Politics & Policy

Save the Wren Chapel

An astounding bit of blabber from the president of William and Mary.

The decision late last month by the new president of the College of William & Mary to remove the 100-year old Wren Cross from the college’s 274-year-old school chapel in order to make it “more welcoming” has abruptly brought the nation’s second oldest university to a dramatic crossroads. If this decision, at what has been one of the world’s leading liberal arts universities, ultimately stands, it will signal a dramatic weakening in the intellectual standing of a once proud college and will have corrosive effects for the wider culture.

As an alumnus of the college, I oppose this decision and last week helped launch, with some current students, an online petition addressed to W&M’s president that requests that he reverse his decision. This petition and other information can be found at www.SaveTheWrenCross.org. As of last night, there were 2,100 signatures of students, alumni, and concerned citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Founded by Royal Charter in 1693 from English King William and Queen Mary, the school is known as the “Alma Mater of a Nation,” owing to the number of prominent early Americans who studied there, among them being Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and John Marshall.

Like many of America’s first universities, W&M’s original mission was in part to train young men for the Christian ministry. The first paragraph of its Royal Charter reveals the Christian underpinnings of its founding:

Forasmuch as our well-beloved and faithful subjects, constituting the General Assembly of our Colony of Virginia, have had it in their minds, and have proposed to themselves, to the end that the Church of Virginia may be furnished with a seminary of ministers of the gospel, and that the youth may be piously educated in good letters and manners, and that the Christian faith may be propagated amongst the Western Indians, to the glory of Almighty God; to make, found and establish a certain place of universal study, or perpetual College of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, and other good Arts and Sciences.

Not surprisingly given its roots, a chapel was constructed as a part of the new college’s main academic building, known today as the Wren Building. It is today the oldest academic building in continuous use in the United States. The Wren Building was originally built in 1699. That part of it that is known as the Wren Chapel was built in 1732. The Wren Building burned down three times; each time it was rebuilt just as it was before.

The first W&M President James Blair was a Christian minister. In fact, 11 of the 26 college presidents have been Christian ministers.  

In 1906, W&M became a public institution within the Virginia university system. Notwithstanding its public status, the bylaws of William & Mary’s governing authority — the Board of Visitors — still recognize the authority of the 1693 Royal Charter in governing the affairs of the school as long as its provisions are not inconsistent with Virginia law. In fact, each year in February, W&M celebrates “Charter Day” with much pomp and circumstance to recognize and celebrate the historical roots of the college.

In the 1930s, Wren Chapel underwent a renovation, and around that time a College neighbor, Bruton Parish Episcopal Church, gave Wren Chapel the cross that had been Bruton Parish’s altar cross since 1906.

Wren Chapel had permanently displayed the Wren Cross on its altar table since that time.

That is, until sometime in October 2006, when William & Mary’s new President Gene R. Nichol ordered it removed from permanent display, to be used henceforth only for “appropriate religious services.”

The removal came to public light only after an internal e-mail by a W&M employee responsible for the chapel was shared with the school newspaper, which ran it on its website. This e-mail read in part that “In order to make the Wren Chapel less of a faith-specific space, and to make it more welcoming to students, faculty, staff and visitors of all faiths, the cross has been removed from the altar area.”

In a subsequent e-mail to students on October 27, the Friday of Homecoming weekend, President Nichol confirmed this new policy, adding additional reasoning in noting that the “chapel is also used frequently for College events that are secular in nature–and should be open to students and staff of all beliefs…our Chapel, like our entire campus, must be welcoming to all.” Notably, Nichol has so far failed to notify alumni about his decision (more about this below).

Nichol’s logic is clear-cut: Because Wren Chapel is sometimes being used for events that are not related to the nature of a chapel, then Wren Chapel must no longer really be what we commonly understand a chapel to be. After all, for these events taking place in Wren Chapel that do not pertain to what normally goes on in a chapel, people of all beliefs must be welcome, including presumably those who have anti-chapel beliefs. Therefore, Wren Chapel must cease being a chapel so it can be more “welcoming,” and yes, even welcoming of those with anti-chapel beliefs. Got that? In the name of welcoming all, Nichol’s logic carries with it an enormous amount of exclusion, namely the exclusion of those who enjoyed the 274 years of Wren Chapel being a chapel.

Nichol may still wish to call it by its old name, but Nichol’s logic carries with it an unambiguous change to the substance of Wren Chapel.

The first logical step in this effort to be “welcoming of all beliefs,” including those with anti-chapel beliefs, is the removal of the Wren Cross. Interestingly, some in the religion faculty of William & Mary are keen to point out (apparently in support of Nichol’s decision) that when Wren Chapel was first built in 1732 that it was very unlikely that there would have been a cross on the altar table. Yet, what these faculty members are missing is that Nichol is not arguing for a return to the original understanding of a Christian chapel circa 1732; he is arguing for a post-chapel William & Mary altogether. The Wren Chapel in 1732 had mandatory morning daily prayer and required adherence by faculty to Anglican teachings. The religion faculty is not suggesting that we go back to that part of Wren Chapel’s history. Instead, they are picking that part of Wren’s history that might give some cover today to the decision to remove the Wren Cross. Nor do the religion faculty account for how to explain away the significance of the previous 70-year period when the Wren Cross was displayed on the altar.

Also unmentioned in Nichol’s e-mail is the policy that had governed the display of the Wren Cross prior to Nichol’s cross removal order. If any group wanted to remove the cross during their use of the Wren Chapel, they could request so and the cross would be removed and returned once the event was over. Last year for example, the Wren Cross was removed from the Chapel upon request for approximately 20 out of the 111 wedding celebrations that took place there. This policy clearly wasn’t good enough for the secular minded; they apparently felt unwelcome and offended in Wren Chapel even when they weren’t there. Apparently the idea of others in the presence of the cross was unsettling to them.

Nichol explicitly has made the survival of Wren Chapel contingent on whether some people feel unwelcome there.

If your measure of inclusiveness, “welcomeness,” and diversity is whether somebody feels excluded or unwelcome — as opposed to whether anyone is actually, in fact, excluded from attendance at or is unwelcome at a Wren Chapel function — then those claiming the feeling of being excluded or unwelcome become pretty powerful in deciding what stays and what goes.

By this logic, the altar table in Wren Chapel cannot stay. Some will be offended. Neither can the altar rails. The pulpit cannot stay — after all, readings from Isaiah and St. Paul are known to be read from the pulpit, the idea of which may offend someone. W&M’s alma mater song contains this stanza: “God, our Father, Hear our Voices, Listen to our Cry, Bless the College of our Fathers, Let Her Never Die.” Surely, those who object to a cross in a chapel will be mortally offended by these words.

Which university is next? Consider the school chapel at the University of Virginia. It also displays a cross on its altar table that can be removed during events upon request. John Casteen has been president of UVA for 16 years. He has not yet discovered that UVA’s chapel cross is unwelcoming and offensive.

The news of the removal of the Wren Cross has made the local newspapers in Virginia but has not yet received national attention. The college has so far made no effort to inform alumni, which is odd, because President Nichol took great care to notify all alumni in the wake of his decision on October 10 not to appeal the decision by the NCAA that ordered the removal of the two feathers in W&M’s athletic logo. In that message, Nichol used 801 words to explain his decision. As for the cross, he devotes just 175 words, and this in a note just to students.

But the word is getting out. In addition to the website, a group of students yesterday sent out an e-mail to several thousand alumni about the situation on campus. They used a list-serve service that they registered with the college that makes it easier to send e-mails out to large groups. The students apparently struck a chord, both with alumni and with the College administration. The number of petition signatures increased by 500 in just a few hours and their list-serve account was mysteriously deleted from the college system a few hours later.

Alumni disagreeing with the decision have begun sending President Nichol messages:

R. Greg Paszkiewicz (94) asks whether William & Mary students are “so fragile that the mere symbol of a religion, which they may or may not agree with, should reduce them to [a] pool of blubbering Jell-O?”

Bill Reidway (95) believes the action is fraught with danger for the rest of society: “By conceding that students and citizens have a solemn right not to be offended by public symbols, and by elevating above all else the sensibilities of those who may not feel sufficiently ‘welcomed’, [Nichol is] setting the stage for the exclusion from society all things religious, ethnic, and cultural.”

Lieutenant Hunter Abell (02) notes in a letter to Nichol that “Thomas Jefferson, William & Mary’s most famous alum, described the teachings of Jesus Christ as ‘[T]he most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.’ Surely the continued presence of a religious symbol celebrating the life of a man who advocated one to, ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you,’ is in accordance with William & Mary’s highest values.”

Van Smith (03) writes to Nichol that “[b]y removing spiritual and historical references we do not become more tolerant, we simply ignore the past. How are different cultures and faiths ever to learn how to coexist with one another if they are never confronted by the historic markers of the past to engage this understanding?”

Karen Hall (73) writes to Nichol: “I have been very generous to the college since I graduated, including single-handedly funding Premiere Theatre until Dr. Catron retired. Last year, even though I had taken a break from work and had no income, I doubled my pledge. I am a member of your much-touted Fourth Century Club. However, I will not donate another penny to the school until the cross is returned to the altar. Instead, I will send the money to a school that is not embarrassed by its Christian heritage. I plan to encourage the other alumni with whom I have contact to join me in withholding donations until the cross is returned.”

George Washington got his surveying license from William & Mary and served as its chancellor during his entire presidency. In his Farwell Address, Washington wrote how religion and morality were “indispensable supports” to America’s political prosperity. Imagine what Washington would think of the removal of such a symbol of religion and morality in the name of being more welcoming.

Can a growing but deadening secularism ultimately defend the experiment in American democracy? Washington, Adams, Hamilton all would have thought no. However, it seems that Gene Nichol and William & Mary are ready to give it a try.

– Vince Haley, a founder of SaveTheWrenCross.org, graduated from William & Mary in 1988 and the University of Virginia School of Law in 1992. Haley is research director for Newt Gingrich at the American Enterprise Institute.

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