A Parish's Journey Towards Reconciliation

“The Church where Lee and Davis worshipped.” That’s how St. Paul’s, in Richmond, Virginia, was known. Next to the Virginia state capitol, St. Paul’s gained fame from its four years at the political and social center of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis did attend and was baptized at St. Paul’s. Robert E. Lee came when he could. Later, in the 1890s, St. Paul’s blended faith and history when it dedicated two stained glass memorial windows to Davis and Lee and gloried in its reputation as the “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”

Since the 2015 murders at Emanuel AME in Charleston, St. Paul’s has been on a journey of historical truth telling about its complicity with slavery and segregation, and how its members have understood race relations from 1843 to the present time. Congregant-researchers have examined census records, newspaper articles, vestry records, and diocesan journals to critically reassess St. Paul’s history. St. Paul’s practiced a proslavery Christianity that defined a narrative of racial difference that survived emancipation and ensured—bolstered by Lost Cause history—the maintenance of an oppressive racial paternalism well into the twentieth century. Still, St. Paul’s adopted a social gospel theology in the early twentieth century that positioned it to take a moderate course during the Civil Rights movement and a progressive racial agenda after 1969.

In 2015, St. Paul’s removed Confederate iconography from its sanctuary, including several plaques, kneelers, and bookplates with Confederate flags. Since then, another group of parishioners have thought deeply about the messages St. Paul’s windows and plaques convey. They have made recommendations for how St. Paul’s might rededicate the windows and reshape the worship space to convey a sense of welcoming in our own time. These recommendations also include liturgies, music, and litanies focused on repentance and reconciliation.

In March the Presiding Bishop came to St. Paul’s to review our progress and encourage our journey. We recognize that we are only at the beginning of that journey, and the History and Reconciliation Initiative will continue to study the past while discerning how we might live as a beloved community in the future.

- Fletcher Lowe, Episcopalians on Baptismal Mission


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