In response to violent protests over the fate of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this year, a 244-year-old Episcopal church in Alexandria is planning to move a set of plaques honoring former parishioners Robert E. Lee and George Washington.
The plaques were hung on either side of the altar inside the church in 1870, shortly after Lee’s death. There had been discussions about relocating the plaques in the past, for reasons that include their lack of religious purpose.
“After the events in Charlottesville, those conversations came more to the forefront, they became more intense,” said Noelle York-Simmons, the Rector of Christ Church, a small colonial parish that was founded in 1773. “It became clear to the Vestry – the governing body of the Church – that we needed to take these conversations more seriously.”
Because the plaques were installed as a pair, they’re being removed as a pair as well.
Emily Bryan, Senior Warden of Christ Church, spoke to congregants about the decision to remove and relocate the plaques. In a copy of her speech obtained by CNN, Bryan told parishioners that “the plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome” but Bryan also added that the plaques “will stay very prominently be displayed, in a place that will better tell our history.”
A committee of parishioners will be formed soon and they’ll decide the new location of the plaques sometime in the summer of 2018.
In addition to the two plaques, there are other markers sprinkled throughout the church honoring Washington and Lee, including markers for parish donations and for the pews where they sat during times of worship. None of those other markers are to be moved, York-Simmons said. “People can come visit, can sit where great people have sat in prayer. We have no intention of wanting to erase history or change history or pretend that history didn’t happen. We’re proud of it.”
A large banner inside the church greets congregants with the words “All are welcome – no exceptions,” a message that was taken into consideration when deciding whether to relocate the marble plaques.
When asked if the decision caused any friction within the community, York-Simmons said that the discussions had been tough but that they brought the congregation closer.
“The community wants to be very clear that we are very proud of the history of our Parish,” she said.