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Confederate Name Controversy Becomes Personal at Lee Memorial Episcopal Church

Confederate Name Controversy Becomes Personal at Lee Memorial Episcopal Church
Vestry votes change church name to Grace Episcopal

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
September 19, 2017

LEXINGTON, VIRGINIA -- In a packed room the local Episcopal vestry voted 7 to 5 to change its name and scrub "R.E. Lee" from its sign board. Effective immediately, the R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church ceases to be and the church will simply be known as Grace Episcopal and its well-known vestryman, and his contributions, will be relegated to history.

For months, the Lexington Episcopal Church was waging a civil war of its own. Its name sake -- Robert E. Lee -- was not only an openly professed Christian, a committed Episcopalian and a valued and prominent vestry member, he also once the superintendent of West Point, the president of Washington College, step grandson-in-law of George Washington and the General-in-Chief of the Confederate States Army.

But it is his brief four-year-stint with the Confederate Army that has stained his name and tarnished his fame, not his 32 years as a decorated United States Army officer, nor his three years as the West Point superintendent, nor his five years as president of Washington College nor his deeply committed Christian faith as lived out as an active church-going Episcopalian, vestry member and senior warden.

The R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church vestry was thrown into the throes of renaming the church in the wake of the recent backlash surrounding Confederate monuments and memorials questioning whether Lee was an historical hero or a vile villain.

But this is not the first time the church has questioned its historic moniker. In 2015, there was a church shooting 500 miles away at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The incident left nine dead following a Bible study and the Virginia Episcopal church plunged into the question and called for a name change study.

The Washington Post reported: "An anonymous survey was held. Thousands of dollars were paid to reconciliation experts trained in pacifism. A 15-page report was written. Decades-old friendships in the small community were strained. Parishioners left for other churches."

"I firmly believe that Lee was an admirable man of faith, with flaws like the rest of us," one parishioner said at the time.

"Could R.E. Lee Memorial Church commemorate the postwar fence-mender who had led their church and city out of destitution?" The Post posed the question. "Or could it only conjure the wicked institution of slavery for which Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee fought?"

After months of discord and discussion and discernment through a variety of forums and house meetings and after reviewing, the results of a survey sent to all active members of the church the vestry failed -- by one vote (9-6) -- to get the 10-vote supermajority needed to change the name. As a result, the vestry added the name "Episcopal" and included the phrase "Founded as Grace Church" to its new sign.

However, the renaming question was left simmering on the back burner.

Then came August and Charlottesville, a mere 70 miles away, where crowds clashed over the removal of a Lee statue and one person died as a result of the near-riot activity.

The back burner renaming question was quickly put on the front burner, with the flame turned on high. Vestry members left.

On Aug.18, an online petition was launched, seeking 10,000 names to force the change of the Episcopal parish's name.

"Across the country, momentum is building to take down monuments to the Confederate leaders who fought to preserve slavery. But in Lexington, Virginia, there is still a church named after Robert E. Lee," the petition states. "R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church leaders say they're considering changing the name 'in the future' -- but they've been saying that for years, and the name has remained the same."

The petition, which is seeking 10,000 names, continues: "It's time to show church leaders that this name is not acceptable and must be changed. Now! "

Lexington is a community of 7,200, which swells to 11,000 during the school year when 2,200 students come to town to attend Washington and Lee University and another 1,600 Virginia Military Academy cadets show up. The local Episcopal congregation is home to more than 400 members, of which fewer than 200 show up for Sunday services. Episcopal Church records show that there were 900 members on the books a decade ago, but the roles were purged in 2008.

"The liberating good news of Jesus is incompatible with the legacy of slavery and racism. R.E. Lee Memorial Church should return its original name of Grace Church effective immediately," the petition concludes. So far, 6,200 names have been added.

On Aug. 21, the vestry members of the church fired back a response.

"We object strenuously to the misuse of Robert E. Lee's name and memory in connection with white supremacy, anti-Semitism and similar movements that he would abhor. Lee was widely admired in both the North and the South as a man of virtue and honor and as among the leading reconcilers of our fractured land," the vestry's statement says. "We do not honor Lee as a Confederate. Nor do we subscribe to neo-Confederate ideas in honoring him. We honor Lee as one of our own parishioners, a devout man who led our parish through difficult years in post-Civil War Virginia. More importantly, we find our identity in Christ, the lover of all humankind, and we seek on-going renewal in Him."

Now even the bishop got involved in the name changing controversy.

Bishop Mark Bourlakas (VI Southwest Virginia) felt that in the current political climate a church named "R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church" is a distraction to the sharing of the Gospel message. The bishop travelled to Lexington on Aug. 29 to meet with vestry members, listen to them and personally make his views known.

The bishop also decreed that when the vestry tackled the name change issue on Sept. 18, only a simple majority -- not the super majority -- was needed to effect the change.

R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church

In 1865, after the Lee surrendered to Grant and the Civil War ended, he went to Lexington, Virginia to become the president of Washington College. He would have liked to return to his antebellum home -- the Curtis-Lee Mansion overlooking the Potomac River in Arlington. But that was not possible. The property had been in his wife's family since 1778 and he lived there for 30 years before the War Between the States started. During the war, Union forces seized the property and turned the grounds into what became the Arlington National Cemetery. So following the surrender at Appomattox, the Lees moved to Lexington, where Robert became the President of Washington College and joined Grace Church, an Episcopal congregation located on the edge of the school's campus.

As a Christian, Lee had but one goal as president of Washington College.

"I shall be disappointed if I shall fail in the leading object that brought me here, unless all the young men become real Christians," Lee -- the college president -- told area clergy. "I wish you, and others of your sacred profession, do all you can to accomplish this result. I dread the thought of any student going away from the college without becoming a sincere Christian."

The college's chaplain, William Jones, said of Lee: "If I ever came in contact with a sincere, devout Christian -- one who, seeing himself to be a sinner, trusted alone in the merits of Christ, who humbly tried to walk the path of duty, 'looking unto Jesus' as the author and finisher of his faith, and whose piety constantly exhibited itself in his daily life -- that man was General R. E. Lee."

"There was more to Robert E. Lee than the Confederate general, and that was where his greatness started to emerge. After the war, he dedicated himself to reunifying the nation and restoring its prosperity. Yes, he was a Confederate general, who opposed slavery and secession, even though he fought for what would perpetuate both," explains Fr. David Cox. "In that sense, I think nobody is paying attention to him (Lee) and who he was. We are dealing with a human being, and we're not treating him as such."

Fr. Cox was rector at RE Lee Memorial Church from 1987-2000. He has done an indepth study of Lee's faith and now the Episcopal priest has a broader perspective on who Lee was as a man and as a Christian and as an Episcopalian.

But the battle rages on about how do you distinguish Lee -- the Christian ... from Lee -- the Confederate?

Lee's entire life was bookended by the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840) and the Third Great Awakening (1855-1900). He was born in 1807 during the Second Great Awakening; then lead Confederate troops (1861-1865), undertook the presidency of Washington College (1865-1870) and died in 1870, all during the Third Great Awakening. He was a man of intense faith and prayer who believed wholeheartedly in Jesus Christ as his personal Saviour.

"It makes me sad. What I'm saddest about is that people don't know our American history," one parishioner notes. "Lee has come to represent only one piece of who he was. And I think our church is named for a different piece of who he was."

"Everybody who studies history agrees that Lee was a religious person. The religious people were busy polishing his halo," the former rector noted. "Secular historians did not have the theological context to make sense of his faith."

Even before Lee became involved with Lexington's Grace Church, his churchmanship was evident. From 1842-1847, Lee was a vestry member at St. John's Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, New York, when he was stationed at nearby Fort Hamilton as a US Army officer, 20 years before the War Between the States. At the time, Lee planted a maple sapling. In 1912, a plaque was attached to the growing tree which noted that it was actually planted by Lee himself.

After the Charlottesville riot, the Diocese of Long Island was so ashamed of a plaque mentioning Lee's involvement in planting the tree, that the plaque was removed.

Bishop Lawrence Provenzano (VIII Long Island) said: "I think it is the responsible thing for us to do."

Following the Civil War, no longer a Confederate general, Lee became a very active member of Lexington's Grace Church, which was founded in 1839 by Francis H. Smith, who was the first superintendent of Virginia Military Institute. The VMI leader saw the need for an Episcopal church nearby since he was Episcopalian, many of the VMI faculty and staff were Episcopalian and the students he was drawing to Lexington were also Episcopalians.

Lexington was also home to Washington College -- now Washington & Lee University -- and a stronghold of Presbyterianism, so the Episcopalians did not have any local congregations of their own to worship in. So Smith stepped in and founded Grace Church to meet spiritual needs at VMI, but the newly-established Episcopal congregation also provided much needed spiritual support for the nearby college. Washington College -- initially founded in 1749 as Augusta Academy -- VMI and Grace Church are all closely clustered together.

After the Civil War, Lee became the president of Washington College. This was right up his alley, having once been the superintendent of West Point, he had the academic experience necessary to lead the century-plus old institution past the bruising Civil War years and into Reconstruction. Lee was a visionary and his contribution to the school helped to form it into what would become Washington & Lee University. He is credited with providing Washington College with "innovative educational leadership."

Borrowing from West Point, Lee established an honor system where students "vow to act honorably in all academic and nonacademic endeavors."

"We have but one rule here," Lee said, "and it is that every student must be a gentleman."

Lee had a close affinity to George Washington. His wife, Mary Anna Custis, was the great-granddaughter of the widowed Martha Custis, who then married George Washington. Lee, as a military officer, had a great respect for the military acumen of General George Washington, who successfully led the American forces through the Revolutionary War. Lee viewed Washington as his hero and role model.

While at Washington College, and in keeping with his strong religious convictions, Lee felt the need to build a chapel at the college to meet the growing spiritual needs of the school. So a 600 seat Victorian brick edifice was built, which eventually became known as Lee Chapel. In fact, it is also Lee's final resting place.

But before his death in 1870, Lee became senior warden at Grace Church. History shows his final public appearance before his death was at a vestry meeting where the group wrestled with tight finances -- Lee paid the rector's salary out of his own pocket -- and the need to expand or build a new church to accommodate the growth brought on by Lee's presence at Washington College. Lee and his entire family worshipped at Grace Church, even after his death, so his adoring students naturally followed his spiritual leadership and joined the Lexington Episcopal church.

After Lee's death, both Washington College and Grace Church felt the need to honor Lee for his many contributions to their institutions. The trustees at Washington College sought to commemorate what Lee did to restore the war-torn and decimated college. Under Lee's leadership, the school rebounded and he helped to form the college into today's modern university. The trustees then joined Lee's name to Washington's, so the title Washington & Lee University was created.

Meanwhile, Grace Church built a new edifice, which was completed in 1886, to accommodate explosive congregational growth. The new church was built as a "memorial" to its "most famous parishioner -- Robert Edward Lee." The new building was named Grace Memorial Church. However, colloquially, the church was known as "General Lee's Church." So, in 1903, the vestry formally renamed the church "R.E. Lee Memorial Church."

The Resurrection window above the church's altar has the inscribed names of both Robert Edward Lee and Mary Custis Lee, along with the Book of Common Prayer phrase: "Numbered with Thy Saints in glory everlasting."

But there still remains ongoing name confusion between the "Lee Chapel" at Washington & Lee University and "Lee Church" -- R.E. Lee Memorial. So again, in 2015, the church tweaked its name, adding the moniker Episcopal to identify the denomination -- R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church.

Now, following Monday night's 7 to 5 simple majority vestry vote, the Lexington Episcopal church will be henceforth known as Grace Episcopal, which is a totally new name for the 178-year-old congregation. Originally, the Episcopal parish was called Grace Church (1839), after Lee's death, it became Grace Memorial Church (1883). After another name change occurred and the church became R.E. Lee Memorial Church (1903), then R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church (2015). The newest transformation is Grace Episcopal (2017), where even "memorial'' is scrubbed from the church name.

Senior Warden Woody Sadler, who voted to keep the name, said he is sad to see the name change. He explained that there are two parishioners who are more than 100-years-old and who have been members of R.E. Lee Memorial for more than a century. He said the name change will cause them great pain.

"They grew up in this church," he said explaining that he was wanting to protect the feelings of the older members. "This is going to hurt some of the older people in the church."

Although he said he realized that the name would have eventually been changed, he had hoped that the action would have taken more time.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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