St. Paul's Church to remove Confederate symbols

Published: Nov. 24, 2015 at 10:12 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 4, 2015 at 10:37 PM EST
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RICHMOND CO., VA (WWBT) - Confederate symbols will come down from the St. Paul's Episcopal Church, as the congregation said it is a step forward in a journey for 'racial reconciliation.'

St. Paul's Episcopal Church has served as a cornerstone for the Confederacy. It is believed that Jefferson Davis was sitting inside the church when he received word from Robert E. Lee that he had to surrender, and the evacuation of Richmond began.

For months, the Vestry has discussed the possibility of removing certain items. Recent events throughout the country sparked the discussion, with the church holding 'Prayerful Conversations' to discuss concerns.

In a statement, the Vestry wrote, "St. Paul's will immediately begin a process to engage the congregation in an extensive conversation about St. Paul's history, the role of race and slavery in that history and what that history means to the congregation of the church today." Part of that motion "determined that the symbol of the Confederate battle flag should no longer remain in a church in which all people are welcome."

This will not remove all symbols reflecting St. Paul's past during the Civil War, but will focus on not displaying images of the Confederate battle flag. "It is hard in Richmond to separate religion from secular things, especially dating back to the Civil War and the years following it," Ryan Smith, an Associate Professor with VCU specializing in history and religion, explained.

Professor Smith added that during that time period, religion melded into the current events, including hymns and items with images from the Confederacy.
In a letter to the congregation, the Vestry noted the need to discuss the current use of those images. "St. Paul's and The Episcopal Church are deeply committed to reconciliation and being radically welcoming to all people. Discernment is core to the Christian faith," the Vestry wrote.

As Professor Smith explained, it does not mean the church is turning its back on its history. "It is not a step away from history, but a step, I would say, to emphasize different parts of it and engage in a different context about their engagement in the confederacy in the past," he said.

He pointed out that when it comes to religious symbols, there is an ever-evolving landscape. The use of a cross is an example. "In Richmond and in America, the cross was seen as a catholic symbol and not one shared by Protestants," Smith said. "Churches including St. Paul's did not have the cross, that is something they adopted during the 19th century," he added.

Another example includes the swastika. "That changed greatly during the Nazi regime, and many religious groups in Asia realized it would be a very difficult symbol to continue to use," Smith explained. The use of the Star of David has also changed.

With this move to remove the items, the church told the congregation it is time to "revisit and update our narrative in a way that will have an impact well beyond our walls." One parishioner commented that St. Paul's should become known as a Cathedral of Reconciliation.

There are plans underway to put the items in an exhibit hall, while also creating a memorial for those enslaved.

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