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Hallo again to all.

What's in a name? Shakespeare pointed out that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but today we wonder if a church by a different name would seem as… uncomfortable. In the small town where we attended University is an Anglican church named not for a saint or Christ or the Trinity, but rather for a military leader on the losing side of the largest internal conflict in United States history, namely its Civil War. This figure led the southern states' military during their attempt to secede from the United States in the mid nineteenth-century over the issue of the slavery, though they couched their arguments in anti-federalist rhetoric.

Grace Church was founded in 1840 in Lexington, Virginia, now a college town in the Shenandoah Valley of Southwestern Virginia. The town boasts two universities, including a law school, and is presently the focus of a fight over the importance of a name. Over 200 people worship each Sunday at R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church.

Robert E. Lee was born into a founding family of the United States—his father Major-General 'Light Horse Harry' Lee served in the Revolutionary War. Lee attended the US Military Academy at West Point, and distinguished himself during the Mexican-American War. He returned to his alma mater, serving as its superintendent. Though given the option to help lead Union troops, Lee instead returned to his home state of Virginia and led the Confederate army. Following the war, he moved to the town of Lexington to serve as president of the then floundering Washington College (now Washington and Lee University). He was elected warden of the vestry at his local parish, Grace Church, which he also helped rebuild after the war. Lee died in 1870, but the church didn't change its name in his honour until over 30 years later, in 1903.

A hero to many today who haven't realized the war is over and that the south, thankfully lost, the name of the church as R. E. Lee has been subject to much debate over the years. In 2015 the congregation held a vote to return the parish to its original name, but it failed to pass by one.

In light of recent violence and a change in conversation, there has been renewed interest in this congregation. Not because of its extensive outreach activities across the world or its work with the local university students, but rather because of a name that many associate with racism and bigotry. Their own bishop has questioned if it is possible to be Christ's church in the world while being named for a symbol of racism in modernity, and believes this discussion is taking away from the business of the gospel.

We personally know many faithful Anglicans who have opted to skip church or attend the services of a different tradition while in that town as they were sure they would be unwelcome. Members of the congregation have assured the media that all are welcome in their church, but sometimes to seem is more—or equally as—important than to be.

In the U.S. Episcopal Church it is rare for the canonical name of a congregation to be that of a person not recognized as a saint. Typically they are named for saints, the Trinity, a figure of the Trinity, or an aspect such as Grace or Resurrection. Occasionally they will be named for a location (Falls Church or Bruton Parish). While some have adopted secondary names that memorialize a person, the official name remains one of the standards. We know of fewer than a half-dozen‡ in the United States that do not conform to these conventions.

Naming holds an important role in our tradition. Adam was given the responsibility of naming the creatures in the Garden of Eden—one of his few commandments from God. To name. The feast of the Presentation centers on the naming of the young Jesus, and our own baptismal rite requires the person to be baptized to be named before God. Parents and writers often agonize over finding just the right name for a child or a character—and studies have shown that those names make a difference in how the world looks at a person as they age.

In workplaces suffering from low morale employees often lament that they feel 'as if they are just a number' that that they have been unnamed. This unnaming also manifested itself in the tattoos of concentration camp inmates—taking away the right to be called. Taking away ones identity as an individual. Two American writers—Ursula K. Le Guin and Madeline L'Engle—have explored this act of naming and unnaming in similar yet opposing ways.

In her 1985 flash fiction piece 'She Unnames Them'*, atheist writer Le Guin hypothesizes a Garden of Eden in which Eve grants autonomy to the creatures within by, through discussion, bringing them to a place of agreement to give up the names given to them by Adam, thus breaking the power dynamic previously established.

Rather counter to that, is importance of naming to Anglican writer L'Engle for whom naming reminds us of who and what we are before God and to ourselves, that 'our names are part of our wholeness.' In her 1973 novel A Wind in the Door, to protect those who were being unmade through their Xing or unnaming, first one character, then more till all of creation cried

I fill you with Naming.
Be, butterfly and behemoth,
be galaxy and grasshopper,
star and sparrow,
you matter,
you are,
Be caterpillar and comet,
Be porcupine and planet,
sea sand and solar system,
sing with us,
dance with us,
rejoice with us,
for the glory of creation,
seagulls and seraphim
angle worms and angel host,
chrysanthemum and cherubim.
(O cherubim.)
Sing for the glory
of the living and the loving
the flaming of creation
sing with us
dance with us
be with us.


Names represent us to ourselves and to others. Surnames can change upon marriage, or divorce, adoption or simply because it seems proper. Our own grandfather changed his surname to fit a new career. Many transgender persons change their first name so it matches their identity and it reflects who they are to the world (and themselves).

For whom is your parish named? What does this mean to you and how does it represent you or your congregation? Let us know.

See you next week.


Our Signatures

All of us at Anglicans Online

27 August 2017

‡ These include Palmer Memorial in Texas, Polk Memorial in Louisiana, Johns Memorial in Virginia, and Galloway Memorial in North Carolina.

* Le Guin, Ursula K. She Unnames Them. The New Yorker, January 21, 1985 P. 27

† L'Engle, Madeleine. A Wind in the Door. 1975 PP 231-233

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