Thursday, November 2, 2017

My church struggles with Robert E. Lee's legacy -- Nov. 2, 2017 column


When my church in Alexandria made the news, I knew it would be a bumpy ride.  

The historic Episcopal church, after months of soul-searching, announced Oct. 26 it would relocate from the sanctuary two marble plaques memorializing George Washington and Robert E. Lee, its most famous members.

It may not surprise you that some media reports overly simplified and exaggerated the turn of events.

Headlines trumpeted: “Cultural terrorism comes to Christ Church in Alexandria” and “George Washington’s church to tear down memorial honoring first president.”  

Blogs referred to “ripping out” the memorial to Washington the church now finds “offensive.”

Asked about the plaques in a TV interview, John Kelly, President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, criticized the decision and praised Lee as an honorable man.   

Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of Supervisors and a Republican candidate for Senate next year, and others decried political correctness.

“The next thing . . . is that they would take the name Christ off the name of this church,” Stewart declared in a news conference outside the church.

Let’s take a breath here.  

After Christ Church opened in 1773, Washington was one of the early worshippers and had a family pew. His adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis, gave the church one of Washington’s Bibles after he died.

Lee could walk to church from his boyhood home a few blocks away. He and two of his daughters were confirmed in the church in 1853, and Lee attended Sunday morning services April 21, 1861, after he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army.

His eldest daughter, Mary Custis Lee, left the church $10,000 for its endowment when she died in 1918.

The church installed the two plaques -- “In Memory of George Washington” and “In Memory of Robert Edward Lee” – on either side of the altar two months after Lee died in October 1870.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw the plaques when they worshipped on New Year’s Day 1942. Over the years, so did Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, Ford, Carter, Reagan and both Bushes when they visited.

In the decade I’ve been a member, there’s been a growing uneasiness among the largely white parish that the prominent Lee plaque discourages black people from becoming part of the church.

Then, white nationalist Richard Spencer moved to Old Town Alexandria, and the horrible events in Charlottesville last summer brought the matter to a head.

The vestry unanimously decided “the plaques create a distraction in our worship space and may create an obstacle to our identity as a welcoming church . . . Accordingly the plaques will be relocated no later than the summer of 2018.”

Emily Bryan, senior warden of the church, told parishioners last Sunday: “Today, the legacy of slavery and of the Confederacy is understood differently than it was in 1870. For some, Lee symbolizes the attempt to overthrow the Union and to preserve slavery . . . The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome.”

Where my church stumbled was in not having a new location already chosen, so outsiders would see we aren’t trying to hide our history. A committee will decide where on the church campus to put the plaques.

Remaining unchanged in the sanctuary will be Washington’s box pew, the plaque marking his funeral, silver markers for Washington and Lee on the pews and communion rail, and other references to the two men.  

In the churchyard, Confederate soldiers in a mass grave will remain undisturbed.

So, maybe you’re saying, OK, I get why they’re moving the Lee plaque – but why Washington too?

Because the two plaques were installed at the same time and “visually balance each other, maintaining the symmetry of our sanctuary,” church leaders decided they should move together.

I hope the new location balances respect for history with modern -- and timeless -- values.  

I like the way Noelle York-Simmons, Christ Church rector, explained the situation to reporters the other day.

“We are the church of George Washington, of Robert E. Lee, but most importantly we are the church of Jesus Christ,” she said. Amen.

 ©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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