Washington Post pays attention, as Episcopalians ponder the life and faith of Robert E. Lee

Yes, we saw the story about ESPN and sports announcer Robert Lee, who was switched off the upcoming broadcast of a University of Virginia football game because his name is Robert Lee.

I would assume that "Robert Lee" is not all that unusual a name for an Asian man. But, hey, we are talking about Virginia and that's almost the same name as He Who Must Not Be Named.

So I thought this story was from The Onion and said so on Twitter. I was not joking. It has now been confirmed -- by The New York Times and the rest of the journalistic universe. For the life of me, I cannot think of a religion angle to that story. But it's so RIGHT NOW.

In case you haven't noticed, things are a bit tense right now when it comes to statues, Civil War history, white supremacy and other topics that some people believe are linked and others do not. There are religion angles in there and many are painful.

(Quick statement: I'm in favor of saving Confederate statues in cemeteries, battlegrounds, museums, academic facilities [linked to the study of Civil War history] and similar sites. I favor taking statues down in civic squares, once government officials have legally chosen to do so. But I'm with Peggy Noonan. It's usually better to build new statues, rather than destroy old ones. Raise statues to praise those who created a better union.)

But here is some good news. If you want to read a news story that wades into a Gen. Robert E. Lee controversy and listens -- hard -- to voices on both sides, then check out The Washington Post religion-desk feature with this headline: "This is the church where Robert E. Lee declared himself a sinner. Should it keep his name?"

This story, by religion-beat veteran Michelle Boorstein, struck home for me because I spoke at Washington and Lee University last spring, doing a seminar on the challenges and rewards of Godbeat work. I had a long talk with a journalism professor (and ethics specialist) about the ongoing debates about this church and, of course, about challenges to the name of the university.

Here is the essential question stated, carefully, in the feature lede:

Could “R.E. Lee Memorial Church” commemorate the postwar fence-mender who had led their church and city out of destitution? Or could it only conjure the wicked institution of slavery for which Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee fought?

We are talking about an Episcopal Church parish in the South, the kind of historic facility in which (as a Southern rector told me long ago) people cannot change a light bulb without having fierce debates about the historic significance of the old bulb.

Keep reading:

In the past two years, church leadership held retreats about it. An anonymous survey was held. Thousands of dollars were paid to reconciliation experts trained in pacifism. A 15-page report was written. Decades-old friendships in the small community were strained. Parishioners left for other churches.
“I firmly believe that Lee was an admirable man of faith, with flaws like the rest of us,” one man told the congregation after a contentious 2015 vote. “This name-change issue has surfaced a deeper issue..now is not the time to postpone dealing with our divisions,” said another.
But still, it felt as though decisions could be put off about the name and legacy of Lee, who spent his final five years leading the struggling church, and whose final public act was personally covering the salary of its pastor.

But, Charlottesville.

Now the flames have been turned up under this long-simmering debate.

If the story has a thesis statement, here it is. There are paragraphs of quoted material to back this next passage from people on one side, people on the other side and, finally, people who have sadly changed their minds because they believe the current firestorm gives them no choice.

While the church has been divided in the past over the issue, Charlottesville has pushed more members and some in leadership to conclude that, no matter what good Lee did in Lexington a century ago, white supremacists have taken ownership of his reputation and made him their symbol. ... A petition to change the name has nearly 6,000 signatures.

Oh, and the bishop is coming to town soon to force the issue.

You really need to read all of this, since I could just keep pasting in heart-rending statements of the story's major themes.

So here is one more. You see, earlier this week members of the parish were still too divided to make a decision.

For the time being, they decided simply to release a three-paragraph statement about Charlottesville, deploring “in the name of Christ” white supremacy, anti-Semitism and racism “in all its forms.”
The statement went on to try and thread a needle that represents a core American division: Can you distinguish Lee the Christian from Lee the Confederate?
We “object strenuously to the misuse of Robert E. Lee’s name and memory in connection with white supremacy and similar movements that he would abhor. Lee was widely admired in both the North and the South as a man of virtue and honor and as among the leading reconcilers of our fractured land. We do not honor Lee as a Confederate,” read the statement.

Your GetReligionistas say it all the time, but let me say it again: This is why you need religion-beat specialists.

Oh, and read the whole thing and then think this over: A very interesting name is missing from this story. Who is it? How did this omission strengthen the story?

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