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Passions rise over name of Lee parish in Virginia

Passions rise over name of Lee parish in Virginia

Tensions over the name of the Robert E. Lee Memorial church in Lexington, VA continue to rise in the wake of a white supremacist rally and deadly violence in nearby Charlottesville.  Their has been sharp disagreement over the the name of the parish, whose name was changed from Grace Church to R.E. Lee Memorial in 1903, decades after the death of the Confederate general and former Senior Warden.  At least one vestry member has resigned over that body’s intransigence on changing the parish’s name.

From ENS

“Anne Hansen, who helped craft the statement Monday, resigned from the vestry afterward because church leaders would not commit more definitively to discussing a name change.

“My hope had been that if we could make a unified statement, say something unanimously … that we would be able to move from there into further action in a consensual way [regarding] the implications of our association with Lee,” Hansen said in an interview with ENS. “At the vestry meeting, that became apparent to me that was not going to happen.” She added that she blamed herself for getting upset and not articulating her views clearly enough.

The vestry’s inaction on the issue is fueling tension inside and outside the congregation, creating an unnecessary distraction for the church, Southwest Virginia Bishop Mark Bourlakas told Episcopal News Service.  He favors the name change.

“The name has become not only a distraction to their Gospel mission, but … it’s dividing parishioners and causing all kinds of rancor,” said Bourlakas, who plans to visit the congregation this month to assist in reconciliation efforts. “My priority is to heal the congregation, and I don’t believe that that healing can occur while the name stays the same.”

The discussion didn’t resume in a significant way until the violence in Charlottesville raised concerns again about how Lee had come to be a symbol of white supremacist ideology.”


The rising tide of public opinion against honoring Confederates is causing some of those in favor of such memorials to harden their attitudes.  vestry member, A.W. “Buster” Lewis, who has been a vocal opponent of changing the name said back in March that he believed he and the church were under attack.  But many now see these memorials for the signposts of white supremacy they were always intended to be, and Bishop Bourlakas fears these symbols are antithetical to the gospel and are markers of unwelcome; that Charlottesville marks a point of no return in how these memorials are seen and understood.

“We’re in a different moment since Charlottesville,” Bourlakas said. “These symbols have become too toxic. We’re a church that cares deeply about sacraments and symbols, and this symbol, whatever you might think of it or what it represented, has been co-opted and has become toxic.”

Hansen, though, fears it may be too late. “We had already missed our opportunity to change the name of the church in a deliberative proactive way on our own terms,” she said.


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cynthia katsarelis

This is a really important read.

It makes it absolutely clear that the monuments and renaming and whatnot were part of an effort to secure the gains of Jim Crow and the violent suppression of the gains made by African Americans in Reconstruction. It was an attempt to re-make history in the white supremacist image. And it was done with great violence (more lynchings than we know, 4000+). That is what the supporters of these monuments and windows are supporting. They drank the delicious and guilt relieving cool-aid of the kindly General Lee. General Malone is my guy.

the Rev Dr Ellen Marie Barrett (Sister Helena, OSB)

I grew up at R.E.Lee Memorial, and it was (teasingly) called ‘St. Bobby’s’ by some. In the days when UN flags were highly controversial I can remember an elderly parishioner who had lived through Reconstruction boycotting the church after it was given an American flag–nonsense to 21st century folk, but she had lived through the end of the war and the bitterness of Reconstruction and saw it as the flag of, in her words, ‘the Occupyin’ Power.’ It was a period that had marked her life forever in an immediate way that none of us today can fully understand, for good or ill.
Lee was a highly respected post-war member of the community in Lexington (hence, among other things, the change of name of the former Washington College). Like all of us, he was a complex man and would doubtless have cringed at the metamorphosis of W&LU and of Grace Church, never mind Valentine’s beautiful recumbent statue in W&L’s Lee Chapel. His decision to go with his homeland was similar to that of many who at the time saw their home states as more crucial to their identity than the USA. In many ways it is a more understandable action, given that much of the Civil War was fought on Virginia soil, than is his massacre of Mexican military cadets at Chapultepec during the Mexican War.
Make no mistake. I hold absolutely no brief for those who adopt the symbols of the Confederacy for their own neo-fascist and white supremacist ends. There is no moral equivalency between the murderer and the fascist mob in Charlottesville and those who came to stand against them.
The Civil War was a national tragedy from which America has seemingly learnt little or nothing, including the painful nuances of history which seemingly are always lost on most people.
Mass destruction of memorials and renaming of institutions and places cannot erase history or redress great wrongs, and those who think it can are fools and deluded at best. It would be good, though unlikely, if America could somehow address the reasons behind the name changes and the monuments–the ones on battlefields commemorating the soldiers on both sides who gave their lives more for their comrades in arms or their homes than for any noble or ignoble cause? The gravestones North and South? Better to rewrite the simplistic schoolbooks with nuance and encourage youngsters to ponder the choices they might have made in the same circumstances. Better to differentiate the idolaters and their idols than to paper over a still festering wound in the body politic with sweeping gestures.
I speak as a historian, as a priest, as the daughter of a professor who opposed the celebrations of the Civil War Centennial, having wearied of hearing the tragic story recounted by men who actually fought–many of them poor ‘dirt farmers’ and sharecroppers who were exploited (though not literally enslaved) by the slave-owning and slave-trading classes.
Until we are willing to take a surgeon’s or a physician’s look at the rotting sore,that continues to poison our national life– a look as dispassionate as possible with the clarity of justice as well as historical accuracy–we will never be able to exercise the clear-eyed, unemotional common sense that will allow the nation to heal. Until the wound is assessed and cleansed merely to bind it up is not enough.
Restore Grace Church to its original dedication–for we need God’s grace and power now more than ever, lest we repeat in our own way the terrors we would rather forget or mythologise. Kyrie Eleison.

Fred Loving

Read the Atlantic article. Other noted historians would dispute. Sons of Confederate Veterans is not on the watch list of Southern Poverty Law Center as neo-Confederate. Neither is United Daughters of the Confederacy. Members of both groups are among your fellow church members. Some of them come from a line that goes back to when we were under Church of England. Do you want to excommunicate them?

Cricket B Wood

Wasn’t Lee parish named before the War?
We can’t change history & as the Bible says we should love & pray for our enemies. Blessed are peacemakers.

Ann Fontaine

No – it was called Grace church until after war and reconstruction.

Mike Link

Read this article in the Atlantic to clarify the values of General Lee. Then compare it with the actual resolution passed by the Vestry.

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