Weeks after William and Mary president Gene R. Nichol ordered a cross removed from permanent display in the college’s historic Wren Chapel, has finally written to express the reasoning behind his rather abrupt decision. While he regretted his poor communication and “own missteps,” Nichol stood by the decision because — surprise, surprise — he wanted to see the chapel become more inclusive:
“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?”
Nichol goes on to discuss the examples of exclusion that have so troubled him:
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.
While there will always be those who are offended by the presence of crosses in chapels, the reality of course is that a “chapel” drained of its religious symbols becomes nothing more special than a particularly attractive room — typically filled with uncomfortable wooden benches instead of chairs. The building is emptied of its history and meaning. The president certainly has the power to remove the cross, but he should at least do the decent thing and rename the “chapel” the “oak room” or some such.
Because, after all, some people are offended by chapels without crosses. And we wouldn’t want anyone to be offended, would we?