Christ Church, Alexandria in Virginia, founded in 1773, has a rich and complex history, which is represented by two plaques dedicated to Robert E. Lee and George Washington hanging at the front of the church. Both men were members of the church and were involved, in various ways, with its development. For several years now, Christ Church, now a vibrant and diverse parish, has been considering the fate of the plaques. In a letter to the parish on Thursday, Rev. Dr. Noelle York-Simmons and the vestry announced that the plaques would be removed, but not before another place on the grounds was found for them.
As part of the decision making process, which has taken several years, the parish has held several series of lectures, covering the history of the church as a whole as well as the particular roles of Washington and Lee. While George Washington was officially a member of a church closer to Mount Vernon, he worshiped regularly at Christ Church, and held a pew there. He may also have served on the vestry. Robert E. Lee was a member of Christ Church, and his wife gave a significant sum of money to begin the church’s endowment. Julie Randle, a parishioner, has been studying the history of Christ Church in great depth, and helped lead the seminars. Regarding the decision making process, she said, “We started by exploring who we were in terms of our southern and racial history, to help discover who we are now. How long this will take, and what the results will be, the only one who knows is God. The parish’s leadership’s focus is on let’s look at the big picture of race relations and see where it takes us. What is God leading us to do? What are the hard things we are being called to do?” York-Simmons added, “We are a vibrant, intelligent and curious congregation looking into how we can be a community that recognizes the full scope of its history in order to best serve a hurting world before us and continue to build a bright future that proclaims the love of Christ for all people,”. The plaques were installed in 1870, the year of Lee’s death.
The status of the plaques gained a new urgency with the events in Charlottesville in August. The protest by white nationalists over the removal of a monument to Robert E. Lee resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, a counter-protester. Christ Church decided to remove the plaques because they “create a distraction in our worship space and may create an obstacle to our identity as a welcoming church and an impediment to our growth and to full community with our neighbors.” However, not wanting to sweep any part of their complex history under the rug, or pretend it never happened, the decision included the caveat that the plaques would be rehung elsewhere on the church’s campus. York-Simmons said, “We are deeply committed to our history, but even more we are deeply committed to the worship of Jesus Christ. The question is, how can we reflect both?”
The full text of the letter to the congregation can be found here.