Christ Church Alexandria

Removing George Washington

on October 30, 2017

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.

  1. Comment by Michael Maibach on October 30, 2017 at 7:19 am

    Thank you Mark. God bless George Washington.

  2. Comment by Leon M Green on October 31, 2017 at 10:16 am

    Yes. Thank you, and bless you, Washington and Allen.

  3. Comment by Cynthia Darling on October 30, 2017 at 8:56 am

    As a former parishioner and vestry member, I agree. Their response is that they, in taking this action, are putting Jesus first, an ironic response when one hears the sermons and looks in vain for Bible studies which are few and far between. It is all so sad. The Episcopal Church now has less than one million members. We will become like England, with beautiful churches, few members, and tourists meandering through. I cry. I have lost my family.

  4. Comment by Chris Cairns on October 30, 2017 at 9:27 am

    My only quibble is that you called it a national schism. The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada breaking with the Anglican Communion is an international schism of their making, and the Anglican Church of North America is an international attempt to repair the torn fabric of Communion with the majority world.

    Otherwise, brother, it’s an excellent article.

  5. Comment by Duane Crabtree on October 30, 2017 at 6:38 pm

    And yours is an excellent response except it is the Anglican Church IN North America!

  6. Comment by Pudentiana on October 30, 2017 at 4:10 pm

    Oh, the lover of history cannot lose anything. It is sad that so many in this age have had their wisdom stolen by depriving them of the knowledge of who we are as Americans.

  7. Comment by The Rev. Fred Huntington on October 30, 2017 at 4:45 pm

    I think you are quite right on this one, Mark!
    Thank you!

  8. Comment by Kay Cook on October 30, 2017 at 5:35 pm

    How sad. Washington was a Christian man who held Bible studies in the capitol. We should honor and respect him and quit bowing to the looney left that wants to destroy this country and our founders. This is a country that is blessed by God and it is pathetic that so many deny this.

  9. Comment by William Connery on October 30, 2017 at 5:40 pm

    Well done, Mark! I am glad to say that my original Home, the Roman Catholic Church, is still keeping many of the Godly Traditions of the past (even with her many problems). George Washington is the Founder of our Nation and Robert E. Lee worked tirelessly the five years the Lord gave him after the Civil War to help heal the wounds of the shattered nation.

  10. Comment by Bonnie Wheeler on October 30, 2017 at 5:51 pm

    it is a crying shame that we can no longer recognize our Founding Fathers. We should be ashamed of ourselves for not honoring them as we should. It’s disrespect to the founders of this great nation and it is also stupidity at the highest level

  11. Comment by Tommye Jordan on October 30, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    They will lose more members by taking the two Memorials out of the Church. Their next step will be to remove Jesus and God since they are not following the Words in the Bible.
    Makes an older person wonder how long God will continue to let these groups continue with turning His Church into a meeting place that does not follow the Holy Bible.

  12. Comment by Tommye Jordan on October 30, 2017 at 6:42 pm

    I had filled the Name and Email on comment just like below. I do not have a Website.

  13. Comment by Marilyn Rozelle on October 30, 2017 at 8:36 pm

    Has someone or some group saved the plaque? I hope that it will be preserved and cared for lovingly. Perhaps someday a change will occur and there will be a congregation present in the building that will welcome and cherish it and the memories of a great man.

  14. Comment by Marilyn Rozelle on October 30, 2017 at 8:38 pm

    Has someone or some group saved the plaque? I hope that it will be preserved and cared for lovingly. Perhaps someday a change will occur and there will be a congregation present in the building that will welcome and cherish it and the memories of a great man.

  15. Comment by Earl H. Foote on October 30, 2017 at 8:45 pm

    As usual, Mark, I think that you have expressed the issues well. Yes, George Washington owned slaves, but who among us can stand up against the judgement of future generations (let alone God)? We cannot overcome history by erasing it (and I am putting aside the many GOOD accomplishments of Washington). The Episcopal Church (as seen also by the removal of windows from the Washington National Cathedral) is making a big mistake, one that will cause even more genuinely offended people, who believe in the Gospel, to flee from it.

  16. Comment by Richard Hyde on October 30, 2017 at 10:09 pm

    Best ever, Mark.

  17. Comment by Naomi Lackey on October 31, 2017 at 1:19 am

    I’m sorry, but, I do not understand how anyone can ‘receive an unintended message’ from a plaque, that honors one of the founding fathers of America, who were [definitely] guided by the hands of God, to give us this land of freedom. It’s the lesson of their learning to ‘change’ their lives & thinking (conversion) that makes this all such foolish reasoning. This is their decision– Do they think God went out of the room. This is very sad, indeed.

  18. Comment by Jerry eisley on October 31, 2017 at 8:39 am

    History repeats itself .. has to …because no one listens….a poem by Steve Turner

  19. Comment by Charles M. Davis on October 31, 2017 at 11:18 am

    Mark, thank you for your thoughtful article, and keeping all believers informed. Your do a great job, and I only pray that you will continue your great work!!

  20. Comment by Charlene on October 31, 2017 at 11:52 am

    This is so sad and wrong.

    They are pushing God out of this church

    God Help Us

  21. Comment by Charlene on October 31, 2017 at 11:53 am


  22. Comment by Charlene on October 31, 2017 at 11:54 am

    God Help us

  23. Comment by Robert Morrison on October 31, 2017 at 1:01 pm

    Right on the Mark, as usual. I wonder if we might be a bit more charitable toward our Fathers, who tried but failed to restore the inalienable right to liberty, if we were doing more to restore the inalienable right to life.

  24. Comment by Walter Carroll on October 31, 2017 at 1:14 pm

    If in truth the church was focusing on Christ rather than the two flawed men, as we are all flawed, the removing of their memorials might be acceptable. Many have elevated them to iconic status, something neither would countenance . Sadly, however, Jesus and his teachings were long ago dismissed from the Episcopal Church in favor of a modern relativistic social gospel that changes with every shift of the ecumenical winds.

  25. Comment by Holly Barber on October 31, 2017 at 9:14 pm

    Amen and Amen! Well done Mark!!

  26. Comment by Rev. Larry Beane on November 1, 2017 at 11:00 am

    Lee was an opponent of slavery.

  27. Comment by Chip Watkins on November 2, 2017 at 2:09 am

    The ECUSA and many of its congregations are in apostasy, not because of their rejection of Generals Washington and Lee, but because of their rejection of the Bible as the one holy and infallible rule of faith and practice. “In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.” Article VI of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, adopted by the ECUSA in 1801.

  28. Comment by Dr. Daniel Mercaldo on November 2, 2017 at 4:49 am

    Mark, thank you again for your “common sense” response based on Holy Scripture and the message of redemption that these men benefited by in their lives.

  29. Comment by John Cox on November 2, 2017 at 1:26 pm

    Removing the Washington & Lee plaques from Christ Church is an utterly despicable act. I hope those responsible also will remove the church from the National Registry of Historical Places. And of course they should refuse any Washington-related funding & return George Washington’s Bible.

    I attending a wedding in Christ Church some years ago, but would never set foot in it again.

  30. Comment by Pem Schaeffer on November 2, 2017 at 4:35 pm

    How many “Washington Slept Here” signs will have to be torn down and burned?

    The UCC congregation we left 15 years ago has banners all over the place about their labyrinth, and their “open and affirming” inclusiveness.

    That terminology does not apply to conservatives politically, or bible believing seekers. They are what I believe to be an “accommodationist theology” congregation.

    Located in Brunswick, Maine. Home town of Joshua Chamberlain, and the house where Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She attended this church, as did Chamberlain.

  31. Comment by Penny on November 3, 2017 at 11:19 am

    There are so many “Christian” Americans busy with hammer and chisel, steadily chipping away at America’s foundations. This is just one example of the damage. The rest of us must, must believe that in the midst of this apparent decline in faithfulness to Him, God WILL do a new thing. “Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall you not know it?” Isaiah 43:19 Let us all continue to believe and go forward, looking every moment for what God is going to do next. He will not leave us comfortless.

  32. Comment by Lauren Bertrand on September 10, 2019 at 10:13 am

    While I’m ambivalent about the labyrinth, the removal of a plaque to Washington is depressing. Even more abysmal is their excuse–that some feel “unsafe”–which has become an extremely effective trope for the social agitators by which to wield power and exert their will. The odds that anything dangerous would happen to anyone at Christ Church is laughable. And if someone truly does feel “unsafe” or “unwelcome” at a church that references The Father of Our Country because he attended it, I’d hate to imagine the trauma they experience at handling currency, or walking into just about any elementary school. For those who are traumatized by Washington, I cannot suggest anything less that they begin filing the application for immigration proceedings to a country whose history is unsullied. Surely, there has to be a country out there for them.

  33. Comment by Jeffrey Conover on October 18, 2019 at 9:09 am

    Did they return RE Lee’s daughter’s bequest to the family? In current dollars, not the amount at the time. Typically the trend has been that recipients of donations return the donation to the disgraced donor. To keep it would be hypocritical.

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