For You We’ll Make an Exception

George Washington will be booted from the church he helped to found in Alexandria, Virginia.

To understand what’s happening, we have to go back more than 100 years.

In 1870, the clergy and communicants of Christ Church, an Episcopal congregation in Alexandria, commissioned two memorial tablets as tributes to the church’s two most famous parishioners, George Washington and Robert E. Lee. They were installed on either side of the altar, where they have been ever since.

Washington was one of the founders of the parish back in 1773. He served as a vestryman (members of the congregation who help the clergy administer the parish), and he bought a pew, so if business took him to Alexandria over a weekend, he’d have reserved seating in the church. As for Lee, since he was three years old, he was a regular parishioner of Christ Church and was confirmed there. The link between the Lee family and Christ Church remained strong even after Robert died — in 1918, his daughter, Mary Custis Lee, left Christ Church a bequest of $10,000, which was used as seed money for the church’s endowment. Washington Times reporter Stephen Dinan could not get an answer from church leaders whether the parish plans to return the bequest to the Lee family.

Now, Christ Church has taken as its motto, “All are welcome — no exceptions.” Which is an admirable sentiment, and I mean that sincerely. And in that spirit the current congregation has decided to take down the Washington and Lee memorials. Given the current climate, you can guess why the tablets have become a problem — Washington and Lee were both slaveowners.

So much has been written about Lee over the last few months that I can’t bring myself to rehash the arguments. But Washington’s case is interesting. In his will he declared that all his slaves should be freed after Martha’s death. (He assumed she would outlive him, and she did.) As for Martha, she didn’t put off that bequest, but freed the slaves shortly after George died.

As for the memorials, parishioners received a letter from church leaders that said, “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.”

“Unsafe” seems a bit extreme. Would the individuals who feel unsafe seeing Washington’s name also feel endangered when handling a quarter or a dollar bill?

In an email to the Washington Times, Rector Noelle York-Simmons said that the members of the vestry voted unanimously to take down the Washington and Lee memorials. They’ll be gone by next summer, when they will be installed somewhere less intimidating.

Since Christ Church is in the mood for revamping, they might want to take another look at their motto. Here’s a suggestion: revise it to read, “All are welcome — no exceptions. Except Washington and Lee.”

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée and Stealing Lincoln’s Body.

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