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R.E. Lee Memorial Church will remain R.E. Lee Memorial Church

R.E. Lee Memorial Church will remain R.E. Lee Memorial Church

Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s historic ties to Lexington, Va., are strong: the town contains Washington and Lee University’s campus (as well as Virginia Military Institute’s) with its Lee Chapel and Museum, and next door to both schools is R.E. Lee Memorial Church, an Episcopal parish founded in 1840 and first called Grace Church.

WDBJ7 reports that the vestry of R.E. Lee has voted, 9-6, on whether to change the church’s name, one vote shy of the required supermajority to do so, a vote prompted by AME shootings in Charleston, S.C. They are making two alterations, adding “Episcopal” to the name and creating a new sign that includes the phrase “Founded as Grace Church.”

WDBJ’s report includes the news release. History of the church and its name, excerpted from the release:

The church was founded in 1840 mainly to provide Episcopal services for cadets at the newly establish[ed] Virginia Military Institute in the heavily-Presbyterian town of Lexington, Va. It was called Grace Church by the time Robert E. Lee arrived in Lexington in September 1865, the revered leader of a defeated Confederate army. Lee, who had agreed to be president of Washington College, joined Grace Church and was elected senior warden. He worshipped at the church and led the Vestry as senior warden until his death at age 63 in October 1870. He was also instrumental in the construction on the adjacent college campus of a chapel that became Lee Chapel, where Lee and members of his family are buried.

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.” The church leaders responded by presenting the issue to the Vestry in July, leading to months of discussion and discernment through forums, house meetings and a survey sent to all 390 active adult members of the church.


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Paul Powers

Maybe it’s time to change the name, not necessarily because Robert E. Lee isn’t worthy of having a church named after him, but because the name is becoming a distraction.

Bob Cowperthwaite

I am a 1970 graduate of W&L, who was active at “St. Bob’s” and my fraternity was directly across the street from the Church in those days. I am also a retitred Episcopal Priest. Traveller’s bones were found in the basement of the freshman dorm while I was a student, and later interred behind Lee Chapel.
My “vote” would be to reclaim the Grace Church name. Tourists and others have plenty of other opportunities in Lexington to track the history of R.E.Lee. Having some signage at the Church that acknowleged the various name changes would help proclaim our church’s willingness to move toward repentance, and our commitment to inclusivity. In this case, “Grace” seems an apt and appropriate renaming!

Mike Waverly-Shank

I am a 1963 Graduate of W&L U and an Episcopal priest. I worshiped in that Church for 4 years. Am happy to see the name change even if it is not complete. Actually I think General Lee would agree.

Paul Woodrum

Yes, Cynthia. And the last time I was at Mt. Vernon, there were signs pointing to the “Staff Houses,” formerly known as “slave quarters.” Perhaps just political correctness gone wild. Or maybe we should erase George Washington from the collective memory. Or, perhaps, Japanese Americans should insist Memorials to another Episcopalian, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, be torn down because of their internment during WWII. We have been soft on the sins of our fathers, especially where slavery is concerned, but I’m not sure that gives us the right to erase their memory.

Mark Mason

Maybe we should put “formerly …” in smaller print on signs and plagues. It would serve to remind everyone that reads them that those who worship there have changed their viewpoints over time. A hero in their own generation is a villain in the next or vice versa. When we consider how we view former generations we can think following generations most likely will find that we too were not as wise as we are in our own eyes.

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