Common Roots: Ancient Evangelical Future Conference

Removing George Washington

Mark Tooly reflects on iconoclasm in Alexandria

Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia, whose beautiful Christmas Eve services I traditionally attend, is one of the great places in America. Nearly 250 years old, George Washington as parish vestryman facilitated its construction and was later a regular worshiper. Later still, Robert E. Lee was a nearly lifelong parishioner. He was baptized and confirmed there in middle age after a personal religious rebirth. His daughter left the church a large endowment. Washington himself bequeathed the church a Bible.

The church has announced it’s relocating out of the sanctuary two nearly 150 year old marble plaques that memorialize its two most famous parishioners, explaining:

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. Many in our congregation feel a strong need for the church to stand clearly on the side of “All are welcome–no exceptions.”

Count me skeptical that Christ Church loses potential members over the plaques. Likelier the ties to Washington and Lee attract tourists and other visitors who wouldn’t otherwise attend. As a child, every time we drove by, my parents or grandparents pointed it out as Washington’s church, which is central if not primary to its identity. Like most other Episcopal congregations, it is in decline, having lost 25% of its average worship size over the last ten years. But it’s still the largest Episcopal congregation in Northern Virginia.

Over the last 14 years the Episcopal Church has suffered a nationwide schism since electing an openly homosexual bishop. Some conservative congregations, including several in Northern Virginia, left the denomination to create the new Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Another church Washington helped govern at the same time as Christ Church was The Falls Church, whose congregation joined ACNA. It lost its historic property in litigation to the Episcopal Church but continues to thrive and grow while meeting in a Catholic high school auditorium. It has even planted several successful new churches.

Christ Church remained in the Episcopal Church and has headed in a more liberal direction. One Christmas Eve sermon I heard got political, as I shared here. And in recent years the church has hosted a labyrinth, advertised by a large banner outside the church to passing commuters. This arguably New Agey fad is popular in some liberal Protestant churches, and I wrote about it here, noting that neither Washington nor Lee, if alive today, were likely to walk the labyrinth.

I mention the political sermon, the labyrinth and support for same-sex marriage because they could all be interpreted as unwelcoming signals to potential worshipers who don’t share Christ Church’s form of Episcopal liberalism. This kind of church invariably attracts a demographic that is nearly all middle and upper class, educated, socially liberal urban white people. Churches that stress their welcome-welcome-welcome message of inclusion over a firm orthodox theological message typically are, whether realizing it or not, actually welcoming some and discouraging others. In my visits to Christ Church I have noticed the well-dressed congregation is not very diverse. Removing the Washington and Lee plaques will not likely expand its demographic.

On Christmas Eve I almost always arrive early at Christ Church and sit in the Washington family box. FDR and Churchill with Eleanor sat there on New Years’ Day 1942 and heard the sermon regret America’s sinful isolationism before Pearl Harbor while praying for victory against Nazi and Japanese militarist aggression. Churchill wept as the congregation sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic. FDR chose the church because of its ties to Washington, whose Mount Vernon they visited after worship. Churchill admired both Washington and Lee.

Churchill and FDR, with Washington and Lee, were sinful men and instruments of Providence. Their stories merit examination and often admiration, not Manichean caricatures. Lee’s faith failed to make him an abolitionist but it did guide his gracious surrender and support for peace with reconciliation. Washington’s faith almost certainly guided him toward opposition to slavery and emancipation for his own slaves. Christianity, based on the example of St. Paul, usually judges lives based on their trajectory and conclusion, not the sins of earlier life.

Publicity over Christ Church’s plaque removal guided me to a magnificent eulogy of Washington by Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who bought himself out of slavery and quit a segregated Methodist Church to create the first great black denomination. Allen experienced the worst of slavery, as his own mother and siblings were sold away from him by an insolvent master. He appreciatively recalled Washington the liberator and emancipator whose name “will live when the sculptured marble and statue of bronze shall be crumbled into dust–for it is the decree of the eternal God that ‘the righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance, but the memorial of the wicked shall rot.’”

Read Allen’s whole eulogy of Washington below, which is itself a response to Christ Church:

At this time it may not be improper to speak a little on the late mournful event–an event in which we participate in common with the feelings of a grateful people–an event which causes “the land to mourn” in a season of festivity. Our father and friend is taken from us–he whom the nations honoured is “seen of men no more.”

We, my friends, have particular cause to bemoan our loss. To us he has been the sympathising friend and tender father. He has watched over us, and viewed our degraded and afflicted state with compassion and pity– his heart was not insensible to our sufferings. He whose wisdom the nations revered thought we had a right to liberty. Unbiased by the popular opinion of the state in which is the memorable Mount Vernon–he dared to do his duty, and wipe off the only stain with which man could ever reproach him.

And it is now said by an authority on which I rely, that he who ventured his life in battles, whose “head was covered” in that day, and whose shield the “Lord of hosts” was, did not fight for that liberty which he desired to withhold from others–the bread of oppression was not sweet to his taste, and he “let the oppressed go free”–he “undid every burden”–he provided lands and comfortable accommodations for them when he kept this “acceptable fast to the Lord”–that those who had been slaves might rejoice in the day of their deliverance.

If he who broke the yoke of British burdens “from off the neck of the people” of this land, and was hailed his country’s deliverer, by what name shall we call him who secretly and almost unknown emancipated his “bondmen and bondwomen”–became to them a father, and gave them an inheritance!

Deeds like these are not common. He did not let “his right hand know what his left hand did”–but he who “sees in secret will openly reward” such acts of beneficence.

The name of Washington will live when the sculptured marble and statue of bronze shall be crumbled into dust–for it is the decree of the eternal God that “the righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance, but the memorial of the wicked shall rot.”

It is not often necessary, and it is seldom that occasion requires recommending the observance of the laws of the land to you, but at this time it becomes a duty; for you cannot honour those who have loved you and been your benefactors more than by taking their council and advice.

And here let me entreat you always to bear in mind the affectionate farewell advice of the great Washington–“to love your country–to obey its laws–to seek its peace–and to keep yourselves from attachment to any foreign nation.”

Your observance of these short and comprehensive expressions will make you good citizens–and greatly promote the cause of the oppressed and shew to the world that you hold dear the name of George Washington.

May a double portion of his spirit rest on all the officers of the government in the United States, and all that say my Father, my Father–the chariots of Israel, and the horsemen thereof, which is the whole of the American people.

Reprinted from Juicy Ecumenism.

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