University president Gene Nichol seems to be buckling under the pressure of William and Mary students, alumni and others who are outraged at his decision to remove the cross from the altar at the Wren Chapel, College of William and Mary
His appeasement is to allow the replacement of the cross on Sundays for limited hours and mount a plaque acknowledging the place of the Anglican Church in the establishment of the Chapel. Although he appears to be caving under pressure, his offer is just the classic wink and nod to stifle the opposition. He continues to push his secularist agenda by trying to eradicate the memory of the solid Christian foundation of the College and the chapel and make believe that secular humanism and other anti-Christian beliefs had something to do with the College's development.
He claims that he is not trying to bleach out the Anglican memory, but that he is oh so deeply concerned that people don't feel excluded. The school is evolving, they say. Yes, and nicely too according to secularist plans, but this does not affect the history of the Chapel. It doesn't matter that the chapel is used for traditional matriculation exercises or other secular activities, its history is frozen. Exclusivity? The chapel could be used for nothing else but Episcopal church services if this were true, but instead anyone can visit, and use the chapel for any reason. It couldn't be more inclusive. Mr. Nichol's reasoning is irrational and irritating. Read the latest emails he sent out to the student body explaining his offer:
From: Gene R. Nichol [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Wednesday, December 20, 2006 2:30 PM
TO: Leadership Boards, The College of William and Mary
FROM: Gene R. Nichol, President
DATE: December 20, 2006
As many of you know, in late October, after many conversations with
students, faculty, and staff, I requested that we amend our display of the
Wren Chapel cross. Instead of being present on the altar until removed for
a private event, the cross is kept in the Chapel's sacristy unless
requested for use during an event or by individual students for quiet
I've since heard from students, staff, faculty, alumni, friends--some
supportive, many critical. I've been reminded that all of us,
unsurprisingly, hold the Chapel close to our hearts. Since that's so, and
since the symbolism and history and peace of the cross mean so much to so
many--including, not incidentally, to me--I have thought long about our
practice in recent weeks.
The attached note, which I sent to the campus community this afternoon,
reflects much of my thinking. Though I plan to share a few of these ideas
with the broader alumni community in my January annual letter, I wanted to
share this fuller account with you, as well.
My goal, which I hope I've adequately explained in the attached, is to make
the Chapel, so much a part of the life of the College, appropriately
welcoming to all. In the last few weeks I began to hope for ways to also
recognize the historic importance of Christianity in the Wren Building and
the College. We will soon take the steps I describe herein.
Issues that challenge us, as I told the Board of Visitors last month, are
the grist of great universities. I much appreciate those of you who have
already begun considering this one with me, and I invite you to be in touch
if you'd like to share your ideas. Thanks, as ever, for all you do for
William and Mary. Glenn and I send our very best to you and yours for the
December 20, 2006
To the College Community:
I trust that you are enjoying the close of the semester. There are, as yet,
still a few exams to be completed, papers to be graded, projects to be
mastered, and, finally, miles to be traveled toward those who have missed
you more than it was thought possible. My family and I have again been
amazed by the warmth of the College community. From the Yule Log, to the
carolers and singers who have brought greetings to our house, to the
later-night enthusiasts of the Sunken Garden , you have lifted our hearts.
I write, though, on another front. Controversy continues about my decision
to alter the display of the cross in the Wren Chapel. Although the faculty
has been strongly supportive, and the Student Senate voted by a wide margin
not to oppose the change, opinion on campus is far from uniform. And beyond
our walls, many alumni and friends of the College have urged, in the
strongest terms, that the decision be reconsidered.
I have tried to read each letter, note and email I've received about the
issue--though the volume has been high and the language sometimes heated.
And even as the semester has drawn to a close, I have continued to speak
with faculty, students, staff, campus ministers, alumni and the members of
our Board of Visitors about ways to honor our traditions while assuring
that the Chapel is equally welcoming to all. I've found no magic answers.
But having heard much, and having had the opportunity for at least some
quiet reflection on the dispute, I write to offer a few words about the
steps we've undertaken, the disagreements that have ensued, and my hopes
for the future.
I am much taken with the Wren Chapel. Like many others, I attend an array
of crucial College events there. Unlike others, I also have a key to its
imposing west door. So I make studied and frequent use of the Chapel late
in the evenings. It is, by my lights, the most ennobling and inspiring
place on one of the most remarkable campuses in the world. That's saying a
But I hadn't been here long before I began to understand that the
experience of the Chapel is not the same for all of us. Over the past
eighteen months, a number of members of our community have indicated to me
that the display of a cross--in the heart of our most important and
defining building--is at odds with our role as a public institution. They
did not say, of course, that the cross is an offensive or antagonistic
symbol. They often understand that to Christians, like me, the cross
conveys an inspiring message of sacrifice, redemption and love. Rather,
they have suggested that the presence of such a powerful religious
symbol--in a place so central to our efforts--sends a 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 space
is keenly inviting and those whose presence is only tolerated.
Nor are such sentiments merely fanciful. I have been saddened to learn of
potential students and their families who have been escorted into the
Chapel on campus tours and chosen to depart immediately thereafter. And to
read of a Jewish student, required to participate in an honor council
program in the Chapel during his first week of classes, vowing never to
return to the Wren. Or to hear of students, whose a capella groups are
invited to perform there, being discomfited by the display of the cross. Or
of students being told in times of tragedy of the special opening of the
Chapel for solace--to discover that it was only available as a Christian
space. Or to hear from a campus counselor that Muslim students don't take
advantage of the Chapel in times of spiritual or emotional crisis. Or to
learn of the concerns of parents, immensely proud for the celebration of a
senior's initiation into Phi Beta Kappa, but unable to understand why, at a
public university, the ceremony should occur in the presence of a cross.
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. As an
array of our campus ministers have indicated--in expressing strong support
for the altered policy--it is the very vitality and the increasing
diversity of our religious community that calls for a more encompassing and
accessible use of the Wren.
But many, many have seen it otherwise. They have worried that, as a new
president, I have failed to understand and sufficiently value the storied
traditions of the College. I can imagine myself, were our roles reversed,
coming to a similar conclusion. (Although no cross would have been
displayed in the colonial Chapel, one has been placed in the Wren for many
decades.) Others have believed, even worse, that my actions disparage
religion. No Christian can warm to the label "anti-Christian"--even if he
is a public figure with need, on occasion, of thickened skin.
I have also perhaps added to the turmoil by my own missteps. I likely acted
too quickly and should have consulted more broadly. Patience is a vital
virtue--especially for a university president. I'm still learning it. The
decision was also announced to the university community in an inelegant
way. I know, or at least I hope, that you are accustomed to fuller and more
appealing explanations of our practices.
But still, I have asked myself and others, does the Wren Chapel, our most
remarkable place, belong to every member of the College community, or is it
principally for our Christian students? Do we take seriously our claims for
religious diversity, or do we, even as a public university, align ourselves
with one particular religious tradition? And I know that despite
disagreements over my actions, no member of the extended William & Mary
family believes that any of our students should be cast as
outsiders--however unintentionally--because of religious preference.
I am mindful, nonetheless, of the powerful claim that altering the display
of the Chapel cross ignores the storied traditions of the College.
Accordingly, I have asked Louise Kale, director of the historic campus, to
take the following modest steps:
First, we will commission a permanent plaque to commemorate the Chapel's
origins as an Anglican place of worship and symbol of the Christian
beginnings of the College.
Second, in an effort to give further recognition to the heritage of the
Chapel without substantially affecting its openness and accessibility for
College use, I have asked that the altar cross be displayed throughout the
day on Sundays with expanded hours. The cross will also continue to be in
place on the altar when the Chapel is used for Christian religious services
or when any individual requests its display for moments of quiet prayer and
Neither these alterations, nor anything I have said, will likely halt the
controversy. The issues it touches are perhaps too powerful, and heartfelt,
and close to the core. And the College community--both within our walls and
across the globe--is too articulate and passionate and too committed--for
easy words or opinions to assuage. But, the cross is, at present, being
displayed frequently, by request, in the Chapel. A number of Muslim and
Jewish students now report, for the first time, that they are using the
Chapel for prayer and contemplation. And I was pleased to learn that the
student organization Hillel recently made a reservation to use space in the
Wren for the first time anyone can remember.
I close only by noting common ground--both for those who support the
decision and those who oppose it.
We believe in the cause of the College--its singular history, its tradition
of life-changing learning rooted in character and rigor, and its promising
role in the future of the nation and the world.
We believe, to the person, in fostering and sustaining an institution, in
the words of the College's Diversity Statement, "where people of all
backgrounds feel at home."
And we believe in the inspiration, even if not uniformly in the theology,
of Archbishop Tutu's claim: "In God's family there are no outsiders. All
are insiders. Black and white, rich and poor, Jew and Arab, Palestinian and
Israeli, Roman Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Christian . . . all
Hark upon the Gale.