Police shootings. Charleston church killings. The public resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. As recent years engulfed America in intense debate about race, the genteel Gothic stone parish in little Lexington, Va., quietly debated its name. Could “R.E. Lee Memorial Church” commemorate the postwar fence-mender who had led their church and city out of destitution? Or could it only conjure the wicked institution of slavery for which Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee fought?
In the past two years, church leadership held retreats about it. An anonymous survey was held. Thousands of dollars were paid to reconciliation experts trained in pacifism. A 15-page report was written. Decades-old friendships in the small community were strained. Parishioners left for other churches.
“I firmly believe that Lee was an admirable man of faith, with flaws like the rest of us,” one man told the congregation after a contentious 2015 vote. “This name-change issue has surfaced a deeper issue..now is not the time to postpone dealing with our divisions,” said another.
But still, it felt as though decisions could be put off about the name and legacy of Lee, who spent his final five years leading the struggling church, and whose final public act was personally covering the salary of its pastor.
Then came Charlottesville.
Less than two weeks after a deadly white-supremacist rally, leaders of R.E. Lee found themselves back at the table Monday night, with some again pressing the issue of a name change. While the church has been divided in the past over the issue, Charlottesville has pushed more members and some in leadership to conclude that, no matter what good Lee did in Lexington a century ago, white supremacists have taken ownership of his reputation and made him their symbol. The bishop has made clear that the name is a distraction from sharing the gospel and is heading to Lexington in the next week or two to push the issue. A petition to change the name has nearly 6,000 signatures.
“It makes me sad. What I’m saddest about is that people don’t know our American history. [Lee has] come to represent one piece of who he was. And I think our church is named for a different piece of who he was,” said Elizabeth Harralson, a member for 41 years who changed her mind in favor of a name change after the Charlottesville violence and rhetoric that has followed. “We can’t provide any leadership or contribution to the conversation until the name of the church is changed.”
Yet as Confederate monuments and statues around the country have been coming down — including some in the middle of the night to avoid violence and protests — church leaders in Lexington decided Monday that they were still too divided, with several of the 13 vestry members opposed to a change. One came in his military uniform straight from a Virginia Military Academy ceremony and swore the issue was American disrespect of service members. Another threatened to resign if there wasn’t a promise to continue the name-change conversation (and did Tuesday morning).
For the time being, they decided simply to release a three-paragraph statement about Charlottesville, deploring “in the name of Christ” white supremacy, anti-Semitism and racism “in all its forms.”
The statement went on to try and thread a needle that represents a core American division: Can you distinguish Lee the Christian from Lee the Confederate?
We “object strenuously to the misuse of Robert E. Lee’s name and memory in connection with white supremacy and similar movements that he would abhor. Lee was widely admired in both the North and the South as a man of virtue and honor and as among the leading reconcilers of our fractured land. We do not honor Lee as a Confederate,” read the statement.
“Recognizing that in the current political climate, Lee has become a touchstone for controversy and misunderstanding and a rallying symbol of hate groups, we acknowledge that the best hope for Lee is the gospel of grace through which we are all forgiven sinners. Our commitment is not to Lee, but to that gospel which is his hope and ours.”
Church debates about the name have focused on the fact that Lee chose after the war ended not to continue — as some Southerners wanted — an insurgency, and instead to move on, “to try and rebuild and reconcile and repair damage he had no small part in creating,” said David Cox, a historian of Lee, a former rector and current member of the parish.
Efforts to reach the leaders most opposed to changing the church’s name were not successful.
Even as Confederate statues are coming down in civic places, the question of how to deal with the sin of racism in a church name seems to be playing out differently.
Mark Bourlakas, Episcopal bishop for Southwestern Virginia, told The Washington Post that a conversation about how to commemorate controversial events may make sense for public spaces like roads or civic buildings, but “that’s not the church’s business. Our business is the gospel,” he said. “[The church] is where Lee got down on his knees. I mean, the story writes itself. Let’s get back to the grace-filled work that we’re called to.” To Cox, a church is different because it’s aspirational, a place where Christians try to remember people at their best and to forgive their sins and brokenness. The church’s Monday statement alluded to this goal.
The story of the parish and its name traces America’s evolving racist past.
The church was founded in 1840 in the central Virginia city of Lexington to provide services to cadets at the then-new Virginia Military Institute. By the time Lee came to town to run what was then the ailing Washington College in 1865, it was called Grace Church. He joined the parish and was elected senior warden right away by a church that was also struggling — like much of the South after the war.
A pastor invited at the time was told the church could offer him a bed to sleep in and “such voluntary contributions as the individual members of the congregation may feel able to make. We regret in the present deranged condition of the country, this is all we can promise,” church records read, according to a history of the Lee’s religious life compiled for the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia.
After five years of working to rebuild the congregation and its building, Lee died in 1870. The parish was renamed Grace Memorial Church in his honor. That name remained until 1903, when the leadership “re-named the church R.E. Lee Memorial, although no record can be found of reasons for this change or a debate over it,” read a parish news release quoted by the Episcopal Cafe blog in 2015. Churches often keep detailed records, especially Episcopal Churches.
Cox said his theory is that the name change was simply formalizing something people already did: colloquially around town call the building “Lee’s church.” The name change came around the time of a new era of Southern laws aimed at segregation. The KKK began to flourish in the early 1900’s. Cox said he thinks the timing is just a coincidence.
While Lee was hated by many in the North, in the South he was a giant. And in Lexington, he was revered, remembered for taking Washington College from near-extinction to one of the biggest and most prominent schools in the South, Washington and Lee University. He was remembered for doing the same for the parish — and for his humility.
“I will fail in the leading object that brought me here, unless these young men become real Christians,” Lee is quoted as saying in the diocesan history. He was a great believer in providence, Cox said.
“If something happens, most likely it’s God’s will, so do the math. He had to come to terms with the fact that he was on the wrong side of God,” he said.
While there is no Confederate imagery in the parish, a window over the altar depicting the resurrection was dedicated to Lee, as was its prominent brass cross.
At the Monday meeting, those who wanted to keep the name talked of not wanting a “knee-jerk reaction to the present cultural environment.” Those who wanted to change it said they wanted the church to be “welcoming to all.” Both sides expressed the need “not to be judged or shamed.”
Monday’s meeting and statement are unlikely to put an end to the parish’s identity debate. On the Sunday after the Charlottesville violence, the pastor opened services with the Penitential Order, a part of Episcopal liturgy focused on confessing sin.
After Monday’s meeting, parishioner Doug Cumming, a professor at Washington and Lee University, said he was frustrated. The statement notes that the name is a problem, he said.
“So some feel, the less said the better,” said Cumming, who believes Lee’s name should be removed. “That healing is a matter of being quiet. Others feel healing is a matter of facts and looking at the culture. We are all bringing different demons.”