Signs of the Cross (and Its Removal)

December 27, 2006

When the College of William & Mary was founded, there wasn't much of an emphasis on separation of church and state. The college -- the second oldest in the United States -- received its charter in 1693, well before the United States existed as a country and before a William & Mary alumnus, Thomas Jefferson, started to define for Virginia and the United States the idea of church-state separation. Even if Jefferson's ideas had been in circulation, they might not have applied: William & Mary didn't become a fully public institution until early in the 20th century, when ownership transferred to Virginia.

But the semester just completed saw a significant debate over the role and visibility of religion at William & Mary, ending with a letter released just before Christmas by President Gene R. Nichol. In the letter, Nichol admitted that his "own missteps" and poor communication have contributed to the anger over his decision to remove an altar cross from permanent display in the chapel of the college's Christopher Wren building. But while Nichol announced some minor modifications to the policy, he is largely standing behind it.

In his letter, Nichol offered a detailed explanation for his decision, which he framed around the need for all parts of the campus to be truly open to all. "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?" he wrote.

Nichol predicted that the issues involving the cross were "too powerful and heartfelt" to go away, and he's already been shown to be correct. A group of alumni and students called Save the Wren Cross, which has gathered more than 7,000 signatures on a petition opposing the change, has condemned Nichol's letter, saying that it indicates he has learned "nothing" from the uproar. The group is continuing to organize alumni and others to question the decision, and a number of conservative columnists and bloggers nationwide are taking up the cause.

Some of the online discussion has overstated Nichol's changes. Nichol ordered that the cross be removed from permanent display, but he didn't ban the use of the cross when requested for Christian religious services or other events at which participants want the cross. Many of the critics have stressed the long history of the Wren Chapel, suggesting that Nichol was changing centuries of tradition. While the Wren building is indeed centuries old, the cross is a relatively recent addition. A two-foot, gold altar cross, it was donated by a church to the college and put on display in 1931.

Nichol, who became president last year, said that he has quickly become fond of the Wren Chapel, calling it "the most ennobling and inspiring place on one of the most remarkable campuses in the world."

As he learned more about the college, Nichol write, "I began to understand that the experience of the chapel is not the same for all of us." He said that  "a number of members of our community have indicated to me that the display of a cross -- in the heart of our most important and defining building -- is at odds with our role as a public institution." To such students, he wrote, the cross divides those on the campus into "insiders and outsiders," into "those for whom our most revered space is keenly inviting and those whose presence is only tolerated."

He stressed that these concerns were not just theoretical. "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."

Alexandra S. Eichel, a junior at William and Mary who is president of the Hillel chapter there, said that the organization of Jewish students hadn't made the cross an issue and that she was as surprised as anyone to learn that the cross had been removed from permanent display. But she said she backed the president's decision.

Hillel -- which does not have a permanent facility at William and Mary and uses a variety of spaces for religious services and other activities -- has never used to chapel, because of the cross. "It's a viable option for us now. I think he did the right thing," said Eichel.

Of those protesting, she said, "I don't think they understand the church/state thing."

Critics of the decision say that Nichol has made too much out of the concerns about the cross and is insulting the college's traditions and history.

"The easily offended will always be with us. The only change signaled by Nichol's cross-removal order is a new tolerance for the intolerant," wrote Vince Haley, an alumnus who is founder of Save the Wren Cross, in a column in

"What will be next? The altar table and rail? The pulpit? 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."

Added Haley: "The Wren Cross is now stuffed away -- hidden like a shameful relic of an embarrassing past. W&M's new president may be terribly confused about W&M's identity. It doesn't mean the rest of us in the Commonwealth have to be."

Other critics of the president have focused more on process than substance. An editorial in The Flat Hat, the student newspaper, set out the issues this way: "Despite the obvious importance of this decision, it was made unexpectedly and without debate. There was no indication from the president that he was considering changing a half-century-old tradition, nor any consultation with the thousands of William and Mary students, professors and alumni who consider the Wren Building a symbolic embodiment of the college they hold so dear. The complete dismissal of community opinion is disrespectful to our traditions and ideals, and it has stirred up a deep well of resentment."

In his letter last week, Nichol said that he had moved ahead too quickly, and without consulting enough people, or communicating his ideas. He also said he was taking two additional steps. On Sundays, the cross will remain on display all day, not just during scheduled services. In addition, the college will commission a plaque for the chapel to commemorate its origins as an Anglican place of worship.

Save the Wren Cross is not impressed, putting out statements that Nichol is again acting without consultation, and reiterating its call for the cross to be restored permanently.

Nichol's letter suggested that he's not backing down. And he said good things are already happening as a result of the controversy. He said that Hillel had reserved the chapel for an event -- the first time that had ever happened in anyone's memory. And he said he has heard from both Muslim and Jewish students that they are using the chapel, for the first time, as a place for prayer and contemplation.

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