Removal of Robert E. Lee from church’s name was just start of healing for Virginia congregation

October 17, 2017
Grace Episcopal banner

Grace Episcopal Church’s new name is seen in a banner in front of the church in Lexington, Virginia, though a more official sign is still in the process of being replaced. Photo: Doug Cumming

[Episcopal News Service] Grace Episcopal Church in Lexington, Virginia, has begun growing into its new name. Its website homepage is updated.  The stationery is new. And perhaps more consequentially, the annual stewardship appeal has been sent to members under the new church name.

A month ago, the vestry voted to remove Robert E. Lee from the name of the church he once attended, changing it from R.E. Memorial Church back to its previous Grace. That move ended two years of sometimes tense debate over the Confederate general’s legacy, both as a prominent member of the congregation’s past and a symbol of racial hatred in contemporary America.

At least one couple has formally left the congregation in protest of the name change. At the same time, the congregation faces a change in leadership: The Rev. Tom Crittenden announced this month he plans to step down as rector after Nov. 5.

Despite the recent upheaval, some parish leaders who had disagreed over whether to remain as R.E. Lee Memorial now express a mutual desire to move forward together as Grace Episcopal.

“There’s still some hurt feelings, but [the congregation] seems to be pulling together,” senior warden Woody Sadler told Episcopal News Service this week by phone.

Sadler had long opposed the name change and voted against it Sept. 18, partly because the vestry hadn’t polled the full congregation.

The vestry’s 7-5 vote adopted a change recommended in April by a Discovery and Discernment Committee of vestry members and parishioners. A more recent and direct catalyst for the Lexington vestry’s decision was the Aug. 14 violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hate groups had gathered in Charlottesville to “unite the right” in support of a Lee statue that the city had slated for removal. Clashes with anti-racism counter-protesters left one of the counter-protesters dead.

Doug Cumming, one of the Lexington vestry members who supported removal of Lee from the church’s name, said he thinks resolving that issue last month has put the congregation on the path to spiritual renewal.

“We’re coming back together. We’re now in a period of real healing and reconciliation,” Cumming said in an interview with ENS, and he already senses that people who had shied away from the church during the debate over the name have started returning to Sunday services.

The changes have been difficult, though, for those who felt the congregation’s identity was closely tied to Lee.

“I think it just hurts some people so much to see the name changing and to see things happening so fast,” Cumming said.

As fast as change is coming, it is hardly complete. The website that advertises services at Grace Episcopal Church is still hosted on the domain releechurch.org. A new domain is in the works, Cumming said.

Lee Church sign

The sign in front of R.E. Lee Memorial Church in Lexington, Virginia. Photo: Doug Cumming

Grace is the name on the outdoor sign listing worship times and on a banner advertising an upcoming bazaar. But the main sign out front has not yet been replaced and still welcomes passersby to “R.E. Lee Memorial Church.” Cumming, as chair of the church’s History Committee, presented the lowest bid on a replacement sign to the vestry at its most recent meeting, Oct. 16. The cost will be $930.

Sadler said he signed off on that expense the following day. The new sign should be installed in a few weeks.

Deeper change in the congregation may take time and require more than a new name and sign. Crittenden is personally well liked, Cumming said, but his resignation reflected the congregation’s desire for new leadership as it looks to the future. Its Discovery and Discernment Committee’s report identified “a loss of confidence in the ability of the current rector to lead the parish forward.”

Diocese of Southwest Virginia Bishop Mark Bourlakas met with the congregation, vestry and Crittenden in the months leading up to Crittenden’s decision to resign, and Bourlakas plans to attend the November vestry meeting to discuss calling an interim rector while Grace recruits someone new to the role permanently.

The Discovery and Discernment Committee also singled out the vestry as part of the leadership “vacuum” in the congregation, including but not limited to its role in the debate over the church’s name. The committee recommended the vestry focus on coordinating its vision, mission and long-range planning and communicate better with parishioners.

The vestry will have several new faces leading those efforts starting in January. The congregation on Oct. 15 elected five new vestry members to the 12-member body, out of 10 people who were interested in serving, an unusually high number, Cumming said. (He was one of the vestry members who chose not to return when their terms expire at the end of this year.)

The new vestry members appear to support the name change, Cumming said, but it is more difficult to gauge the change’s effect on the larger congregation. Cumming sensed increased attendance since the name change, due to the return of families who had stopped attending. Sadler, on the other hand, said he hadn’t noticed Sunday attendance swell in the past month.

The Oct. 15 service was well attended, but it also was unique: The congregation combined its 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. services for a special joint service that will be repeated every three months.

“There’s a lot of reconciliation and healing that has to go on,” said Bourlakas, who had encouraged changing the church name. He told ENS he is pleased by the progress. “People seem to be trying to work together. I know it hasn’t pleased everybody but there seems to be some acceptance and voices for moving forward.”

Cumming, despite voting to remove Lee from the church name, doesn’t think the church is erasing history. His committee is discussing other ways of highlighting Lee’s historic role.

While serving in Lexington as president of Washington College, later renamed Washington and Lee University, the former Confederate general spent the last five years of his life, until his death in 1870, helping the struggling congregation survive. There is no record, however, of why the congregation chose to rename the church for Lee in 1903.

One suggestion received by the History Committee was to rename the parish hall after Lee, but Cumming said the committee also is looking for ways to highlight other historical figures’ ties to the church.

An interpretative historical marker might include info on Lee, but also on Jonathan Daniels, a civil rights worker who was killed in 1965 while saving the life of a black teenage girl. Daniels attended R.E. Lee Memorial Church while a student at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. He was class valedictorian when he graduated in 1961.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at [email protected]

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