The leaders of the R. E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, Virginia, voted to strike the Confederate general’s name from the parish after demands to disavow the Civil War figure divided the congregation.
The church was named after General Robert E. Lee in 1903. The former Confederate commander had joined the congregation when he moved to Lexington in 1865, following his surrender to Union troops. He served as a senior warden until his death in 1870.
On Monday evening, the church board voted 7-5 to change the parish’s name back to Grace Episcopal Church. The vote came after a two-year debate on whether a Christian church should carry a name that memorialized a man who fought a war to preserve the institution of slavery, according to critics.
“It’s been a very divisive issue for two years,” the Reverend Tom Crittenden, the church’s rector, told the Richmond Times Dispatch. “But Charlottesville seems to have moved us to this point. Not that we have a different view of Lee historically in our church, but we have appreciation for our need to move on.”
A parishioner made a motion to rename the church shortly after the June 2015 shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, when a self-described white supremacist murdered nine African-Americans at the AME Episcopal Church.
Vestry member Doug Cumming said the discussions were difficult and had divided the congregation, prompting the resignation of another vestry member and the church’s treasurer.
“People have left the church,” said Cumming. “People have felt exhausted by it. And many people felt hurt.”
“[Lee] was the senior warden of our church, we’re proud of that, it’s part of our history, but we’re not going to put that on a sign out on the street because it’s misunderstood,” Cumming told the Dispatch. “My ancestor were very proud, brave and articulate southerners, and like Robert E. Lee, I think they’d be very proud over what our church has done tonight.”
A number of cities across the US have removed monuments to Lee and other Confederate leaders. Protests against the city’s intent to take down a Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia culminated in clashes on August 12. One woman died and 19 others were injured when a car driven by a white nationalist smashed into the crowd of counter-protesters.