Lexington Episcopal Church Drops “R.E. Lee,” Becomes Grace Episcopal

Grade Episcopal Church

By a narrow vote of 7 to 5 of the church’s vestry, what was formerly known as R.E. Lee Memorial Church became Grace Episcopal,
the same church name of when Robert E. Lee was a parishoner there. The church became R.E. Lee Memorial in 1903.

By: Courtney Iverson, 1L
Staff Writer

On August 27th, fifteen days after the fateful protests in Charlottesville, Robert W. Lee IV, a young pastor and indirect descendant of his famous namesake, addressed a national audience on live TV. He proclaimed, “We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy… and as a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin.”  As we are all aware, the debate over Robert E. Lee and his legacy has been at the forefront of the national conscious for the last few months, spurred on by the cascade of controversies over monuments to the Confederacy. However, it is important to remember that Gen. Lee’s legacy is not simply one of controversy; it is also a deeply Christian legacy. Commentators often find it impossible to speak about Lee without referencing the steadfast commitment to his faith.

Gen. Lee’s religious devotion takes on a special significance for the parishioners of Grace Episcopal, the church where he worshiped and served during his time as President of Washington College. Until September of 2017, this church bore the name R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church. However, during the period when Gen. Lee was a parishioner and the parish’s senior warden, the church bore the name Grace Church. After Robert E. Lee’s death, the parish changed its name to Grace Memorial Church in his honor. It invoked Gen. Lee’s memory and connection to the parish in order to help raise funds for the new church building, a project that Lee had been actively involved with at the time of his death. It wasn’t until 1903, thirty-three years after Lee’s death, that the church renamed itself R.E. Memorial Church.

According to James Keane, the church’s chaplain to Washington and Lee and VMI, there was opposition to putting Lee’s name on the parish from the beginning. “This church was renamed over the objections of [Lee’s] sisters,” Keane state. “Their opinion was that he was a modest man who wouldn’t have wanted that done.” Yet, the church was renamed. Keane notes that at the time of the renaming, and for many decades afterward, no one thought that there was anything wrong with renaming the church in Lee’s honor. However, in more recent times, especially in the last decade, the parish community has grappled with the implicit difficulties that come with the name “R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church.”

In 2015, Dylann Roof’s racially motivated massacre in a South Carolina church created a national discussion about the intersection of race relations and places of worship. Here in Lexington, both church members and the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia brought that conversation to the forefront of local discussion. “Our current bishop, Mark Bourlakas, is very good at this type of conflict resolution” Chaplain Keane notes, “He came here multiple times, not to tell us that we should change the name, but to tell us that the current name was a roadblock to our parish and a roadblock to spreading the Word to the community.” 2015 was also the year that the church’s vestry took its first vote on whether the parish would revert to Grace Episcopal. That vote failed to get the majority needed to change the name.

Certainly, the events in Charlottesville accelerated any conversation concerning the potential “roadblock” effect of the name. After the riots, the parish released a statement that condemned the hateful rhetoric and violence “in the name of Christ” and stated that, as a parish, “We do not honor Lee as a Confederate.” Still, in midst of such prominent national discourse, the lurking conversation seemed more important than ever.

statue of Robert E. Lee

Pictured is the statute of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville that prompted protests in August.

The decision to change the parish’s name back to Grace Episcopal began with the parish vestry putting together a committee that worked with professional facilitators from Cooperative by Design, LLC. These facilitators utilize a Mennonite model of Christian pacifism that was developed at Eastern Mennonite University. The purpose of the committee was to promote “healing and reconciliation” in the wake of the deeply divisive argument and vote. The vestry then took a broad survey of parishioners in order to gauge whether the church community favored changing the name back to Grace Episcopal. One long time parish member, Elizabeth Harralson, told the Washington Post “It makes me sad. What I’m saddest about is that people don’t know our American history. [Lee has] come to represent one piece of who he was. And I think our church is named for a different piece of who he was.” Like many in the Lexington community, Ms. Harralson has struggled with finding a way to mark the difference between honoring Lee the church leader and educator, and honoring Lee the divisive Civil War figure. In the wake of Charlottesville, Ms. Harralson did change her stance on renaming the parish, stating, “We can’t provide any leadership or contribution to the conversation until the name of the church is changed.”

Approximately 100 church members participated in structured discussions under the banner of “Discovery & Discernment.” The general finding of these focus groups was that the community favored changing the name back to Grace Episcopal. Initially, the vestry rejected that finding. However, after a number of meetings, the vestry decided to reconsider the issue and take it to a vote again. The result of the final vote was 7 to 5 in favor of changing the church’s name to Grace Episcopal.

Unfortunately, the name change process and debate has created divides in the Grace community. Doug Cumming, a W&L journalism professor and vestry member in favor of the name change, told the Washington Post, “Some feel, the less said the better. That healing is a matter of being quiet. Others feel healing is a matter of facts and looking at the culture. We are all bringing different demons.” The name change also affected the parish by placing its vestry’s decision in the cross-hairs of national controversy. “We’ve received many phone calls. A few were congratulatory, most were not, and a number of them were abusive,” says Chaplain Keane, “Fortunately, most people have moved on.”

Categories: Features