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Christ Church decision provokes significant response from inside – and outside – community

Posted on Nov 10,2017
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Christ Church is a longtime fixture in Old Town, dating back to 1773 (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

By Alexa Epitropoulos

ALEXANDRIA, VA. - Christ Church’s decision to relocate plaques honoring two of its most famous members, George Washington and Robert E. Lee, from its worship space no later than summer 2018 went viral over the weekend, earning headlines of varying tones from the Washington Post, Washington Times, CNN, National Review and a variety of blogs and websites.

The historic Episcopal church, located prominently on Old Town’s main corridor, announced the decision in an email to congregation members on Oct. 26 after members of its vestry voted unanimously to relocate the plaques.

The church began considering the issue in the summer; seven listening sessions and many one-on-one conversations with parishioners were held in September.

The church said the decision to remove the plaques, which were erected in 1870 following the Civil War, was an effort to make visitors to the church feel more welcome, saying in the email, “… some visitors and guests who worship with us choose not to return because they receive an unintended message from the prominent presence of the plaques.”

The church also cited the evolving understanding of the legacy of slavery and the Confederacy in its decision.

“We understand that both Washington and Lee lived in times much different than our own, and that each man, in addition to his public persona, was a complicated human being, and like all of us, a child of God,” the email read. “Today, the legacy of slavery and of the Confederacy is understood differently than it was in 1870. For some, Lee symbolizes the attempt to overthrow the Union and to preserve slavery. Today our country is trying once again to come to grips with the history of slavery and the subsequent disenfranchisement of people of color.”

The letter said they considered the Washington and Lee plaques together due to their being erected at the same time. While the email detailed the problematic legacy of Lee, it went into less detail about Washington, saying only that the plaques “visually balance each other, maintaining the symmetry of our sanctuary.” The email also referenced a sign that has long hung in front of Christ Church.

“Many in our congregation feel a strong need for the church to stand clearly on the side of ‘All are welcome – no exceptions,’” the email read.

The email, in addition, said the plaques are a “distraction in our worship space” and “create an obstacle to our identity as a welcoming church, and an impediment to our growth and to full community with our neighbors.”

Christ Church’s decision arrives during a period of fierce debate surrounding memorials honoring members of the Confederacy. The Confederacy’s legacy has been particularly contentious in Virginia, once home to the Confederate capitol in Richmond. Charlottesville, Virginia, just two and a half hours from Alexandria, played host to an August rally that saw white supremacists and counter-protestors clash over removal of its Lee statue. One counter-protestor was killed.

The issue has also provoked controversy in Alexandria. Last year, council voted to relocate the city’s prominent statue of a lone Confederate soldier, called the Appomattox – a move that the Virginia General Assembly denied. City police then erected surveillance cameras to protect the statue from possible vandalism.

Portraits of Washington and Lee that have long hung in city council chambers were also temporarily removed earlier this year due to construction on city hall, according to city spokesperson Craig Fifer. Fifer said the Washington portrait has since been rehung in the chambers, but the Lee portrait has been moved to the Lyceum.

Given that background, it’s not surprising that Christ Church’s decision to remove the plaques has drawn national media coverage as well as outrage from many.

Washington, in particular, has long been associated with Christ Church’s identity.
He frequently attended the church and owned a pew there.

Noelle York-Simmons, Christ Church’s rector of one year, said the conversation about the plaques has been ongoing. York-Simmons said she first heard about possibly removing the plaques when she interviewed for the job.

“I knew when I got here that at some point we’d be having a more intense and direct conversation about the plaques,” York-Simmons said. “I thought it would be a little longer from now, but when Charlottesville happened, the vestry had their meeting in August and realized it was time to address this in a more intense and in a more purposeful way.” What followed, York-Simmons said, was a month-long process of listening sessions, which allowed members of the congregation to ask questions. She said the main question the church sought to answer was “how do we feel about the plaques?” The deliberation process also included one-on-one meetings with members of the congregation, reading numerous emails and, finally, a period of discernment for the vestry.

Before the vote, she said, the vestry and the clergy continued to take calls and emails, and did their own research to better understand how the “plaques got there, their importance architecturally and symbolically.”

York-Simmons said she didn’t have a sense of how many in the congregation were against the move versus those who were for it.

“We didn’t really break it down that way. What we did was a lot of listening, we worked hard to make sure everyone who had an opinion could be heard and then we were able to take it into account,” York-Simmons said.

“The vestry’s vote was unanimous and the vestry voted from what they heard.” In terms of the reaction, she said there’s a difference in how people inside the church and Alexandria feel and those who are not local. She said those who were upset about the decision “haven’t been reading the full extent of our statement.” She said, for those who have been through the process, the reaction is different.

She said the congregation has differing opinions, but that they are committed to going through the process together.

“The congregation is hanging together very well. We’re not of one mind – there’s 1,800 of us … We’re also committed to working through this together. Congregations go through change,” York-Simmons said. “This is another manifestation of change. Conversations aren’t always easy, but, within the congregation, they’ve also been full of candor and gentleness.”

She said she did not anticipate the scale and tone of the response.

“Personally, I was surprised. I knew we would get some reaction, but didn’t know it would

be quite so widespread and vehement,” York-Simmons said. “The community has been talking about this for a long time. The community has been understanding and it’s been informed the whole time. People are weighing in heavily.”

Ultimately, she said, the decision wasn’t made easily – but it was made with much consideration and conversation.

“Our church community has worked very hard to come to this decision. We’ve done it prayerfully, we’ve done it carefully, we’ve done it in a way that reflects our own values as a Christian, worshiping community,” she said.

A longtime member of Christ Church’s congregation, Andrea McNicholas, agreed with Christ Church’s decision, saying it’s a step in the right direction.

“I think that it’s part of our history, but I think the plans that the church has to put them in a different place will put them in context,” McNicholas said. “… Our church really wanted to laud and mourn Robert E. Lee. It was so moved by his death and in grief, they wanted to put these plaques up two months after his death. I think that’s something that should be noted.”

McNicholas said relocating the plaques wouldn’t fix everything that occurred in Christ Church’s history, but that it’s a start.

“Even when we move them, it will be a step, but it doesn’t resolve us from having to confront our issues of white privilege and everything else,” she said.

Many outside the church have taken the decision as a slight to the first president’s legacy. Though Mayor Allison Silberberg said Christ Church had the right to make the decision, she said Washington should be recognized for his service.

“This was a decision made by the church and its leadership, so, as mayor, I can’t tell them what to do, but I can say that, personally and speaking for myself and from my
own heart, I think we need to remember that George Washington is a hero, who put his own life, fortune and family name at great risk so that this great nation could be formed,” Silberberg said.

Historian Gary Eyler, who owns the Old Colony Shop on North Washington Street, has a personal connection to the issue, having discovered a receipt of the sale of Washington’s pew at the church. Eyler once attended the church and, decades ago, he and his wife went through pre-marriage counseling through the parish.

Eyler said the church and Washington’s legacy are deeply intertwined.

“You go to Christ Church because it was George Washington’s church. You feel a
spiritual connection being there because the sense of place has meaning,” Eyler said. “It’s like going to the Ford Theater to watch a play there. You just sit in the theater, and while you’re sitting, you can say ‘that’s where Lincoln was shot.’ You don’t condone it, but you appreciate it. You get a sense of being and place.”

He also said that, regardless of one’s feelings about Washington or Lee, the plaques provide historical context that, otherwise, would be lost.

“In order to explain progress – and we have progressed in Virginia, where 360 [Civil War] battles were fought – you need that,” Eyler said. “There’s only a few Confederate statues in this area. If it’s a statue of [Ku Klux Klan founder] Nathan Bedford Forrest, I understand that. But a statue of a military leader is different from the standpoint that these guys showed courage when other men didn’t, especially when bullets and bombs are blowing up around you.”

Eyler said he was surprised at Christ Church’s decision, and that it was “a slap in the face” to the legacy of Washington.

“They took the foundation and the heritage of the church and put it in a closet,” Eyler said.

Ellen Tabb, a former member of Christ Church’s congregation, also was shocked
by the decision. Tabb’s parents began attending Christ Church in 1941 and she has memories of the church from her childhood. She left the church in 2003 due to disagreements with the larger Episcopal Church.

“My father was an integral part of the church and was very interested in history.
We used to joke that he was either out working on the car or at Christ Church. He was a … warden at the church,” Tabb said.

Tabb herself was a member of the junior choir and was confirmed there. Though she moved out of Alexandria for a decade, she returned to the church upon her return to the area.

“If anyone is afraid because of a plaque on the wall, I feel sorry for them,” Tabb said. “There are markers throughout the church. On the communion rail, there’s a small silver marker where Lee knelt to be confirmed. What more does one really need to know about it? That’s self-explanatory. The signs say ‘in memory of.’ I think that’s pretty clear.”

Tabb, who has also served on the George Washington Birthday Celebration Committee for six years, said Christ Church is dishonoring Washington’s legacy.

“This is a national patrimony. It’s not just [for] Christ Church’s congregation,” Tabb said. “Christ Church’s congregation is the steward of a national treasure and for them to trash it is offensive.”

It’s not clear what impact Christ Church’s decision will have, if any, on tourism to the city. The historic church, which dates back to 1773, is a frequently visited site for tourists, particularly due to its hundreds of years of history and famous members.

Christ Church announced in its email to members of the congregation that a new home would be considered for the plaques, which would provide needed context. A committee will discuss new options, but plans for the relocation won’t be announced until April.

Patricia Washington, president and CEO of Visit Alexandria, the city’s tourism organization, said in a statement that the decision should have minimal effect on the visitor experience at Christ Church.

“Alexandria’s history is a vital part of our nation’s narrative. We are fortunate to have a wealth of historic sites and tours that offer a broad look at our history, in context and in an inclusive, evolving way,” Washington said in the statement. “As an independent organization, Christ Church makes its own decisions regarding how they choose to display and interpret their artifacts. While the focus of media coverage has been on the relocation of the two marble markers from near the altar to a different public location on campus, we understand that the visitor experience at Christ Church will change very little, with other historical markers remaining in place.”

The email from Christ Church details a path forward, which it describes as a parish-wide process for finding a new home for the plaques. It also notes, in its text, that “this decision is a beginning, not an end.” A public forum will be held on Nov. 5 with members of the vestry. The newsletter said the vestry will create three new committees composed of parishioners to decide how to tell Christ Church’s story.

The first committee will consider options for relocating the plaques. The second will explore ways to “better define” how Christ Church tells its story, including the story of famous parishioners that include not just Washington and Lee, but also figures like David Griffith, Armistead Boothe, Sallie Stuart and Henry and Trudye Fowler.

The third will explore locations to “tell our story across the entire campus.” All three committees are slated to launch in January 2018, and the committee dealing with the relocation of plaques will recommend a course of action by April 15, 2018.

The newsletter said the plaques wouldn’t be removed to a storage area, but, rather, to a “place of respectful [prominence], where they will be fully visible to parishioners and tourists alike.”

The work of the committees, the email said, will result in a recommendation to the vestry for “changes to how we interpret our history across the campus, which could include a museum or interpretive center.”

Though York-Simmons did not elaborate on the process, she said the community would be eagerly moving forward.

“We’re looking forward to finding ways we can expand on that history, continuing to honor the legacy of Christ Church that it’s held for 244 years,” York-Simmons said. “We want to show it in a context that is full and open and available to anyone who’s interested in finding it.”

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