FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE. Nov. 16, 2015
The lay governing body of Lexington, Va.’s historic Episcopal church voted 9-6 to remove the name R.E. Lee from the church’s name, falling one vote short of the super-majority of 10 it needed to make the change.
In concluding an emotional discussion that has animated the congregation for five months, the Vestry voted Monday by secret ballot while 33 parishioners silently observed. The 15-member Vestry had decided earlier that such a momentous decision needed the support of at least two-thirds of the Vestry.
While the vote leaves “R.E. Lee” in the name, the Vestry followed this vote with near-unanimous approval of adding “Episcopal” to the official name, and creating a new sign that displays that name and adds “Founded as Grace Church.”
The church was founded in 1840 mainly to provide Episcopal services for cadets at the newly establish Virginia Military Institute in the heavily-Presbyterian town of Lexington, Va. It was called Grace Church by the time Robert E. Lee arrived in Lexington in September 1865, the revered leader of a defeated Confederate army. Lee, who had agreed to be president of Washington College, joined Grace Church and was elected senior warden. He worshipped at the church and led the Vestry as senior warden until his death at age 63 in October 1870. He was also instrumental in the construction on the adjacent college campus of a chapel that became Lee Chapel, where Lee and members of his family are buried.
After Lee’s death, the church became “Grace Memorial Church,” and the college, a totally separate entity, was re-named Washington and Lee. In 1883, a larger church building, the current stone Gothic Revival structure at the corner of W. Washington Street and Lee Avenue, began holding services. In 1903, the Vestry re-named the church R.E. Lee Memorial, although no record can be found of reasons for this change or a debate over it. This year is the church’s 175th Anniversary, which was celebrated this month with a reception after an All Saint’s Day Choral Evensong service Nov. 1.
Off and on, members of the church have quietly discussed whether the name was inappropriate or misunderstood in the 21st century as the name for a church seeking to be, like all Christian churches, part of the “Body of Christ.” But loyalty to tradition and attachment to the name as an identity made the issue too emotional for an all-out debate – until this summer. Two weeks after the horrific fatal shooting of nine leaders of an African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, S.C., a member of R.E. Lee Memorial Church wrote a letter to the church rector, senior warden and junior warden saying she felt that, in the wake of the tragedy, it was “time for us to have a frank, Christ-centered discussion about the name that our church has borne since 1903.” The church leaders responded by presenting the issue to the Vestry in July, leading to months of discussion and discernment through forums, house meetings and a survey sent to all 390 active adult members of the church.
The Vestry had previously decided to respond to the question with a vote at its monthly meeting Nov. 16. It also decided that, because of the deeply felt and consequential weight of the decision, a name-change would require a super-majority of at least 10 votes on the 15-member Vestry.