In the summer of 2015, provoked by the shootings at Mother Emanuel AME and actions of General Convention to address issues of racism and reconciliation, a number of Episcopal churches began examining their own expressions of their history, and in particular the presence of the Confederate flag in sacred space.
One church, St Paul’s, Richmond, VA, is ready to move beyond the conversations it had this summer and to take action. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports on the announcements that were made this past Sunday at the church which has been known as the “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”
The historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church known as the “Cathedral of the Confederacy” has begun removing all images of the Confederate flag from within its walls.
The measure includes six plaques with various versions of the Confederate flag, the church’s coat of arms with the flag on kneelers at the high altar, and bookplates in some books in the church’s library.
The coat of arms will be retired, and the church will start to dig deeper in its history, the role of race and slavery in that history, and how parishioners can engage in conversations about race in the Richmond region, church leadership announced Sunday, three months after conversations began with the congregation.
The elected church leadership also said it hopes to erect a memorial to honor slaves in Richmond, especially slaves who were members of St. Paul’s Episcopal.
“While the Vestry does not believe that St. Paul’s should attempt to remove all symbols reflecting St. Paul’s past during the Civil War, the Vestry is united in agreement that it is not appropriate to display the Confederate battle flag in the church,” a church statement said.
Some plaques will be removed and placed in a historical exhibition. Others will be modified to remove the Confederate flag while leaving the plaques in place. Stained glass windows featuring Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis portraying biblical characters will remain in place.
The church was founded in the early 1800s and later became inextricably linked to the Civil War. Lee and his wife attended services there throughout the war, and Davis became a member in 1862.
It was there that Davis received the message that Lee was forced to withdraw from Petersburg and could no longer defend Richmond. Davis quietly left the church service and the evacuation of the city began, signifying the end of the Civil War. A small plaque, which will remain, marks where Davis sat that day.
The congregation started with a list of 23 instances of Confederate imagery. In their conversations, they made distinctions between family memorials and “monuments to ‘the cause’.” The church hopes to reach out to the Lee and Jefferson families as part of its reconciliation of its past to its present and future.
“During the Prayerful Conversations, one parishioner commented that St. Paul’s should become known as a Cathedral of Reconciliation,” St. Paul’s said. “The Vestry wholeheartedly agrees, and we are excited to begin on the journey towards that goal with all of you.”
The 2015 General Convention passed this resolution with the resolve, “The Episcopal Church strongly urges all persons, along with public, governmental, and religious institutions, to discontinue the display of the Confederate Battle Flag.”
In July St. Paul’s issued a Catalog of Confederate References and Symbols in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Richmond, Virginia (PDF). It held conversations in August and September and has issued a Summary Report of those conversations.