A better question might be what they were doing there in the first place. That question arose long before the riot in Charlottesville, but undoubtedly those events had an impact on the National Cathedral’s governing body on Tuesday, which voted to shelve stained-glass windows honoring Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. That will take place immediately while the board decides what will replace them:
“These windows will be deconsecrated, removed, conserved and stored until we can determine a more appropriate future for them,” according to a Wednesday press release from church leaders. “The window openings and stone work in the Lee-Jackson Bay will be covered over until we determine what will go in their place.”
According to the release, the conversation surrounding their removal began two years ago, when Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015.
“At that time, we began a process to engage this community in deep questions of racial justice, the legacy of slavery and God’s call to us in the 21st century,” the release says. “Over the past two years, we have heard from deeply passionate voices who have engaged with us and held us accountable to this process, and we thank them.”
In fact, the board’s statement acknowledges that the Charlottesville incident expedited their consideration of whether the windows really belong in the “sacred fabric of the Cathedral”:
We want to be clear that we are not attempting to remove history, but rather are removing two windows from the sacred fabric of the Cathedral that do not reflect our values. We believe these windows can yet have a second life as an effective teaching tool in a place and context yet to be determined.
The recent violence in Charlottesville brought urgency to our discernment process. We find ourselves compelled by the witness of others, moved by the presence of God in our midst and convicted that the Holy Spirit is pointing us toward the answer. The continued presence of white supremacy, anti-Semitism and other forms of hate in our nation cannot be ignored – nor will they be solved simply by removing these windows or other monuments. The racial wounds that we have seen across our nation compel us to renew our commitment to building God’s Beloved Community.
As far as trying to “remove history,” that seems to be a rather debatable issue in this case. The windows in question only date back to 1953, 46 years after the cathedral’s construction began. They were added after a lobbying campaign by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the same group that fundraised for numerous highways to be named after Jefferson Davis, even as far west as San Diego. Last year, the cathedral decided to remove the portions of the window that displayed the Confederate battle flag but decided against removing the windows entirely in order to facilitate engagement on race:
In its report, the Task Force wrote that it “is unanimous in its decision that the windows provide a catalyst for honest discussions about race and the legacy of slavery and for addressing the uncomfortable and too often avoided issues of race in America. Moreover, the windows serve as a profound witness to the Cathedral’s own complex history in relationship to race.”
The windows will remain in place, for now, for the duration of the public discussions. The report goes on to say the Chapter should “revisit the issue of how the windows live in the Cathedral no later than two years from the date of this report.”
Consider it revisited. Apparently they’ve had enough of “addressing the uncomfortable,” at least in the context of celebrating the Confederacy through their art.
That still brings us back to why a church would have stained glass windows depicting any secular leaders, especially a National Cathedral honoring those who fomented a rebellion against the national government. Most churches and places of worship limit their tributes to Biblical heroes, not political figures, if they honor anyone at all.
The UDC was no doubt highly influential at that time, but the National Cathedral has a, well, quirky track record on art anyway. They have their “Scientists and Technicians Window” celebrating the space program, which is odd but certainly less so than the Darth Vader gargoyle located on — wait for it — the Dark Side of the cathedral. More seriously, the cathedral also houses sculptures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan.
Judging by its artistic choices, it’s a cathedral to Americana rather than any particular religion. And even then, it still makes the choice to have stained glass windows honoring two men who rebelled against America puzzling, at the very least, even while the choice to remove them is anything but puzzling.