A major US church decided to remove memorials to Confederate leaders

Stains of the past can’t be removed but some stained glass will be.
Stains of the past can’t be removed but some stained glass will be.
Image: Reuters/Molly Riley
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Leaders of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC voted on Sept. 6 to immediately remove two stained-glass windows that honor generals of the Confederate Army in the US Civil War. The decision comes after two years of deliberation over whether the windows are “an appropriate part of the sacred fabric of a spiritual home for the nation,” according to church leaders.

The Washington National Cathedral is a national church that serves all faiths. It’s also the cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which is, as the name implies, part of the Episcopal Church, a sect of Christianity. The spiritual center was commissioned in 1791 by the first US president George Washington, and it finally began construction in 1907, opening for services in 1912.

The two disputed windows, installed in 1953, honor Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and they were sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. They’re among some 200 glass depictions in the cathedral commemorating various national events—for example the 1804 expedition of discoverers Lewis and Clark across the western US—while much of the rest of the church’s symbols are Christian.

Previously, cathedral leaders justified these controversial Confederate windows, telling visitors on tours that their presence “underscores the building’s role as a repository of American memory, carrying the very wounds of war within its walls.” That is no longer sufficient, they believe.

In a statement, a number of cathedral leaders—including Reverend Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington; Reverend Randolph Marshall Hollerith, the cathedral’s dean; and John Donoghue, chair of the church’s chapter—wrote that the windows can’t be contextualized and are not aligned with the national spiritual center’s inclusive values:

The Chapter believes that these windows are not only inconsistent with our current mission to serve as a house of prayer for all people, but also a barrier to our important work on racial justice and racial reconciliation. Their association with racial oppression, human subjugation and white supremacy does not belong in the sacred fabric of this Cathedral.

Cathedral leaders recognized that today’s decision would not end the controversy and that taking so long to reach the decision had already wounded some community members. “[T]here are people of goodwill who disagree with our decision, and also others who have been hurt or confused by the amount of time it took us to reach it,” they wrote.

The reason for the delay, they explained, was that they sought alternative solutions, like perhaps contextualizing the windows somehow. However, the cathedral leaders wrote, “the recent violence in Charlottesville brought urgency to our discernment process…. The continued presence of white supremacy, anti-Semitism and other forms of hate in our nation cannot be ignored—nor will they be solved simply by removing these windows or other monuments.”

Charlottesville, Virginia, was the site of a neo-Nazi, white nationalist rally last month that coalesced as a protest to plans to remove a statue of Lee in the city. The rally devolved into violence, and after the crowd was dispersed, a man later discovered to be a white supremacist drove a car into a group of counter protesters, killing one young woman.

Just a day before the National Cathedral decision, the city council of Charlottesville met for a contentious public hearing on what to do about the Lee statue, as well as another of Jackson, in the city. Ultimately, the council voted to redesign a local park and remove the statue of Jackson, although any action will have to wait until the resolution of pending lawsuits. The vote will also expedite removal of the Lee statue.

The text of the Charlottesville city council resolution noted that the Confederacy monuments were “20th Century testaments to a fictionalized, glorified narrative of the rightness of the Southern cause in [the Civil War], when the actual cause was an insurrection against the United States of America promoting the right of southern states to perpetuate the institution of slavery.”