By Anna Akins
A historic Lexington church will keep R.E. Lee in its name, following a narrow vote on Monday.
In a 9-6 vote by secret ballot, the vestry fell one vote short of the super-majority that was needed to make the change. The 15-member vestry decided that the name change needed the support of at least two-thirds of the vestry.
While the vestry didn’t approve the name change, it unanimously agreed to add the word “Episcopal” to the church’s name and to create a sign showing that name with the addition, “Founded as Grace Church.”
Debates over changing the name developed after church member Holly Pickett sent a letter to church leaders in June. Pickett is an English professor at Washington and Lee.
Pickett’s letter came a few weeks after the fatal shooting of nine leaders at an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Her letter said that the tragedy should inspire honest discussions about whether the church’s name accurately represents its mission.
The issue was then presented to the vestry in July, which agreed to consider the possibility of a name change. The vestry then hosted church-wide discussions and sent a survey to all active church members.
Nearly three-fourths of parishioners responded to the survey, and of that number, 92 percent said a vote should be taken, either to change the name or keep it the same. The remaining eight percent didn’t have a strong opinion either way.
According to the Rev. Tom Crittenden, the church rector, discussions to change the church’s name are not new. He said that the shooting of an African American man in Ferguson, Mo. last fall prompted informal discussions.
“The question of social justice was in the air and people started bringing up the name,” he said. “It’s come up several times.”
Crittenden said that opinions on the issue have varied. Proponents of the name change claimed that Lee’s name might prevent outsiders from visiting the church. They also said that Episcopal churches are often named after saints, not Confederate generals.
“The concern was [about] what the name means for a person outside the church,” Crittenden said.
Opponents of the name change defend Lee as one who embodied the Christian values of reconciliation and humility in his postwar efforts to rebuild the nation.
They also said that a name change would dishonor Lee and they accused name change proponents of allowing political correctness to influence their views.
The church was founded in 1840 as Grace Church and then was named after Lee in 1903. Crittenden said that there is no clear record of why the church was named after Lee.
Lee joined the church in 1865 and served as senior warden until his death at age 63 in October 1870. After his death, the church was named “Grace Memorial Church.”
Church leaders expressed hope in the future of the church in the wake of the decision on Monday.
“We expect to move forward and reconcile any differences parish members might have,” said Jim Farrar, senior warden of the church.
In a statement, Bishop Mark A. Bourlakas of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia applauded the work that leaders of R.E. Lee Memorial Church have done to address the issue of racial justice.
“I am thankful that many courageous leaders of our Episcopal church in Lexington were willing to take up and lead a respectful discussion of this sensitive issue,” he said.
But he said that much work is still needed in the area of racial reconciliation.