At the landmark church sometimes referred to as the Cathedral of the Confederacy during the Civil War and its aftermath, the issue of memorials and imagery is prompting self-examination by congregants and clergy.
About 100 members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church downtown participated in the second of two conversations about the Confederate symbols after their worship service Sunday.
The discussions, which are far from conclusive at this point, were sparked by the racially motivated massacre of nine black churchgoers June 17 in Charleston, S.C., said St. Paul’s rector, the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley.
“I simply felt called to raise the question for our congregation,” Adams-Riley said. “Following that dark and terrible crime, does that present us with a changed perspective? Is there something being asked of us?
“I quickly got a lot of positive response from the congregation, and so we moved to make plans,” he said.
The church began by conducting an inventory of its Confederate references and symbols, which included 17 plaques, four stained-glass windows and cross-stitched kneelers at the altar. A handful of those plaques, along with the kneelers, contain images of the Confederate flag.
Situated on Grace Street across from Capitol Square, the church’s parishioners included numerous officials of the Confederate government during the war. Among them were Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Robert E. Lee. Davis was attending a service at the church when he received word that Richmond’s fall was imminent.
Both men are memorialized in stained-glass windows. One window depicts Lee as Moses, “in the attire of a prince turning away from the house of Pharaoh and dropping his wand of office,” according to a church history, “Windows of Grace, A Tribute of Love.” The book says the window is a reference to Lee’s decision to turn down an offer to command the Union forces.
Davis is portrayed in chains as St. Paul before King Herod Agrippa. “This biblical event alludes to Jefferson Davis’ own two-year imprisonment following the Civil War,” according to the book.
St. Paul’s is far from the only church addressing questions about Confederate imagery and references in the aftermath of Charleston.
At the end of June, the dean of the Washington National Cathedral called for the removal of two stained-glass windows honoring Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Both include an image of the Confederate battle flag.
“It is time to take those windows out,” the Rev. Gary Hall said in a statement. “Here, in 2015, we know that celebrating the lives of these two men, and the flag under which they fought, promotes neither healing nor reconciliation, especially for our African-American sisters and brothers.”
R.E. Lee Memorial Church, an Episcopal church in Lexington, held two forums this month to discuss whether it should change its name. The church, where Lee attended and was a member of the vestry, took his name in 1903. The question of whether the church should change its name has come up at multiple points prior to the Charleston massacre, according to a list of frequently asked questions prepared by the church.
James Farrar, a warden at the church, said the conversations are centering on “who we are as a parish and what we want to be in the future.”
He declined to discuss how the congregation plans to proceed. “I’m sure you can understand that we choose to keep the conversation within the parish,” he said in an email.
Similarly, the St. Paul’s conversations were closed to the media.
Mencer Donahue Edwards, a professional facilitator brought in by the church, said it’s too early to draw any conclusions from the comments that were shared Sunday and at the prior meeting on Aug. 2.
He said a summary will be made available to the church’s vestry, which will discuss how to proceed at a meeting next month.
“This was literally a curtain raiser and an invitation,” Edwards said. “But the invitation to what is something we still have to talk about.”
PHOTOS: St. Paul's stained glass windows have Confederate history
Congregants and clergy of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Richmond met Sunday to discuss what to do with Confederate memorabilia built into the church, including stained glass windows with references to Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.