College professor, conservative author, debate future of Wren cross

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February 1, 2007

2:50 PM

Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Wren Chapel, David L. Holmes, the Walter G. Mason professor of religious studies at the College, and Dinesh D’Souza, a New York Times best-selling conservative author and fellow at the Hoover Institute, debated whether or not the Wren Cross — removed from the Wren Chapel in October by President Gene Nichol — should be reinstated.

p. The debate, co-sponsored by campus newspaper The Virginia Informer and the conservative non-profit organization The Collegiate Network, was titled “Religion and the Campus: Should the Wren Cross be Reinstated in Wren Chapel?”

p. Holmes, a professor at the College since 1965, argued against the cross’s reinstatement, while D’Souza supported it.

p. Holmes began the debate insisting that his arguments were his own, and not those of the College administration.

p. “I speak for myself tonight,” Holmes said, “and not as a surrogate for President Nichol.”

p. In a fifteen minute opening statement, Holmes noted the Anglican history of the Church, a history that rarely, if ever, placed crosses in its sacred spaces. He noted that the College went more than two hundred years without a cross on display in the chapel. Holmes also said that, throughout College history, the Chapel has been used for many secular purposes, including “theatrical performances, lectures, classes, and kangaroo courts during freshman hazing.” He added that, along with fellow colleagues, he was “baffled” with the subsequent uproar over the removal, as a chapel without a cross was consistent with Protestant tradition.

p. In his opening statement, D’Souza insisted that, even with the cross, the Wren Chapel remained “in the spirit of Christian Universalism … a tolerant place.” He argued, however, that the cross had been pigeonholed by some, including President Nichol, as a “symbol of intolerance.”

p. D’Souza also mentioned Nichol’s alleged indiscretion in removing the cross without considering the views of the College community, as well as the President’s continued avoidance of invitations to debate the issue.

p. According to D’Sousa, Nichol’s decision was made “recklessly, without deliberation, [and] without consultation.” In one of many statements that drew laughter from the audience, D’Souza likened Nichol to a mechanical toy soldier that runs into a wall and, despite the fact, continues walking.

p. After the opening statements, both Holmes and D’Souza offered rebuttals. Holmes acknowledged that Nichol’s decision was made with insufficient consultation, but also praised Nichol’s establishment of a committee to examine the cross issue and the role of religion in public institutions. The committee will be co-chaired by James Livingston, emeritus chair of the College’s religious studies department and Law School Professor Alan Meese.

p. “[The committee] could not be better, it could not be in better hands,” Holmes said.

p. Holmes also noted that the cross was not owned by the College, but belonged to the Canterbury Club, the College’s Episcopalian student group, which borrowed it from the Bruton Parish church in 1931.

p. “[The cross] doesn’t belong to William and Mary,” Holmes said. “The cross remains the property of Bruton Parish, and conceivably they could ask for it back, because no ministry … wants its cross to be a source of such controversy, it should be a source of peace.”

p. Holmes’ statements were greeted with lengthy applause as D’Souza took the podium to begin his rebuttal.

p. “Somewhat like the mosquito in the nudist colony,” he said, “I am not sure where to begin.”

p. D’Souza claimed that Holmes was mistaken in emphasizing the historical accuracies of the church, claiming that such facts did not guide Nichol’s decision.

p. “[Nichol’s] decision was driven by something very different. It was basically driven by the idea that Christianity and its symbols are in someways offensive if not inclusive and that [non-Christians] become lesser or second class members of the community.”

p. After a second round of rebuttals, both Holmes and D’Souza made closing statements reinforcing their opening positions. A round of questions from the audience followed.
After the debate Holmes and D’Souza spoke to the Flat Hat about the debate.

p. “I came in here a little tired, I prayed that I would be able to think. I’m content but I’m not exhilarated,” he said.

p. Holmes also said that he was surprised at the personal comments that D’Souza made throughout the debate.

p. D’Souza stated that he was satisfied to be a part of the cross discussion.

p. “I was really very honored to be part of it. If our debate introduced some moral clarity I am very pleased to be part of that,” he said. “[Professor Holmes] taught me something about history,” he added. “I think he is very knowledgeable about the chapel. In some ways we were making very different kinds of arguments. This is not an argument over Anglican orthodoxy, this is fundamentally an argument over whether it’s right to go into a chapel and strip a cross.”

p. The debate comes three months after Nichol’s Oct. 26 decision to remove the cross from permanent display.

p. The two-foot tall, gold altar cross was offered to the Canterbury Club by Bruton Parish Church in 1931. According to Nichol, the cross’s removal was meant to make the Chapel “more welcoming to students, faculty, staff and visitors of all faiths.”

p. Nichol’s decision was met with disagreement among some students and alumni, who felt that the cross should remain as a symbol of the College’s Christian roots. Those who protested the decision also cited Nichol’s failure to discuss the matter with students prior to the removal of the cross.

p. Soon after the decision, Vince Haley, ’88, created the website www.savethewrencross.org, establishing a petition that called for Nichol to reverse his decision. Since then, over 10,500 people have signed to support the cross’s reinstatement.

p. Despite the petition, Nichol defended himself at a Nov. 16 meeting of the College Board of Visitors.

p. “Some have thought that my steps disrespect the traditions of the College or, even more unacceptable, the religious beliefs of its members,” he said. “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 others.”

p. At the same meeting, the BOV — headed by Rector Michael Powell — praised Nichol for his accomplishments during his term.

p. “It is clear from your report that there are a lot of great things going on here, even the occasional controversy,” Powell said. “In all that you do, you continue to make this board proud, and we’re grateful for your leadership.”

p. While the BOV offered tacit approval over the cross removal, the issue remained contentious for those opposed to the decision. In response to the outcry, Nichol announced two changes to the policy in a Dec. 20 school-wide e-mail. Beginning immediately, Nichol said, the cross would be displayed all day on Sundays, and a plaque would be installed to “commemorate the Chapel’s origins as an Anglican place of worship and symbol of the Christian beginnings of the College.”

p. Nichol also acknowledged that his decision was made in haste without properly consulting the College community.

p. “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.”

p. Despite the addendums to the policy, disparity on the issue has remained. Since October, the issue has been featured in the national media, including Fox News and the Washington Post. Wednesday, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the United States House of Representatives, wrote in the National Review Online that Nichol’s decision represented the use of “arbitrary” judgment.

p. “Tearing down long-established religious symbols is … as unacceptable as needlessly erecting new ones,” Gingrich said.

p. Gingrich also said in the article that the cross removal “bears the unmistakable influence” of College Chancellor Sandra Day O’Connor, who has supported non-endorsement of religion in public institutions.

p. Brian Whitson, the Director of University Relations, denied O’Connor’s involvement in the removal.

p. According to Wednesday’s edition of the Virginia-Pilot, Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine also had reservations about the removal.

p. “My basic feeling about it, though, is, look, [the Wren Chapel] was built at William and Mary as a chapel. And I think to respect what it has been, the role it has played in the College, and have the cross there certainly did not offend me,” Kaine said.

p. “[The cross] recognizes the history of what [Wren Chapel] has been, which you can’t change.”

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