Lexington Church Named After R.E. Lee Changes Its Name

Sep 20, 2017

The church where Confederate General Robert E. Lee attended during his time in Lexington will no longer bear his name, as of a vote Monday night by the vestry of R. E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church -- or, Grace Episcopal Church, as it is now called. WMRA's Faith Pinho has the story.

The decision to change the church’s name comes in the wake of the white supremacist and southern heritage rally in Charlottesville last month. Several congregation members filling the church’s parish hall for the vestry meeting cited the Charlottesville events as their reason for supporting the name change.

A few in the audience opposed it, saying the church should not make any decisions that are reactionary. The judgment ultimately went to the vestry, who voted seven to five to change the name.

Keith Gibson, Executive Director of the Virginia Military Institute’s Museum System, voted on the vestry in favor of the change. He called himself Lee’s “greatest admirer” but said that the general himself would not have wanted the church named after him.

KEITH GIBSON: Our name might be an obstacle for those who wish to attend here. We’ve looked at many different options to that. … Now we can move forward and all worship in the church with a name that Robert E. Lee himself worshiped in.

The new name harks back to what the church was called when Lee served as senior warden in the 1860s: Grace Church. The name was changed in honor of Lee 33 years after his death in 1870 -- and then again last night.

The first time the church voted on this issue was two years ago, following the white supremacist attack that killed nine people at an African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Anne Hansen, a member of the committee that wrote the resolution voted on yesterday, said the name change has been a topic of controversy ever since.

ANNE HANSEN: The whole thing came up as a result of the fallout the first time we went through the question of changing the name, and there was a lot of unhappiness in the parish and the feeling that that issue had really torn us apart.

According to Hansen, several people on both sides of the issue have left the parish in the last two years as a result.

HANSEN: I think initially when a lot of people moved on, it was clearly because of the name. And then there’s been a lot of people leaving just because of the rancor in the church.

Peter Fyfe, a long-time member of the congregation, said he wanted to keep the name -- but ultimately, just wanted to see the church get back to normal.

PETER FYFE: I just think this has been very, very disruptive. People have not behaved like good Christians. Love thy neighbor, you know. Politically, I’m liberal but on this, I actually don’t think it’s a good idea. I would not leave the church over it.

Part of the resolution that was approved last night included a clause that the church would do something else to honor Lee’s contribution to his parish, such as putting up a historical marker or renaming the basement parish hall.

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