Like the entire Washington, D.C., area, Old Town Alexandria is chock-full of historical monuments and places of interest. One of the most noticeable and visited historical monuments is the church that George Washington helped found and that he attended off and on for over twenty years. As a way of commemorating our first president’s association with the church, Christ Church has featured a memorial to George Washington since 1870. However, due to a recent spate of visitors being made to feel unwelcome and uncomfortable, Christ Church is planning on removing the memorial.
George Washington purchased a family pew in Christ Church’s sanctuary when the church opened in 1773. While he more regularly attended Pohick Church, which was closer to Mount Vernon, Washington made regular appearances at Christ Church in Alexandria.
According to the Washington Times (the irony of the name of the newspaper reporting the story shouldn’t escape anyone), a memorial to Robert E. Lee will also be removed. The church’s leadership explains that the memorials “are relics of another era and have no business in a church that proclaims its motto as ‘All are welcome — no exceptions.’
“The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome,” church leaders said. “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.”
The Washington Times reports that the Christ Church’s congregation will be informed of the decision during this Sunday’s worship service.
The church also has small metal markers on the Washington family pew and the location where Lee was confirmed, but there is no other information or comment posted on the two men’s lives — and that’s part of the problem for the church, which signaled it fears commemoration without contextualization.
“Because the sanctuary is a worship space, not a museum, there is no appropriate way to inform visitors about the history of the plaques or to provide additional context except for the in-person tours provided by our docents,” the church leaders said.
They said the plaques will come down by next summer, but where they’ll end up is still being decided. The church also plans a new committee that will re-examine how the church tells its history.
The merits of a church honoring anyone other than Jesus Christ can be debated. However, at this point in the church’s history, it’s hard to consider Christ Church as having any value beyond a social club and a historical place of interest. Because of that, the debate about what’s appropriate inside and outside of a church building may be laid aside, I think, leaving the discussion firmly and almost solely in the realm of historical interest and value.
To that end, it’s absurd for Christ Church to bow to the pressure of outsiders who feel uncomfortable because of a memorial to George Washington. If any single person can be credited with carving out this nation that allows people to feel uncomfortable without fear of reprisal from the government, that person would be George Washington.
The church’s website rightfully touts its connection to George Washington. On the website, a video recorded at a service honoring the church’s 240th anniversary described it as “a celebration with George and Marsha Washington.” During the service, an actor playing George Washington spoke directly to the congregation. With its current trajectory, it may be safe to assume that the Christ Church’s celebration of its 250th anniversary will be free of any reference to its most famous and noteworthy member.