“Cathedral of the Confederacy” wants to become known as a Cathedral of Reconciliation

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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 article notes that the church has not flown the Confederate flag since the 1960s. Read more on the story here. Images accompanying the story are here.

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.

Photo: St Paul’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

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Helen Kromm
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Helen Kromm

"Stained glass windows featuring Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis portraying biblical characters will remain in place."

Perhaps I'm missing something here. But I don't see how a church that maintains a stained glass window depicting Robert E Lee as Moses can rightfully be called a church or cathedral of "Reconciliation".

A stained glass of window of Robert E Lee in any house of worship is offensive enough, but a stained glass window equating him with Moses is almost cruelly offensive. Moses, who led people from bondage is equated to Robert E Lee, who through force of arms fought to keep people in bondage?

I'm left wondering how this is "reconciliation".

Prior to the commencement of the civil war, Lee was appointed sole arbitrator for the disposition of the slaves held by the Custis estate. The terms of the will stated that the slaves owned by the estate could immediately be set free, or they could be held in bondage for additional five years.

Lee did what virtually all southern land owners did in this situation. He worked those slaves for five years, under harsh and cruel conditions. He did so despite the fact he could have immediately set them free, and did so solely for his own economic benefit.

During the war, Lee did nothing, absolutely nothing, to limit or curtail the atrocities leveled against black Union soldiers. They were slaughtered by the hundreds and not permitted to surrender.

For a time, the Union and Confederacy engaged in prisoner swaps. This was ended when Lee refused to repatriate captured black soldiers, and instead returned them to their masters. Even worse, and when defending Petersburg, Lee forced black captives to dig entrenchments under Union fire. He ceased this only when Grant used white, captured confederate soldiers to dig earthworks for the Union.

I've heard it argued that there is a historical context to this. I don't believe that argument is valid. Not that it would matter when these windows were installed, but I have to wonder what historical context exists when you consider these windows were installed in 1898, and not during or immediately after the Civil war. In other words, these windows were installed well after the actual history of the war, and represent a glorification of a past steeped in racial hatred.

Lee, who held slaves himself, and worked them cruelly for his economic benefit on the Custis estate. Lee, who never spoke against the summary and immediate execution of black Union soldiers. Lee, who betrayed his nation and led an Army responsible for the deaths of thousands upon thousands.

So we have the newly named "Cathedral of Reconciliation". Worship will be conducted under the imagery of slaveholder and war criminal Robert E Lee portrayed as Moses.

This is "reconciliation"?

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David Allen
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David Allen

Were the windows "family memorials?" Perhaps the windows are part of the reaching out for conversation with the Lee and Davis families.

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Helen Kromm
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Helen Kromm

The link above towards the end of the article (Catalog of Confederate References and Symbols in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Richmond, Virginia) gives a brief synopsis regarding the items in question. Regarding the Robert E Lee window, it states:

“The pair of windows honoring Robert E. Lee was the gift of three maiden daughters of John and Amanda Stewart. Plans for windows dedicated to General Lee were in progress as early as 1889."

The link also provides information that the original idea for the windows was proposed by a church vestry committee in 1889.

If there is a connection between the members of the vestry committee and either the Davis or Lee families, it isn't mentioned. There is also no mention of any connection between the Stewart family and the Lee family.

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Melody Marshall
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Melody Marshall

Looking forward to worshiping at St. Paul's Thanksgiving weekend.

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Jane Wolf
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Jane Wolf

Way to go, St. Paul's!

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Alan Christensen
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Alan Christensen

I think this action strikes the right balance: ceasing to honor the CSA's rebellion against the Union in defense of slavery but not erasing the memory of these events and people from history.

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Leonardo Ricardo
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A great inspiration...for all.

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