Leaders at Washington National Cathedral, the closest thing in the country’s capital to an official church, have decided after two years of study and debate to remove two stained-glass windows honoring Confederate figures Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
Saying the stories told in the two 4-by-6-foot windows were painful, distracting and one-sided, a majority of the Cathedral’s governing body voted to remove the windows Tuesday night. On Wednesday morning, stone masons were at work putting up scaffolding to begin taking out the art that was installed 64 years ago.
“This isn’t simply a conversation about the history of the windows, but a very real conversation in the wider culture about how the Confederate flag and the Old South narrative have been lively symbols today for white supremacists. We’d be made of stone ourselves if we weren’t paying attention to that,” said Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which includes the cathedral.
The cathedral is the official seat of the Episcopal Church, a small Protestant denomination that historically has counted many of America’s elite as members, including presidents from George Washington and James Madison to George H.W. Bush. It is the second largest church building in the country and is typically host to official events like presidential funerals and official interfaith ceremonies on presidential swearing-in days, including that of President Trump.
The removal of the windows, which will take a couple days, reflects a flurry of national debate over whether to take down monuments, statues or art that honor Confederates in both public and private spaces across the country. The issue gained prominence after a mass killing at a black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, and then again last month after a deadly white supremacist march in Charlottesville. Several dozen monuments have been either removed or a debate to remove them is on the table, in places from New Orleans and Baltimore to Helena, Mont., and Los Angeles.
Budde and Cathedral Dean Randy Hollerith said the governing board voted “overwhelmingly” Tuesday to remove the windows, but acknowledged there were opponents who felt the windows are part of the cathedral and U.S. history and could be contextualized rather than removed.
A call to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which raised money for the initial windows along with a private donor, was not immediately returned Wednesday.
On Wednesday as the scaffolding was put up, some visitors began gathering, including a few who seemed concerned by the idea that the windows were being taken out.
The windows are among some 200 in the soaring Gothic building, in addition to hundreds of other carvings and fabric and other kinds of art. They are located in a bay in the middle of the nave and each have four panels, one honoring the life of Jackson and the other of Lee.
They show the men at points in their academic, military and spiritual lives. Kevin Eckstrom, a cathedral spokesman, noted that they are praised in wording alongside the windows as pious Christians. “The problem is that they are shown as saints,” he said Wednesday.
The cathedral plans to keep the windows and find a way to display them in historical context, he said.
“People ask: ‘Are we whitewashing history and trying to forget reality?’ But the truth is that slavery is as old as the Bible. But we believe in a God that liberates slaves,” he said.
They were put up in 1953, after years of fundraising. Eckstrom said there was discussion at the time about featuring other U.S. figures, including former president Ulysses S. Grant, who commanded the Union armies at the end of the Civil War, but that donors insisted that the windows honor Southerners. The engraved stone under the Jackson window notes his admirers “from South to North.”
Both stones praise the men’s religious character. Jackson’s says he “walked humbly before his creator.” Lee’s says he was “a Christian soldier without fear and without reproach.” Lee was a prominent Episcopalian who served as senior warden of his Virginia parish.
They were uncontroversial at the time of their installation, Eckstrom said.
After the Charleston killings, a national conversation became louder about Confederate symbols and white supremacy. The cathedral’s dean Gary Hall at the time said that the windows had no place in a place of worship meant for all Americans.
The windows were installed in 1953 to “foster reconciliation between parts of the nation that had been divided by the Civil War,” Hall said in 2015. “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.”
The cathedral then created a task force to discuss the windows and how to best foster a conversation around racial reconciliation. Last year it removed from the windows two small pieces of glass depicting Confederate flags in the art. One was replaced with plain red and the other with plain blue.
Public lectures were held about white supremacy, reconciliation and African American spirituals. Standing beside the windows for months has been a poster about the window discussion, and Eckstrom said the cathedral has received email and visitors every day for two years with different views about how to deal with controversial history in a sacred, public space.
Hall left the cathedral in 2015 and a couple days after the Charlottesville violence shared on Facebook his earlier push for the windows to come out, with the comment: “Just sayin’.”
Asked whether the cathedral was told its audience or donations could be impacted by the windows coming out — or staying in — Hollerith said it didn’t come up as a major part of the decision process.
“If I honor Jesus’ command to love thy neighbor as thy self, and take seriously the experience of African Americans in this country, the question is: What is the right thing to do? Not to look at it in terms of funding or participation,” he said.
The cathedral’s decision comes as the country is divided by debate about its history and the place of race and religion in American identity. Also Wednesday a huge poll by the Public Religion Research Institute was released, showing white Christians continuing to shrink as a percentage of the country.
In 2017, the Episcopal Church is perhaps the most prominent face of progressive Christianity — with its leaders on the forefront of liberalizing changes on race, gender and sexuality. However its cathedral is also perhaps the most prominent example of a blending of patriotism and religion. Art all around the cathedral weaves the story of the Bible with America’s story — including that of the Civil War.
One massive window juxtaposes George Washington with King David on one side, nearby Paul Revere and D-Day paratroopers. The highest window panels soaring over the sanctuary show the Supreme Court, the White House and the U.S. Capitol.
Near the entrance is a huge vivid window called “the Agony of War,” which Eckstrom said is about the Civil War. It shows flames mixed with glass fragments of blue and gray. Engraved beneath are the words “with malice towards none.”