Leaders of a historic Episcopal church in Alexandria have decided to remove a pair of plaques from its sanctuary that memorialize two of their most prominent parishioners: George Washington and Robert E. Lee.
In a letter sent Thursday to members of the Christ Church congregation, church leaders explained that the decision came after much deliberation.
“This was not a discussion we entered into lightly, but rather a sincere attempt to have a family conversation about our worship space, our larger history and our future,” they wrote.
The fate of the two plaques, which have hung on either side of the altar at the historic church since 1870, had been talked about for years, according to the Rev. Noelle York-Simmons, the church’s rector. But the matter took on added urgency following events in Charlottesville.
One person was killed and several injured during protests Aug. 12 after a rally by white nationalists protesting the planned removal of a statue of Lee.
While recognizing the important roles both Washington and Lee played in the nation’s history, church leaders wrote that the decision was made that it would be best to remove them because they “create a distraction in our worship space and may create an obstacle to our identity as a welcoming church and an impediment to our growth and to full community with our neighbors.”
News of the church's decision was first reported by the Republican Standard website.
York-Simmons and other church leaders spent much of September discussing the matter with members of the 1,800-person congregation.
York-Simmons characterized the meetings and listening sessions as “heartening.”
“People responded beautifully and faithfully, listening in a lot of ways that showed our church at its best,” she said.
York-Simmons would not discuss whether there were parishioners who advocated for keeping the plaques. “I’m not going to speak for my parishioners. We have been through an intense process of listening to our community’s thoughts on all sides of the complicated issue,” she said.
The nation’s first president and the commander of the Confederate army both played significant roles in the early history of Christ Church.
Washington was a regular worshiper. Lee and his family were also parishioners. Mary Custis Lee, Robert E. Lee’s wife, gifted the church $10,000 to help begin its endowment.
Even though much of the recent national debate has centered around Civil War memorials, church leaders said they thought that it was important for the plaques to be considered together. They noted that both were placed at the same time and visually balance each other in a way that “maintains the symmetry of the church’s sanctuary.”
“We understand that both Washington and Lee lived in times much different than our own, and that each man, in addition to his public persona, was a complicated human being, and like all of us, a child of God,” church leaders wrote.
Christ Church, founded in 1773, is not the only congregation to struggle with how to balance their legacy with shifting views about historical figures. After two years of tense debate, an Episcopal parish in Lexington, Va., named for Lee, who was once a prominent member, voted to change its name.
York-Simmons said the plaques will remain in place until a new location for them is identified some time next year. A committee will be formed to deliberate on a new place of “respectful prominence.”
While some may criticize the church’s decision, York-Simmons emphasized that this is not about changing the past but about finding a way to place the church’s history in the proper context.
“We are deeply committed to our history, but even more we are deeply committed to the worship of Jesus Christ,” she said. “The question is, how can we reflect both?”