This week the church announced it was pulling down a memorial to its one-time vestryman and the country’s first president, saying he and another famous parishioner, Robert E. Lee, have become too controversial and are chasing away would-be parishioners.
While acknowledging “friction” over the decision, the church’s leadership said the twin memorials, which are attached to the wall on either side of the altar, are relics of another era and have no business in a church that proclaims its motto as “All are welcome — no exceptions.”
“The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome. 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 leaders said.
A staffer at the church Friday said the decision was going to be announced to the church on Sunday.
For now the Lee memorial stands to the right of the altar and the Washington plaque to the left. The simple stone memorials, with gold-colored lettering, say: “In memory of George Washington.” and “In memory of Robert Edward Lee.”
The church also has small metal markers on the Washington family pew and the location where Lee was confirmed, but there is no other information or comment posted on the two men’s lives — and that’s part of the problem for the church, which signaled it fears commemoration without contextualization.
“Because the sanctuary is a worship space, not a museum, there is no appropriate way to inform visitors about the history of the plaques or to provide additional context except for the in-person tours provided by our docents,” the church leaders said.
They said the plaques will come down by next summer, but where they’ll end up is still being decided. The church also plans a new committee that will re-examine how the church tells its history.
It’s not clear that the church could divorce itself from Washington even if it wanted to. The website touts itself as “a church where George Washington worshipped,” and displays a picture of its famous patron.
As an original benefactor, Washington bought pew No. 5 when the church opened in 1773. He was a vestryman and contributed to the church throughout his life, according to the Washington Papers project. His family considered the church important enough to him that it donated one of his Bibles after his death.
Meanwhile Lee attended Christ Church beginning at age 3, when he moved from Stratford to Alexandria. The churchwas so integral to his family that Mary Custis Lee, his daughter, left the church $10,000 in her will upon her death in 1918. That money was used to begin the church’s endowment.
Church leaders did not say whether they will attempt to return the $10,000 gift from Lee’s daughter.
The church’s senior and junior wardens didn’t answer questions about the decision, referring back to the main church office.
The Rev. Noelle York-Simmons, rector of the church, said the decision was made by “unanimous vote” of the vestry.
“The new display location will be determined by a parish committee. That location will provide a place for our parish to offer a fuller narrative of our rich history, including the influence of these two powerful men on our church and our country,” she said in an email. “We look forward to this opportunity to continue to learn more about our own history and find new ways to introduce it to the wider community.”
The Lee and Washington families’ histories were intertwined with each other. Lee married Washington’s step-great granddaughter, Mary Custis.
And the two memorials at the church were erected at the same time in 1870, just months after Lee’s death. City residents paid for the memorials by subscription, and the placement of the plaques was momentous enough to merit coverage in newspapers from Massachusetts to San Francisco.
In recent years Lee monuments have been under scrutiny, with violence breaking out in Charlottesville earlier this year surrounding a Lee statue the city is trying to take down.
In the wake of those clashes, a church Lee attended in Lexington, Virginia, where he spent his last years, voted to change its name from R.E. Lee Memorial Church to Grace Episcopal Church.
And the Washington National Cathedral removed a stain glass window with an image of Lee.
Washington memorials had been spared such recriminations.
Christ Church, though, said the two men are inextricably linked in their history, and had to be considered together, since they were erected together and visually balance each other.
In their letter to parishioners the church’s leadership praised Washington as “the visionary who not only refused to be king but also gave up power after eight years, and a symbol of our democracy.” Lee, meanwhile, was described in less glowing terms, as a longtime parishioner who for some “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 leaders wrote.
Despite his generosity to Christ Church, Washington was a more regular attendant at Pohick Church, which stands south of Mount Vernon. A staffer at Pohick said they aren’t considering removing their connections to Washingtonfrom their church.