Professor, author debate Wren cross removal
February 3, 2007
Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Wren Chapel, Religious Studies professor David L. Holmes and Dinesh D’Souza, a New York Times best-selling 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 conservative 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?”
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 15-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 200 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 dialogue, D’Souza insisted that, even with the cross, the chapel remained “in the spirit of Christian Universalism … a tolerant place.” He argued, however, that the cross had been pigeonholed by some, including 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’Souza, 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 overall 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 College did not own the cross, but it belonged to the Canterbury Club, the College’s Episcopalian student group, which borrowed it from the Burton Parish church in 1931.
p. “[The cross] doesn’t belong to William and Mary,” Holmes said. “The cross remains the property of Burton Parish, and conceivably they could ask for it back, because no ministry … wants its cross to be a source of peace.”
p. Holmes’ statements were greeted with 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 some ways 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.
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,” Holmes said.
Holmes also said that he was surprised at the personal comments that D’Souza made throughout the debate.
p. D’Souza said that he was pleased to be a part of the 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.
p. The debate comes three months after Nichol’s Oct. 26 decision to remove the cross, which was donated to the school in 1931, from permanent display. Nichol said 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 cross’s removal.
p. Over 10,500 people have signed a petition on the website SaveTheWrenCross.org to support the cross’s reinstatement.
Despite the petition, Nichol defended himself Nov. 16 at a College Board of Visitors meeting.
p. The BOV offered tacit approval over the cross removal, but the issue remained contentious for those opposed to the decision. In response to the outcry, Nichol – in a Dec. 20 school-wide e-mail – announced two changes to the policy. The cross would be displayed all day Sundays, and a plaque commemorating the chapel’s history would be installed.
p. Despite the addenda to the policy, disparity on the issue remained. Since The Flat Hat broke the story in October, the issue has been featured in the national media, including Fox News and the Washington Post.