Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s church decides to keep its name despite renewed debate on racism

08 September 2017

LEE MEMORIAL CHURCH

A CHURCH named after the Confederate general Robert E. Lee has retained its name, amid renewed debate about the future of memorials to Confederate leaders.

At a meeting last month of the Vestry of the R. E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Virginia, members unanimously approved a statement that describes General Lee as a man “widely admired in both the North and the South as a man of virtue and honor”.

The statement begins with a condemnation of racism: “[We] Deplore in the name of Christ white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and racism in all its forms. We denounce the violence committed in word and deed against our brothers and sisters in Charlottesville.”

It goes on to “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. 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.”

Standing down: the Revd Robert W. Lee IV, a descendant of General Lee, announced that he was stepping down as pastor of Bethany United Church of Christ in North Carolina, after comments he made at the MTV Music Awards received a negative reaction

It recognises that General Lee has “become a touchstone for controversy and misunderstanding and a rallying symbol for hate groups. We acknowledge that the best hope for Lee is the gospel of grace, through which we are all forgiven sinners.”

The Washington Post has reported that “several” of the 13 vestry members were opposed to a change. But Anne Hansen, who helped write the statement, resigned from the vestry afterward, upset that there has been no promise to continue the conversation about changing the name.

The Bishop of Southwestern Virginia, the Rt Revd Mark Bourlakas, told the Episcopal News Service: “The name has become not only a distraction to their gospel mission, but . . . it’s dividing parishioners and causing all kinds of rancour. My priority is to heal the congregation, and I don’t believe that that healing can occur while the name stays the same.”

The church, which dates from 1840, was first known as Latimer Parish, before a building was dedicated as Grace Church in 1844. General Lee joined the congregation in 1865 after the Civil War. He became senior warden. After he died, the church was renamed Grace Memorial Church. The current name dates from 1903.

This week, the Revd Robert W. Lee IV, a descendant of General Lee, announced that he was stepping down as pastor of Bethany United Church of Christ in North Carolina, after negative reactions to comments he made during the MTV Video Music Awards, last month. “We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism and hate,” he said at the Awards. “As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin.”

On Monday, he said that a “fraction” of church members had been “concerned” about his actions, and that others were “uncomfortable with the attention the church was receiving. The church’s reaction was deeply hurtful to me.”

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