A Southern Church, Where Robert E. Lee Once Worshipped, Wrestles With Its Confederate History


In a sermon that lasted less than 11 minutes, Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley suggested something no one had said from the pulpit in the long history of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Va.

“What if,” asked Adams-Riley in his faint South Carolina drawl, “we begin a conversation here at St. Paul’s about the Confederate symbols here in our worship space?”

He listed examples: “The Davis window there, that identifies Jefferson Davis with St. Paul himself, in his imprisonment. Or the Lee windows there, that identifies Robert E. Lee with Moses,” he said, pointing around the sanctuary. “And there are the plaques on the walls, and two kneelers up by the old high altar. They [the kneelers] each have a little Confederate flag on them.”

The sermon was remarkable in its restraint. It wasn’t a jeremiad against the church that had, up until the 1960s, emblazoned its official stationery with “Cathedral of the Confederacy.” Nor did it mention the words that would ripple through the congregation in the months that followed, words like “racism,” “slavery,” and “reconcile.”

In fact, there weren’t many words at all. Adams-Riley’s preaching style is spare and impressionistic; his tone, much like his personality, gentle and encouraging. He quoted the Wisdom of Solomon: “The generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them.”

“Generating. Building up. Giving life,” repeated Adams-Riley. “Strengthening. Healing. Bringing wholeness. That is what God does. And we, being made in God’s image, find our greatest fulfillment in doing likewise.”

‘We don’t expect outsiders to understand’

Adams-Riley is rector of St. Paul’s—a historic church consecrated in 1845—in downtown Richmond, capital of the Confederate States during the Civil War. He delivered his sermon in late June 2015, during a span of weeks when the U.S. collectively re-evaluated the appropriateness of displaying the Confederate flag: Was it, as its supporters insisted, a historical symbol of Southern heritage, or was the “Southern cross” intrinsically linked to ongoing black oppression and the preservation of white supremacy?

It wasn’t a new conversation, obviously. Flag proponents often echoed the reply from then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s office to a 2011 NAACP request to take the flag down from the state’s capitol: “We don’t expect people from outside of the state to understand,” said Haley’s press secretary, “but revisiting that issue is not part of the governor’s agenda.”

But after Dylann Roof murdered nine people at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015, the agenda changed. Photos emerged of Roof posing with a Glock handgun and a Confederate flag, and what had been obvious to many could no longer be ignored by everyone else: The Confederate flag had to come down. Public institutions, governmental organizations, and religious groups quickly ordered the flag’s removal. “We consider the continued display of the Confederate Battle Flag to be at odds with a faithful witness to the reconciling love of Jesus Christ,” said a resolution passed by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

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SOURCE: Sojourners
Betsy Shirley

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