‘Cathedral of the Confederacy’ reckons with its history and charts future

June 18, 2017

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, has historically been known as the Cathedral of the Confederacy. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Photo: Courtesy of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

[Episcopal News Service – Richmond, Virginia] Looking around the sanctuary of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church here nothing suggests an altered space. Enough plaques, stained-glass windows, wall sconces and other adornments remain that the sanctuary is anything but bare. Its columns, deep-red pew cushions and the Tiffany Last Supper mosaic above the altar offer much for the eye to behold. And although St. Paul’s has long been known as the Cathedral of the Confederacy, the space feels cozier than a cathedral. The ceiling and walls hug close. When congregants huddle near the altar for a ceramic-cup and rustic-bread communion at the 9 a.m. service, it feels as right as the church’s later, more staid liturgy.

But when Linda Armstrong, who chairs St. Paul’s History and Reconciliation Initiative, pointed to the three spots where plaques used to be – two in the sanctuary and one in the narthex – on a Saturday in late April, the emptiness left by a Confederate past becomes apparent; each a blank spot amidst the visual richness, awaiting its fate.

St. Paul’s Rector the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, left, with Barbara Holley, a member of the History and Reconciliation Initiative’s steering committee and its Memorials Working Group. Photo: Heather Beasley Doyle

The History and Reconciliation Initiative germinated in the wake of shooter Dylann Roof’s racially motivated attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. On a Sunday soon after the June 17, 2015, massacre, the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, St. Paul’s rector, asked in a sermon, “What if in this, the last summer of the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, we begin a conversation here at St. Paul’s about the Confederate symbols in our worship space?”

That question could not have come from just any pulpit. And coming from where Adams-Riley stood, in the sanctuary of the Cathedral of the Confederacy, it made waves. “I thought it was very important that it be done with a tone of seriousness and invitation, to invite our people to lean into this moment in a discerning way,” said Adams-Riley. “It quickly became clear to me that there was some anxiety.”

Richmond was the capitol of the Confederacy during the American Civil War; Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, worshipped at St. Paul’s during the war. Davis was a member of the church. Their pews still bear plaques attesting to their affiliation with the church, and stained-glass windows dedicated to them allow light into the sanctuary. In the 1890s, when it became popular to memorialize family members with sanctuary wall plaques, several sprung up in St. Paul’s honoring Confederate soldiers, some decorated with Confederate battle flags. Additional battle flags had been embroidered into the kneelers by the altar.

Adams-Riley’s question called for parishioners to pay attention. Small and spread out, the battle flags were hidden in plain sight; many people had never even noticed them. “I’d been here for 45 years and had never read the plaques,” said St. Paul’s member Lee Switz, who chairs the History and Reconciliation Initiative’s Memorial Working Group.

A plaque honoring Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, is one of the items St. Paul’s removed from its walls. Photo: Courtesy of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Now those Confederate battle flags are gone, removed after a November 2015 vestry vote, a decision that followed several tabled discussions on the topic. At the same time, the vestry also voted only to keep Confederate-related memorials without the battle flag, including plaques paid for by the families of congregants who fought in the Civil War. Moreover, the governing body established the History and Reconciliation Initiative, appointing vestry member Armstrong as chair. She has since spearheaded the parish’s deep dive into its history and its relationship with race since its 1845 founding. The History and Reconciliation Initiative has laid out a four-year plan to be completed in 2020, when the church marks its 175th anniversary.

In parsing out what to leave in the sanctuary and what to remove, “we have really considered those families,” said Armstrong. In looking at a plaque, she remembered that “this was a human being who was loved by his family; it’s the humanity of it.” By contrast, the battle flag communicates “I believe this is right, and I’m willing to kill you for it, too.” Some flags simply unscrewed from the plaques to which they were affixed. The removed items remain in a vault at the church until their fate, whether becoming part of an exhibit somewhere in the church or a traveling educational display, is determined.

In establishing the History and Reconciliation Initiative, St. Paul’s committed to push its parish conversation beyond the Confederate flag, beyond “Confederate iconography” to what Confederate symbols fundamentally evoke: a national history with thick scars around race. They would look at these scars and at their own part in staunchly defending an economic system based on the subjugation of African-Americans. In fact, the parish took its efforts a step beyond, to racial reconciliation, an attempt to figure out the church’s role in perpetuating racism, recognizing that role, and moving forward with those insights in a way that heals and repairs. “It’s doing some interior work so that we can move out into the world in ways that would not have been possible without that,” Adams-Riley said. “Isn’t that [also] true on an individual level?” And while Adams-Riley’s June 2015 sermon triggered anxiety, “It was also clear to me that there was great excitement and hope – and possibility,” he said.

St. Paul’s began by hosting two “Prayerful Conversations” in the summer of 2015, and hired an outside consultant to facilitate the events. Of the parish’s 300-400 active members (on average, 200 show up for Sunday services), 100 turned out for those initial events. Adams-Riley and Armstrong agree that hiring a consultant played a crucial role in setting a relaxed tone that invited people to share deeply. The discussions were frank, sometimes emotional, and condoned conversations about race at St. Paul’s. From there, “we didn’t talk about it officially for a couple of months, because it was just too hot,” Associate Rector the Rev. Molly Bosscher said.

Christopher Graham, left, with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Associate Rector the Rev. Molly Bosscher. Graham chairs the History Working Group of St. Paul’s History and Reconciliation Initiative. Photo: Heather Beasley Doyle

Bosscher underscored the interpersonal complexities of a process that aims to give St. Paul’s a new reputation: the Cathedral of Reconciliation. “You understand the enormity of the work, right?” she asked. “It’s changing our very flavor as a church. You could not stop this process now if you tried. It’s too far in bloom.”

As messy as St. Paul’s reconciliation work has sometimes been, the 60-member History and Reconciliation Initiative lends it a framework, a timeline and concrete goals. While Armstrong stressed that the goals are not set in stone, they offer a structure that participants value and respect. “It’s a four-year process, but we do have some deadlines,” said Memorial Working Group chair Lee Switz, “and that gives it a sense of urgency.”

Along with the Memorial Working Group, two more working groups are nestled under the initiative: the History Working Group and the Music & Liturgy Working Group. With the History Working Group’s research as a foundation, the Memorial Working Group and the Music & Liturgy Working Group will determine St. Paul’s visible, audible reconciliation pieces. Revisions are planned to the church’s walking tour brochure, and its 175th anniversary book will be reimagined from the 150th anniversary predecessor.

Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry will visit next March. Prayerful Conversations remain ongoing and the church will hold a special service to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. And in some way, whether by stopping at stations of reconciliation along Richmond’s Slave Trail or with a different ritual, History and Reconciliation Initiative members plan to commemorate African-American slaves in the city that had the second-largest slave market in the United States.

In the meantime, as chair of the Initiative’s History Working Group, Christopher Graham has helped St. Paul’s to discover how racial ideas throughout the church’s history have determined how parishioners live their lives and faith. Originally 20 to 25 members, the History Working Group now has a core of seven active researchers. A historian by profession, Graham gave working group members guidance on what to look for as they research. “And that’s been a remarkable success,” he said.

The group is uncovering the church’s relationship era by era, in five chunks of about 40 years, starting in 1844. They have scoured U.S. Census data, diocesan records, vestry records and private journals. They delve into Newspapers.com and Ancestry.com. And then there are secondary sources, including “Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia” by J. Douglas Smith, which Graham recently read.

Cross-referencing the records from First African Baptist Church and St. Paul’s with census data, the History Working Group has confirmed that from its founding until the Emancipation, most St. Paul’s members “were engaged with slavery or in the slavery economy,” Graham said. This was not surprising. More illuminating has been learning St. Paul’s attitude toward race between the Emancipation and today. While its membership remains overwhelmingly white, in 2017 St. Paul’s is a “liberal” church with longstanding outreach projects and ties to social justice initiatives throughout Richmond, a city that initiative leaders described as more conservative than their church. St. Paul’s members “have always done what they thought was the Christian thing to do,” Armstrong said, “even if they thought it was segregation.”

And for a long time, it was. “At the turn of the 20th century, Episcopalians and other white people were arguing that black people were evolutionarily behind whites,” Graham said. For generations after emancipation, St. Paul’s members participated in a government that enforced Jim Crow and segregation. This mindset continued, Graham suspects, until the early days of the civil rights movement, “and it’s more complicated than ‘we hate them.’ ”

As St. Paul’s “whole story” emerges, the damage done by upholding the racial status quo is clear, Graham said. “So what does it mean? What are we doing about it?” he asked. He was working on a narrative of his working group’s findings.

That narrative will feed the other working groups’ efforts. The Music & Liturgy Working Group has met twice. They began by asking why St. Paul’s needs reconciliation music and liturgy. The answer became, “We’re finding things at St. Paul’s that we need to mourn, and (in) the Episcopal Church music and liturgy is how we do that,” said Music & Liturgy Working Group chair Pam James, quoting fellow group member Michelle Walker.

In the fall, James’s group will introduce a new collect, with the idea of adding one for each church season. The largest task ahead of them is sifting through the history group’s narrative to find lyrics for a piece of music. St. Paul’s will commission music to allow St. Paul’s to mourn its past. “Yet we are also cognizant of the fact that we’re going to send it out into the world for other churches to [use] for their own mourning,” said James.

Things weren’t as immediately clear for the Memorial Working Group. “One of the first meetings was a free-for-all,” recounts Switz. “Everybody was talking past each other, but there were some strong emotions in the room.” The Memorial Working Group is charged with “seeking a physical or living/legacy expression of acknowledgment, commemoration, and reconciliation,” according to a History and Reconciliation Initiative flier. Initially, that mission got lost in the tumult, Switz said.

She considered how to proceed in keeping with the yearlong theme of “Be Reconciled,” landing on the church’s congregation-wide read, “The Book of Forgiving,” by retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “Let’s all tell our story,” Switz said at the next meeting. The half-dozen working group members did just that for two hours, she said, opening the path to more discussion. They’re currently working on “a very concise statement” on what “visceral, spiritual message” a 21st century St. Paul’s wants to convey through its history and reconciliation memorial.

Deep into research and reflection, parishioners seem patient with the process as it unfolds. “They’re taking their time, they have not rushed the process, and that’s been notable,” said Carl Stauffer, an associate professor at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Stouffer has visited St. Paul’s twice since December, guiding parishioners in reflection and workshop, and preaching. “There’s been a tremendous amount of effort in having the congregation buy into the process,” he added.

When St. Paul’s clergy and initiative leaders talk, consensus around one point quickly reveals itself. “I don’t think we’re finished. I think we’re still working on reconciling with each other,” Armstrong said. “If we sincerely want reconciliation, if we’re serious about it, it should be a different church [in 2020],” she said.

Beyond the process, beyond the memorial, the music and the liturgy, some at St. Paul’s wonder when reconciliation will conclude. “So how long will this process go, and how will we evaluate what the process achieved?” wondered St. Paul’s member Michelle Whitehurst-Cook. While she wants the History and Reconciliation Initiative’s efforts to remain ongoing, “I think there are lots of ways to continue [the work] and also to measure what we’ve achieved.” Whitehurst-Cook points to possibilities for measuring the initiative’s impact, from changes in outreach and church participation to gauging the number of sermons on social justice or talking with small groups.

And Memorial Working Group member Barbara Holley offered a caveat as St. Paul’s moves forward. “It’s more than a black-white issue,” she said. “I don’t want to just hear from somebody, ‘I’m sorry.’ That would just make me mad. I want to know that by your actions.” Racial reconciliation wasn’t on Holley’s mind when she joined St. Paul’s, but being a part of the History and Reconciliation Initiative has catalyzed an internal shift. “I do believe it’s changing me, in just bringing more awareness to the divisiveness of racism,” she said.

Holley’s sentiment represents another thread at St. Paul’s: Participants agree that as they target a communal paradigm shift, working with the initiative has already affected them personally. “For this to mean anything, it has to be personal,” said Adams-Riley.

“I’m a Southerner, and I still am, in all the good and the bad,” said Armstrong. “(Notwithstanding) the brutality of slavery, I love Southern culture.” Nonetheless, she’s had “almost a transfiguration” regarding race. She recognizes it more, continues to learn and is increasingly dedicated to reconciliation, group to group, within herself and with God.

However reconciliation unfolds at St. Paul’s, Stauffer credits the church with courage and vision. “What they’re doing is setting a national precedent for how faith communities can work through racial reconciliation,” Stauffer said.

That this racial reconciliation has sprouted in the unlikeliest of places, in the Cathedral of the Confederacy, is never lost on Adams-Riley. Nor is the reality that that his forebears included slave owners and Confederate soldiers. “People who knew me growing up never would have expected that I would have been a part of this (kind of reconciliation),” he said.

Yet he is. And he’s certain that it is important work with a connection beyond anyone’s intellectual grasp. “It becomes about how we live our lives today, about the spirit doing deep soul work that leaves us living differently,” he said. “I say lead on, spirit, lead on.”

— Heather Beasley Doyle is a freelance journalist based in Massachusetts.

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