Wren Chapel must serve all
March 2, 2007
I may be the only person left in America who hasn’t written an op-ed about the Wren Cross. And that’s odd. Not only did I instigate the whole thing, but I’m an editorialist from way back. Having been vilified in newspapers and living rooms, on Fox TV, and on the floor of the House of Delegates — just once, in this format, I ought to explain myself. Why has this guy brought this havoc? What’s wrong with him? Why doesn’t he give us a break and put the cross back?
p. One way to suggest the nub of it comes from a letter I read a couple of days ago. It was written by one of our strongest faculty members to Jim Livingston, co-chair of the committee I’ve asked to explore the cross issue and offer recommendations to the Board of Visitors and to me by mid-April.
p. __Dear Jim:__
__I had an interesting experience Thursday. A Jewish family from Richmond made an appointment with me as the son is trying to decide between UVA and W&M. Since my office is in the Wren, I showed them around and for the first time in 19 years as Director of Judaic Studies, a Jewish family did not ask me to explain the presence of the cross in a non-denominational chapel at a public college.__
p. __I do not know about every case, but from the letters I have received over these nearly two decades following my tour, it is certain that a great many of the Virginia Jewish families that have come and asked about the cross have decided to send their children elsewhere.__
p. __That same day, a husband and wife who were visiting the College stopped by to tell me what they thought of the cross matter. They did so because they saw a sign that indicated I was chair of religious studies.The husband blamed the increasing number of non-Christian students accepted since his graduation for everything wrong with the college.__
p. I know the statements reflected in the last paragraph of Raphael’s letter don’t represent the sentiments of our alumni. The William and Mary community is generous and embracing — it touches, it entwines, it reaches past barriers to form loves and friendships that endure. These bonds are the best part of the life of the College, old and new. Polarization is not our way. We’re a Tribe.
p. But most alumni would be saddened to read the first two paragraphs of the missive. In embracing our own religious practices, we have perhaps thought less of the impact on others. We have not understood, I think, that some don’t come here, or feel less welcome here, because they hail from different religious traditions. What has sometimes been true for Jewish students is now increasingly replicated by Muslim, Hindu and other non-Christians — from across the globe.
p. So, for me, the cross decision wasn’t about political correctness, or the ACLU, or the secular liberal left. It was, first and last, my reaction to these daily, destructive, quiet costs. Is it acceptable, as an aspiring public university, to open our doors less fully to some because of their religious affiliations? As strongly as we value our own beliefs, will we make others less welcome because of their own?
p. Given that, I changed the way the Wren Cross is displayed — placing it on the altar when requested. This seemed no great loss to Christian worshipers like myself. The cross would be ever-available for our use. It seemed odd to demand, in a compelling way, that it be displayed when we’re not there to ask for it.
p. I know that it was possible, before, for dissenters to request the cross be removed during various ceremonies. But I’ve been to Phi Beta Kappa initiations and the like at the Chapel. It’s possible at the beginning of such a session — attended by 60 or 70 happy celebrants — that a single student could stand and ask the cross be removed. Such gumption should not be demanded.
p. But now our community is riven — at least outside the campus walls. Many alumni are outraged. Some legislators are furious. A practiced ideological war has been launched. Vital donors express disapproval with needed dollars.
p. It may be that steps I’ve taken have caused wounds too deep to overcome. Perhaps they’ve touched a divide too white-hot to explore. But if we’re to be the national treasure we’re called to become, William and Mary must be open and welcoming to all. We must place all religions on an equal footing, rather than signing on to a particular tradition. There should be no strangers here.
These heady goals are essential to the College’s future. They’re more important than the wishes of a donor, or a pundit, or a political hatchet man. They’re also more important than a single president.
p. __Gene Nichol is the president of the College.__