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Washington National Cathedral dean: It’s time to remove stained-glass windows with Confederate flags

The Washington National on Aug. 23, 2011. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Washington National Cathedral’s dean said Thursday that the prominent church needs to remove two stained-glass windows honoring Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee — and depicting Confederate flags, images that he said were installed with “good and noble” intentions but have no place in 2015 as the country faces intense racial tensions and violence.

The Rev. Gary Hall, leader of the Episcopal cathedral, just learned in recent days of the windows, which were installed in 1953 to “foster reconciliation between parts of the nation that had been divided by the Civil War,” he said in a statement. The cathedral often plays the role of a national interfaith gathering place, including as host of presidential funerals, and leaders at the time “sought to depict America’s history in a way that promoted healing and reconciliation,” Hall said.

“While the impetus behind the windows’ installation was a good and noble one at the time, the Cathedral has changed, and so has the America it seeks to represent. There is no place for the Confederate battle flag in the iconography of the nation’s most visible faith community. We cannot in good conscience justify the presence of the Confederate flag in this house of prayer for all people, nor can we honor the systematic oppression of African-Americans for which these two men fought.”

[Stained-glass windows at the Cathedral depicting the Confederate flag]

Hall’s proposal, which must be approved by two cathedral governing bodies, comes as public institutions across the country consider how to engage anew with celebrated images of the Confederacy. The discussions were spurred by apparent images of Dylann Roof, who fatally shot nine black churchgoers in South Carolina last week, holding the flag.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the majority leader, said Tuesday that a statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis should be removed from the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, where it sits just feet from a statue of Abraham Lincoln, whose election spurred the South’s secession.

The cathedral windows were far from a secret. The soaring Gothic church, which attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, mentions the windows as part of a Civil War tour, said spokesman Kevin Eckstrom. But Hall, who has sought to make racial reconciliation a focus at the cathedral, said he didn’t know of them.

“In light of everything going on…it became clear to him and others that there was an inconsistency in the message,” Eckstrom said of Hall. For example, he said, “George Washington was a slave holder but he didn’t wage a war to preserve slavery. There are occasions in our lives that raise questions about what we have, what we honor, what we feature and that’s the question that’s been prompted by everything going on in the last couple months regarding race in this country.”

[Art historians have raised the windows before, and other Civil War imagery]

Cathedral Age, the church’s magazine, in 1953 wrote about the upcoming dedication of the section containing the windows, saying it was “the culmination of years of devoted effort on the part of hundreds of members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy whose contributions have built this beautiful section of the Cathedral as a memorial to the two great Americans whose names it bears.”

The windows are about 8 feet high and 4 feet across.

Hall will bring his proposal to the committee that oversees iconography at the cathedral and to the general governing body, called the Chapter. He said that for now the cathedral will create a display with the windows “to explain them in their historical context.” It will also look at “how new windows can best represent our shared history of war and peace, racial division and reconciliation…And I pledge our willingness to examine our own history in a way that helps our nation come to terms with its own history in healing and reconciling ways.”

Hall will speak about the windows in his Sunday sermon.

Eckstrom said the issue wasn’t simply the depiction of Jackson, Lee and the flag, but a noble perspective of their fight to preserve slavery — and in a spiritual context. One panel, for example, shows Jackson before battle on his knees, reading the Bible. A Confederate flag is in the background.

“There is a difference between recalling our history and celebrating it,” he said.

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