Five Lessons & Carols for Southern Liberals

(This essay first ran in the website “Like the Dew: A Progressive Journal of Southern Culture & Politics,” Dec. 8, 2019)

The word has gone forth. Our historic Episcopal church has done what many thought was impossible – we got rid of the name that the church had borne since 1903, R.E. Lee Memorial Church.

Confederate shadow

Photo from Hillsville, Va., by Doug Cumming

After the slaughter in a black Charleston church in 2015 and the neo-Nazi violence of Charlottesville in 2017, we finally replaced a Confederate symbol, Robert E. Lee, with the original name that Lee himself knew when he saved the war-shaken parish in his final years in Lexington, Virginia – “Grace.”

Now, after an interim rector oversaw two years of “healing” and a new rector has arrived, my church finally has a future as well as a past. The Bishop of the Diocese of Southwest Virginia sent praises for our spiritual journey out of a “time of trial in the life of the parish.” A letter from the national Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, the cool preacher whose sermon went viral from the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, said it all: “God has been at work in Lexington.”

When I was in the middle of this “time of trial,” between the rise of Donald Trump and the end of his first year in office, I wasn’t the only member of the parish who was struck by the parallels between our church’s divisions and America’s. Old-guard defenders of keeping the “Lee” name formed an unmovable “base,” and a significant number of parish leaders, like today’s elected Republicans, would not deviate from the base. They finally admitted, okay, maybe we’ll change the name someday, but not now. It would be mere “political correctness,” disrespectful of a great military hero and Christian gentleman, they said.

As Congress moves inexorably, painfully, through the Constitutional process of impeaching the President, I am remembering lessons I learned from this parochial name-change experience. The lessons seem relevant. But I can’t be sure, since no one in our church wants to talk about what we went through. “Healing,” apparently, means silence. So this is for you outsiders, my “Five Lessons and Carols” in this Advent season.

One, taking time is nice, but doesn’t change many minds. The Charleston, S.C., shooting triggered a call for a “Christ-centered” discussion of our name. I agreed, as a member of the elected governing body, the Vestry, that we shouldn’t rush. We opted for many house meetings, and then promised a Vestry vote that would require two-thirds to change the name.

Grace signI was among those who felt the congregation should have time to process the controversy and be listened to. As a mass media professor, I was influenced by pollster Daniel Yankelovich’s book Coming to Public Judgment. That book optimistically describes how people process controversies over time, opening up new understandings and giving all opinions due respect. This un-hurried process doesn’t necessarily yield agreement, Yankelovich says, but it does lead to “public judgment,” a feeling that the matter is settled and we can move on.

This, it turned out, was wrong. At the end of 2016, nine out of 15 vestry members voted to change the name, one vote short of the super-majority. Nothing felt settled. Everybody was mad. Families left.

Then we tried another time-consuming – and expensive – process simply to repair the damage. A pair of consultants guided an ad hoc church committee for nine months to issue a beautiful 15-page report recommending nuances of compromise, including (to much shock and surprise) restoring the historic name of “Grace Episcopal Church.” The vestry split again, worse than before. More “no-change” old-guard had been voted onto the vestry (beware of backlash in 2020!). Then Charlottesville happened, and the gulf widened. With each side dug in, we barely passed the name-change, this time by a simple majority, and a two-vote margin.

Two, for opponents of change, “the right time” is never. Early on, many wanted to end the discussion with a congregation-wide vote. That’s not Episcopal governance. We distributed a survey instead. Opponents of change took the results as a vote – two-thirds against a name-change. The people had spoken, they said, and the vestry shouldn’t overturn the will of the people.

After Charlottesville, which was about the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee 70 miles to our northwest, the problem with being R.E. Lee Memorial Church rattled us again. But the old-guard felt it was not the right time – since “our” Lee was not the general on horseback but the church’s former senior warden. Yes, we’ll change our name at some point, they said, but not now. One vestry member was so appalled at that, she resigned.

Three, niceness isn’t enough. I have a friend, a former Democratic operative and Obama administration official, who is finishing a how-to book for political liberals that seeks to extol the wisdom of Machiavelli. “Being Good Isn’t Enough,” she plans to title it, quoting “The Prince.”

I found myself slowly giving up on attempts to be gently persuasive – listening, praying, praising the good will of all sides – and instead, started counting potential votes. I found myself being Machiavellian, I confess. Some, recognizing that, saw me as the Enemy. I came to see my many opportunistic saves, barely keeping a name-change possible at a half-dozen key times, as miracles. It must have been the Holy Spirit. Machiavelli, intensely anti-church, is under-appreciated as a good Protestant realist. Nancy Pelosi, a good Catholic, likewise.

Four, understand tribal identity. You may think that it’s enough to stand on transcendent ideals like the Constitution or the rule of law – or God.  But we’re in an age of identity. Even an Episcopal church, spiritually led by bishops and declaring a gospel to the wider world, will close up like a tree-house boys’ club when the wider world has a different view of its name. If you don’t like it, you can leave, some actually said. Belonging to a church, or a political party, has become more determining of position than any of the institutional beliefs supposedly held by that church or party.

Five, after the change, don’t look back. After the name change, the hurt was much deeper than I anticipated. Not that this was the cause, but one of the most influential leaders of no-change resigned from the vestry and checked into Stonewall Jackson Memorial Hospital and another was struck by cancer. Our interim rector, charged with “healing,” brought in a couple of monks for a day-long workshop on reconciliation, and it worked like a dud. After a powerful sermon on reconciliation, one old-timer came up to me in tears and apologized. But no one else has said a word to me about “the late unpleasantness,” as one Sons of Confederate Veterans widow calls it.

Good things have been happening at Grace Episcopal Church. Our new music director has brought in African drums, college musicians and cool new songs we’ve all learned. An international conference on peace and reconciliation in South Sudan was hosted by Grace Episcopal in September. Our new rector, the Rev. Ellis Tucker “Tuck” Bowerfind, was the Virginia diocese’s co-chair of a committee on race and reconciliation.

None of this would have happened at “R.E. Lee Memorial Church” at this time in history. And yet, no one wants to tell the story of how we changed. When the local weekly paper asked me to cover the South Sudan conference, a reference I made to this history was sugar-coated, pre-publication, by a call from the church to the editor, when the church couldn’t reach me (this is how small-town journalism works sometimes).

I’m telling you this story, because I think it’s a good one. But I’ve accepted that I can’t tell it in my church community. That’s my penance. And if the Democrats don’t blow it, I for one don’t intend to gloat or rub it in. This is my Christmas carol: the future is good; blame is not.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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