Leaders of R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington voted Monday evening to change the parish’s name to Grace Episcopal Church – what it was originally called when the Confederate general moved to town after the Civil War and joined the congregation.
The decision concludes a quiet, two-year debate among congregants over whether it’s appropriate for a Christian institution that aims to welcome all to carry a name that memorializes a man best known for fighting a war to preserve the institution of slavery.
“It’s been a very divisive issue for two years,” said the Rev. Tom Crittenden, the church’s rector. “But Charlottesville seems to have moved us to this point. Not that we have a different view of Lee historically in our church, but we have appreciation for our need to move on.”
The discussion was not easy, dividing congregants and prompting a vestry member and the church’s treasurer to resign their leadership posts in protest of initial inaction.
“People have left the church,” said vestry member Doug Cumming after the body’s 7-5 vote, which followed a parish meeting where members on both sides of the issue spoke. “People have felt exhausted by it. And many people have felt hurt.
“He was the senior warden of our church, we’re proud of that, it’s part of our history, but we’re not going to put that on a sign out on the street because it’s misunderstood.”
According to a report released by the church earlier this year, those in favor of keeping the name wanted to avoid a “knee-jerk reaction to the present cultural environment” and show that “Lee continues to be respected and honored by this congregation.”
They cited his reputation as a post-war unifier whose character is deeper and more multifaceted than both his role leading Southern troops and the recent, prominent embrace of Confederate imagery by white supremacists.
His plaudits hit close to home for the congregation and the town. He moved to Lexington in 1865 to lead Washington College, which he is credited with saving and – now called Washington and Lee University – also carries his name.
Like the school, Grace Episcopal was struggling after the war. Lee joined and was elected senior warden, serving in the position for five years until his death in 1870. He is remembered for restoring stability at a difficult time for the congregation. The vestry voted to change the church’s name to R.E. Lee Memorial in 1903.
Those who wanted to see the church’s name changed back argued that “Lee’s name has become divisive in the church and in the larger society, and has become a liability to the church’s reputation.” They advocated “that the name be welcoming to all and that it not limit (the church’s) ability to grow.”
Prompted by a letter from a parishioner, discussions began in 2015 after Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who embraced Confederate imagery, shot and killed nine people during a bible study at a black church in Charleston, S.C.
But a majority of members of the vestry voted against a change at the time. Later they hired a conflict resolution consultant at a cost of $16,000, which led to the formation of a committee.
A report the committee issued in April made a host of recommendations, including changing the church’s name back to Grace Episcopal Church while finding other ways to honor Lee within the church.
“For some people in the congregation and Lexington community, the name as part of the identity of the church is a source of pride,” the report says. “For others in the congregation and community, it is an embarrassment.”
The vestry, however, did not fully embrace the recommendation, instead voting to potentially take up the issue at an unspecified point in the future.
The events in Charlottesville, however, led church leaders to reconsider.
Last month, the vestry issued a statement objecting “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.”
After Monday’s vote, Cumming said he’s hopeful parties on all sides of the debate within the parish will be able to come together and move forward.
“My ancestors were very proud, brave and articulate southerners, and like Robert E. Lee, I think they’d be very proud over what our church has done tonight,” he said.
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