Bishop encourages name change for R. E. Lee Memorial

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Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post today has This is the church where Robert E. Lee declared himself a sinner. Should it keep his name?

Less than two weeks after a deadly white supremacist rally, leaders of the R.E. Lee church 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 [Mark Bourlakas, Episcopal bishop for Southwestern Virginia] has made clear that the Lee name is a distraction from sharing the gospel and is heading to Lexington in the next week or two to push the issue.

Last night a vestry divided over whether to return the church to its original name issued this unanimous statement:

The internal debate over a name change has been brewing for some time. In November 2015 the Episcopal Café quoted WDJB7:

After Lee’s death, the church became “Grace Memorial Church,” and the college, a totally separate entity, was re-named Washington and Lee. In 1883, a larger church building, the current stone Gothic Revival structure at the corner of W. Washington Street and Lee Avenue, began holding services. In 1903, the Vestry re-named the church R.E. Lee Memorial, although no record can be found of reasons for this change or a debate over it. This year is the church’s 175th Anniversary, which was celebrated this month with a reception after an All Saint’s Day Choral Evensong service Nov. 1.

Off and on, members of the church have quietly discussed whether the name was inappropriate or misunderstood in the 21st century as the name for a church seeking to be, like all Christian churches, part of the “Body of Christ.” But loyalty to tradition and attachment to the name as an identity made the issue too emotional for an all-out debate – until this summer. Two weeks after the horrific fatal shooting of nine leaders of an African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, S.C., a member of R.E. Lee Memorial Church wrote a letter to the church rector, senior warden and junior warden saying she felt that, in the wake of the tragedy, it was “time for us to have a frank, Christ-centered discussion about the name that our church has borne since 1903.”

From March, a report from ENS on the deliberations and tensions within the parish over its name.

 

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Kurt Hill
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Kurt Hill

Actually, Cricket, Vermont began the mass emancipation of slaves in 1777. And as an individual, Lee was hardly the first to do so in the Union. There were plenty of people to do so before him. However, as I said above, redemption is also a legitimate framework with which to view a person's life story.

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

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Cricket Wood
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Cricket Wood

This is where Lee repented of his sins!! He set a great example for both sides. How to be a gracious loser, supporting the winning side, freed his FEW slaves before anyone in the Union.
This of all places, should keep his memory alive.

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Kurt Hill
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Kurt Hill

I agree with John Chilton (above). However, as Christians, we believe in redemption. Robert E. Lee's actions as churchman and educator following the Civil War should also be considered in evaluating him as an historical personage, (just as George Wallace's later life after standing in the school house door should be considered.)

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

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Thom Forde
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Thom Forde

Where does this emotional iconoclasm end?

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David Curtis
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David Curtis

Ms Kromm: Thank you for your thoughtful response. I appreciate it.

Let me clarify: my comment was directed to the first paragraph and its denunciation of some of the evils perpetrated by the white supremacist movement and to the fact that this movement is targeting more than just racial or religious groups. The misogyny and homophobia that is evident in this movement seems to be repeatedly ignored by many who issue statements denouncing this evil and others.

Thank you again for your response.

God's peace, David

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Kurt Hill
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Kurt Hill

I agree with Clark Lemons that Grace Church is meaningful and RE Lee Memorial is objectionable. However, I am not opposed to a memorial to Lee inside the church building or to an historical marker outside that notes that he was an important member there..

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

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Helen Kromm
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Helen Kromm

David, I respectfully disagree. I find precious little to be grateful for in the Vestry's statement. The statement is defensive and rife with hypocrisy. It is a sham. Permit me to explain why I feel this way.

Lee's own words:

"I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy."

How can their be any other interpretation for this other than Lee was a racist? And yet the Vestry tells us Lee was a man of "virtue and honor". He was "devout".

More than anything, this statement is a defense of Robert E Lee. They "object strenuously" to what they perceive to be the "misuse" of Lee's name by white supremacists. Lee, in his own words tells us: "The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things."

Can that be anything other than a statement of white supremacy? This Vestry statement rises to the defense of a racist. It defends the indefensible.

It's clear what is happening here. It could not be more clear. There are those ensconced in the Vestry of this church that have dug in their heels and will fight this tooth and nail. To some of them, Lee is a figure of reverence. They are making their stand.

This is not a strong statement at all. It is their first salvo in what is becoming a desperate attempt to maintain the status quo by throwing this meager bone out, and hoping it's enough to make all of this go away.

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David Curtis
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David Curtis

I am grateful for the Vestry's strong statement in condemning white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and racism.

We should also remember to condemn the rampant homophobia and misogyny that is also part of the white supremacist ideology. Those were also clearly and loudly on display at Charlottesville.

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Helen Kromm
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Helen Kromm

"Lee never owned slaves. He oversaw the emancipation of his father-in-law's slaves."

It would be impossible for that statement to be more wrong.

Please read this:

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/the-myth-of-the-kindly-general-lee/529038/

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Eli
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Eli

[Eli -- please sign your first and last name when you comment. Thanks, Editor]

Churches are generally named after things like Saints, the Trinity, or a holy instance (the Transfiguration, Assumption, etc.). It seems an odd practice to name to name one after a parishioner, founder or donor. Are we to look forward to the G. W. Bush, or Bill Gates Church? It also seems like a convenient way to signal who is welcome in the pews. I'll bet not a lot of black folks make it to the Robert E Lee Memorial Chapel.

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Frank Abbott
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Frank Abbott

Lee never owned slaves. He oversaw the emancipation of his father-in-law's slaves.

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Clark Lemons
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Clark Lemons

Thanks for your, and others', comments. I am a Christian and Episcopalian but I live in Georgia. I would have a hard time moving my membership to a church called "R.E. Lee Memorial" if I moved to that area. "Grace" is a meaningful-for-all name for a church, as is the name of my church, "All Saints." You cannot deny the fact that Lee was an important, contributing member of your church, nor should you want to. We should not try to erase history but church names can change--are the name of our churches that important? I cannot think of a church being named after someone who is primarily known to the general public as a military general.

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Member

I find it difficult to believe that the name of Robert E. Lee would be a comforting and attractive image for any African American seeking a new church. Definitely NOT "Good News".

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Judy Stark
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Judy Stark

Here's a view on a similar topic: changing the name of Washington and Lee University. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/22/opinion/washington-lee-university-trump-nationalism.html?ref=opinion

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John Merchant
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John Merchant

Actually there are Episcopal churches named for mere mortals. I know of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, for example, and a goodly number named in memory of bishops such as Otey parish in Sewanee and Strider Chapel at the diocesan camp and conference center in West Virginia.

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Helen Kromm
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Helen Kromm

Pretty soon, and if it hasn't already happened while I'm writing this, someone is going to show up in this post and render the "history" argument. In other words, leave well enough alone and that our churches are natural repositories for history.

For those people, I offer this. This is the history you own. This is the history you rise to defend. This is the disgraceful and disreputable history you wish to preserve in Episcopal houses of worship.

My history lesson starts in July, 1902. This is the month and year that Virginia concluded their state constitutional convention. The purpose of this convention was specifically to create and craft legislation that denied the franchise to black voters, and in some cases poor white voters. The legislation imposed a poll tax, and created voting boards that were to administer literacy tests to black voters should they have the temerity to even attempt to vote. These literacy tests were administered at polling places by white voting judges. The end result of all of this was to literally eliminate the black vote in the state of Virginia.

There was another element to all of this that affected white voters as well. That clause (the plurality clause) is this:

"Raleigh C. Minor, a delegate from Charlottesville, suggested one solution: the votes of landowners should count double those of nonlandowners. In a letter to the convention, he called his idea "plural voting," claiming it would give "the balance of power to the great, intelligent middle class, while not denying to the poor and ignorant a voice in the community commensurate with their intelligence and average ability to pass upon the complex public questions that constantly arise."

This clause is important for any number of reasons, and I plan to circle back to this.

These were, to be sure, heady days in the state of Virginia. Reeling from defeat in the war, politically impotent during reconstruction, this was their time. Shortly after the Virginia convention- about a year to be precise, this is when Grace becomes Robert E Lee Memorial. Not while he was living, but thirty years after his death. And for the history buffs among us, if you think this is mere coincidence, you are delusional beyond redemption.

Now we fast forward to 2015. The vestry of Robert E Lee was coming under pressure to act on the wishes of many congregants, and change the name of the church. As an aside, and prior to the discussions of this, there was some pressure regarding confederate symbols, and in particular a painting of Lee in full uniform.

Yielding partially to this pressure, and applying what can only be described as a uniquely Episcopal middle way solution to this vexing, prickly issue, it was decided to exchange the uniformed Lee portrait with VMI for one where Lee is in civilian attire. Apparently, they reasoned that clothes make the man, and everything would now be alright.

In July of 2015, the Lee name issue begins to rear its ugly head. This was clearly not a welcome development for the Vestry. The process started in July, and wasn't resolved until November, when it was determined not to change the name.

The link for the Vestry minutes appears below, and you can wade through that if you wish. If you choose to do that, begin in July, 2015. For those who wish a few salient points, here they are.

The deliberations for the name change started as a result of a parishioner's letter in late June.

At first, the Vestry was hesitant to even consult with the parish at large and accept feedback as to what their wishes were regarding this matter. One Vestry member insisted upon this.

Approximately 10% of parishioners withheld declaring future pledge amounts and were waiting for the Vestry vote. As of November. future pledges were down at least 20K.

The Vestry voted. The final vote was nine in favor of changing the name, and six opposed. It was decided that a "super majority" would be put in place for this one vote. I'm unable to find any example of any Vestry vote at this church where a "super majority" was imposed. Some Vestry members revealed their vote, and others declined to do so.

Like the 1902 Virginia State Convention that offered an egregious example of vote rigging and "plural" voting allowing a few to determine and override the wishes of the majority, Robert E Lee Memorial revived this concept in their Vestry vote where the minority prevailed over the majority.

Unquestionably, the Jim Crow State Convention of 1902 emboldened parishioners at Grace to usher in Robert E Lee Memorial. The Vestry or Robert E Lee Memorial in 2015 embraced the concept wherein the minority can supersede the majority in this state document to perpetuate it.

So, to this day, Robert E Lee Memorial maintains its dubious name, and repugnant connection to Jim Crow. It is almost exclusively white and beginning to decline in numbers. It sits smack dab in a veritable orgy of "history" dedicated to Robert E Lee, to include Robert E Lee celebratory days and marches, and Robert E Lee Memorial balls and scout troops.

It is despicable.

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Karen
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Karen

I believe there is some incorrect info here. The church's name was Grace until 1903 when it was given the name of RE Lee. It was not named that before then during the time he attended. Considering his admonition regarding statues being inappropriate I would think that this name would have not been to his liking.

[In future, please sign comment with first and last name. - eds.]

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Gretchen Pritchard
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Normally, Episcopal churches are named either for a saint or for a central doctrine (Grace, Atonement) or for the Trinity or one of the Persons of the Trinity. 114 years of being an exception to this custom is quite long enough. We do not name our churches in memory of their Senior Wardens or Rectors or donors or patrons or any other local worthy, without the general consensus of the Church that this person was worthy of general veneration. Such consensus is absent here. End of story.

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David Groff
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David Groff

I am shocked that in this day and age an Episcopal church would retain a name honoring a slaveholder and slave trafficker. There is no "misunderstanding" about Lee's actions or attitudes about slavery. See this article in the Atlantic that destroys the myth of a benign Lee. If it wants to call itself Christian, this church should change his name back to Grace-- and find some grace and true "integrity" in the process.
https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/the-myth-of-the-kindly-general-lee/529038/

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Judy Grant
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Judy Grant

So are you going to dig him and his horse up next? Enough of this. The man wasn't a Nazi and would be horrified at what's going on now.
Enough of this madness.
Judy Grant
Let the man Rest In Peace again.

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Edie
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Edie

Lee fought for the wrong side. He wanted to keep slavery alive. The South lost the war. Do you see any memorials for Hitler in Germany?

[Please note our comment policy - first and last name, please - eds.]

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