Washington National Cathedral, one of the country’s most visible houses of worship, announced Wednesday that it would remove Confederate battle flags that are part of two large stained-glass windows honoring Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. Cathedral leaders said they would leave up the rest of the windows — for now — and use them as a centerpiece for a national conversation about racism in the white church.
The announcement comes a year after the cathedral’s then-dean, the Rev. Gary Hall, said the 8-by-4-foot windows have no place in the soaring church as the country faces intense racial tensions and violence, even though they were intended as a healing gesture when they were installed.
The windows were installed in 1953 to “foster reconciliation between parts of the nation that had been divided by the Civil War,” Hall said last year. “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.”
There were differences of opinion in the past year among the cathedral’s leadership about how to move forward.
A task force created to look into the windows discussed various topics, including whether removing something controversial from a historical piece of art was productive. Members also discussed whether it made sense to remove the flag pieces from larger windows that honor the generals. On Friday the cathedral’s governing body, called the Chapter, decided to remove the flag sections.
The cathedral’s leadership is figuring out the timeline and cost for the removal of the flags, the cathedral said in a statement Wednesday. That will be paid for by private donors.
The broader decision was to use the rest of the windows — the flags are only a small part — as the centerpiece for a series of public forums and events on the issues of racism, slavery and racial reconciliation, the cathedral said in a statement.
“Instead of simply taking the windows down and going on with business as usual, the Cathedral recognizes that, for now, they provide an opportunity for us to begin to write a new narrative on race and racial justice at the Cathedral and perhaps for our nation,” said the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, the Cathedral’s canon theologian and a member of the task force.
The program will begin on July 17 with a panel discussion called “What the White Church Must Do,” moderated by Douglas; the Rev. Dr. Delman Coates, senior pastor of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md.; Episcopal Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde; and other religious leaders.
The task force calls for the Chapter to revisit the question of “how the windows live in the Cathedral no later than two years from the date of this report.”