George Washington was one of the founding members of Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, buying pew No. 5 when the church opened in 1773 and attending for more than two decades whenever he rode north from Mount Vernon to do business in town.
This weekend, the church announced it was pulling down a memorial plaque to its onetime vestryman and the country’s first president, saying he and another famous parishioner, Robert E. Lee, have become so controversial that they are chasing away would-be parishioners.
While acknowledging “friction” over the decision, the church’s leadership said both plaques, which are attached to the front 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 in a letter to the congregation that went out last week.
The decision was also announced to parishioners on Sunday.
The backlash was swift, with the church’s Facebook page turning into a battleground. Some supporters praised the church for a “courageous” stand, while critics compared leaders at the Episcopal church leaders to the Taliban or the Islamic State.
Church leaders said they debated for a long time, and the Rev. Noelle York-Simmons, the rector, said in an email to The Washington Times that the vote by the vestry was unanimous. The plaques will come down by next summer, when leadership determines another place for them.
For now, the Lee memorial, about the size of a grave marker, stands to the right of the altar, reading in gold lettering, “In Memory of Robert Edward Lee.” The Washington plaque to the left says: “In memory of George Washington.”
They were erected in 1870, just months after Lee’s death, and were a bit of a sensation at the time, earning mentions in newspapers from Massachusetts to San Francisco. The accounts said the memorials were paid for by subscription of citizens of Alexandria.
The church also has small metal markers on the Washington family pew and at the location where Lee was confirmed, but there is no other information or comment posted on the two men’s lives in the church.
Lack of other details was part of the problem for leaders, who said the memorials didn’t explain the two famous parishioners’ memorial presence.
“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.
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.
Lee attended Christ Church beginning at age 3, when he moved from Stratford to Alexandria. The church was 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, and neither did Ms. York-Simmons, the rector.
Instead, she emailed a brief statement saying the decision was 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 the 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.”
In recent years Lee monuments have been under scrutiny. Violence broke out in Charlottesville this year surrounding a Lee statue that 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 stained-glass window with an image of Lee.
Washington memorials had been spared such recriminations.
Christ Church, though, said the two men were inextricably linked in 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 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 have no plans to delete Washington from their church.