march to create perfection unless they are hypocrites, and will have to tear down many, many more people on their search for what is publicly acceptable: Martin Luther King, Jr. will not escape the iconoclast glare unless these social justice warriors are hypocrites. King was an adulterer against his wife, met with and took the advice of Communists bent on crippling our country, and King’s doctoral dissertation had wide swaths of plagiarism that were found and documented. Helen Keller was a proponent of eugenics and physicians’ panels who would approve a “defective” child to die stating that it was simply a “weeding of the human garden that shows a sincere love of true life.” (Ironic!). Unless these iconoclasts are hypocrites they must target the removal of Abraham Lincoln who fluently used the “N word” and stated that he wouldn’t free 1 slave if the Union could be preserved because of it. Washington and Jefferson would have to go to the scrap heap of persons unfit to look upon for public virtue. How many social justice warriors celebrate “Kwanzaa” in willful ignorance that its founder Maulana Ndabezitha Karenga (Ronald Everett) made up the holiday in 1966 and was convicted of brutally abusing two women? No, this isn’t just about a name correction for a church (which alone would be acceptable). Instead, some loud voices in Lexington, VA. and elsewhere are agitating for more, for the removal of who and what they find offensive; realities whose existence grieves them.

    1. Pamela Payne says:

      As all human beings are flawed, perhaps it is best to avoid naming any parish after a recently living human being. Grace or All Saints or Holy Faith or a long-canonized saint would seem a better way to emphasize the religious focus of the church, rather than an using the parish as an historical memorial. Let us separate our historical sensibilities from those of religious belief, the better to unite, rather than separate, the members of the Body of Christ.

      1. Leta Parks says:

        I totally agree, I don’t think it is ever appropriate to name a church after a human being unless that person is recognized as a saint (either by the original Roman Church or the Anglican Church). Certainly a parish hall or other building could be named after a person who had contributed much to the spiritual growth of the church. The Episcopal Church does not advertise it’s leaders as do some other denominations and this is a good thing. It keeps parishioners focused on the Trinity and worship of Christ rather than on a human being who almost certainly has feet of clay,

  4. Kenneth Knapp says:

    Does anyone have any sense of how this has affected Parish finances?

  5. Father Mike Waverly-Shank says:

    Perhaps a second vote should have been taken – a month or two later. This is done at General Convention for big issues like the Prayer Book which was approved at 2 GCs – 1976 and 1979.

  6. Quentin Durward says:

    This is an indictment against the *. *. *** Memorial Church’s vestry members and rectors for the past 114 years. Diocene leadership too! We should go all the way up the ladder and hold everyone accountable! Not even the PB should be given a free pass. There is no “best if used by” date on matters like this. It’s time to clean house. There should be an investigation and everyone who “looked the other way” since 1903 should be told we will not tolerate their kind. We are better than they and they need to know it.

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