Friday, March 9, 2007

Wren Chapel

On November 16, 2006, Gene Nichol, president of the College of William and Mary, took a bold step toward religious equality in the public college environment. President of the college now for less than two full academic years, Nichol made a small yet magnificent change in an environment where history and tradition rule, for all the right reasons.

If you've been to Williamsburg, you've seen the Wren Building. It is the heart and soul of the campus of the College of William and Mary, even for students who enter it only to ring the bell after completing a last final exam. It's the building on the postcard you send home to your parents when you finally begin to miss them, somewhere when the weather turns cold and muddy, right around November. It's the building you want to go back to when you return to campus, decades later with a partner or spouse and maybe your children. You want to feel the worn wooden floor under your feet again, and smell the dust of hundreds of years of scholars and classes and books. You want to stand in the college yard just at the right time of day to catch the sun glinting off the glazed headers in its lovely Flemish bond brickwork. You remember going up the stairs and ringing the bell, and the delicious feeling of freedom when all that stands between you and graduation is, well, your professors grading your exams. For the William and Mary graduate, the mystique of the Wren Building is powerful.

The Wren Building, and perhaps most importantly the Wren Chapel, is the ritual center of campus life, as well. Not only for religious services, but for meetings of student organizations, societies, and campus rituals like the annual Yule Log ceremony, and of course marriages. By policy, the Wren Chapel is a facility available to all students and faculty. And until November, it was nearly continuously presided over by a large cross on the altar, on loan from nearby Bruton Parish Church since 1940, which could be removed by arrangement for events where the cross would have been inappropriate.

Imagine for a moment that you're a non-Christian student, entering that space for a meeting. Just a meeting. A board meeting for a campus organization. Are you going to ask that the cross be removed? As in so many places in American culture, are you prepared for the dismissive look, like you're overreacting if you ask that someone else remove the trappings of their religious faith for an event when they are not appropriate? Probably not. But then, can you avoid the subtle message you receive from the placement of that cross? The little voice that says "This is a Christian space. We'll let you use it, but you have to ASK, and don't forget - it's ours. By the way? You're a minority." At a gut level, there's a division between you and the college. It's not our college; it's THEIR college, and you're being let in out of benevolence. You are at their mercy for the right to be in this space.

In November of 2006, Nichol boldly had the cross removed from the chapel, reversing the previous policy by stating that the cross could be requested for use for a specific event where it was appropriate. In Nichol's words:

And though we haven’t meant to do so, the display of a Christian cross—the most potent symbol of my own religion—in the heart of our most important building sends an unmistakable message that the Chapel belongs more fully to some of us than to others. That there are, at the College, insiders and outsiders. Those for whom our most revered place is meant to be keenly welcoming, and those for whom presence is only tolerated. That distinction, I believe, to be contrary to the best values of the College.

It is precisely because the Wren Chapel touches the best in us—the brightened lamp, the extended hand, the opened door, the call of character, the charge of faith, the test of courage—that it is essential it belong to everyone. There is no alternate Wren Chapel, no analogous venue, no substitute space. Nor could there be. The Wren is no mere museum or artifact. It touches every student who enrolls at the College. It defines us. And it must define us all.

I make no pretense that all will agree with these sentiments. The emotions and values touched by this dispute are deeply felt. But difficult issues are the grist of great universities. Amidst the turmoil, the cross continues to be displayed on a frequent basis. I have been pleased to learn that students of disparate religions have reported using the Chapel for worship and contemplation for the first time. In the College’s family there should be no outsiders. All belong.

Debate has been furious, and as a member of the graduating class of 1986, I have watched the media attention on my small college with extreme feeling.

Those who argued for the return of the Wren Chapel cross spoke eloquently about the origins of the college as a school designed to Christianize the local native Americans, and the school's origins indeed were to further Christianity. But today William and Mary is a state college, not a religious institution, and has a student body that ranges the religious spectrum, each with equal standing.

Other arguments for the return of the cross focused on the long tradition of the presence of the cross. And admittedly, the cross has been in that location since before I was born, and you won't find a group fonder of tradition than the college community. But the cross has stood there for a mere 67 years; a blip in the lifespan of a college whose sports-event chant spelling out The College of William and Mary in Virginia Founded in 1693 (another "tradition") can take upwards of twenty minutes.

These arguments are no surprise, and perfectly logical. It's the anguish, really, of the voices calling for the return of the cross that surprised me the most. Could they genuinely not understand what it is like from the other side of the table? Can they not find any empathy for the feelings of those who have quietly tolerated the imposition of another's religion in situations like this for their entire lives? The moderate voices, the well-reasoned representatives of Christianity include Mr. Nichol himself, as well as David L. Holmes, who spoke eloquently as always on the matter during a public debate where he made it clear that he was not representing the college, but voicing a community perspective that DID have empathy for both sides.

In the end, the only explanation I could find for the seemingly extreme reaction of some was the realization that Christianity is simply no longer the default religion of our culture, and that Christians are no longer entitled to a louder voice or more comprehensive control of community assets. Reasonable minds have anticipated and prepared themselves for this. But to some, it's a shock to think that the status quo they are familiar with may eventually change. And I can understand that this represents a major change to their sense of their position in the community. Having to share is hard -- ask me, I have a two-year-old. But like a toddler who has never had to share before, those who feel entitled to perpetual control of the Wren Chapel are not playing well with the other children.

Clearly mediation and cool minds to find a middle path were in order. In January 2007, Nichol engaged representatives of the college administration, faculty, students, and alumni to engage in the Committee on Religion at a Public University, to address the issue and recommend a resolution. The Committee returned quickly with an unexpected and elegant solution, acknowledging the deep feelings of those who find meaning in the presence of the cross in the chapel, while removing it from its position of ritual authority, except as requested for specific events.


In his statement on the establishment of the committee, Nichol says:

I have sought, then, to find ways to assure that the Wren Chapel is equally open and welcoming to every member of this community. My goal has not been to bleach all trace of religious thought and influence from our facilities and programs, but rather to offer the inspiration of the Wren to all.

And I say "Well done."

I am undone by the generosity of spirit Nichol brought to the college, and the wisdom of those he chose to resolve this issue. I am undone by the feeling, so many years after I left campus, that my college shares my values about religious diversity and fairness. I have never been so proud to call the College of William and Mary mine.

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