One chapel altar, minus one cross

virginia70This may sound like a strange question, but I think it is one that needs to be asked and, if asked, it could add some needed depth to a hot-button story in Virginia higher education.

Ready? Why does anyone think that there should be a cross on the altar of the nondenominational, multi-faith Wren Chapel at the College of William & Mary?

I realize that this is an emotional issue for many people, including alumni, donors, parents and a few students. I know that this 313-year-old school was founded as an Anglican institution (and I will avoid any cheap jokes about the role of the cross in modern debates between Episcopalians and Anglicans). But the fact is that — whatever its heritage — William & Mary is now a public school. It’s a state school.

Unless the school has other chapels available for members of other faiths, what is the church-state argument (other than historical) for a state school to have a Christian cross in its multi-faith chapel? After a quick run through the school’s website, I cannot find evidence of other chapels.

I raise this because of a page-one story by reporter Natasha Altamirano in the The Washington Times, under the headline “Bow to diversity leaves altar empty.” The hook for the story is the tense atmosphere at the back-to-school State of the College address by President Gene R. Nichol. Here is a key part of the story:

“I modified the way in which the cross is displayed in the ancient Wren Chapel seeking to assure that the marvelous Wren — so central to the life of the college — be equally open and welcoming to all,” Mr. Nichol told roughly 400 students, alumni and faculty packed into the college’s Commonwealth Auditorium.

Mr. Nichol said the decision has received wide support but “many, many have seen it otherwise” and have asked him to reconsider.

. . . Mr. Nichol said removing the cross has raised broader questions: “Does the separation of church and state at public universities seek a bleaching of the importance and influence of faith and religious thought from our discourse?” and “Can a public university honor and celebrate a particular religious heritage while remaining equally welcoming to those of all faiths?”

The old policy at the college was that the 2-foot-high, century-old bronze cross stayed on the altar unless someone requested that it be removed for a special event. Now, that policy has been flipped. Those using the chapel can request that the cross be taken out of storage and returned to its place on the altar.

Before, the bare altar was optional. Now, the cross is optional at William & Mary.

Some people are upset by the symbolism of the change. I am asking about the legal reality. Why have a cross in a multi-faith, state-funded chapel?

If parents, students and donors are upset, they should support private schools where the presence of the cross is normative. That is their choice. It would be interesting to ask if any William & Mary supporters are planning to do that. Can Nichol please both sides?

However, if the opponents of this move have arguments that are deeper than symbolism and tradition, I would be interested in reading them. I hope reporters at the Times and elsewhere will ask that question.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Steve

    Wasn’t the cross *added* to the chapel a significant period of time after it was first constructed?

    Doesn’t the removal make it more authentic?

  • Nancy Reyes

    Multi faith state funded university/college?
    Are you perhaps implying that any university/college that accepts federal or state funding needs to remove their chapel?
    And if a church college accepts non church students, they are forbidden to teach their own religion or have a chapel?
    Part of the reason is to remind people of the heritage of the school, but that might depend on the charter of the school, which is not mentioned in the article.
    Perhaps they should instead follow the practice of one chapel I attended Mass at. They had no Catholic chapel, and the interdenomanational chapel had the crucifix behind a curtain…
    “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”…

  • Elmo

    There’s a distinct difference between a college that accepts state funding and a state run college. The William and Mary governing board is appointed by the governor. This is a public, state run organization.

    Church/religiously affiliated colleges are different. A person should be able to attend a state run university without worrying about religion.

  • Judy Harrow

    For me, the key question is whether this chapel is open for private prayer or meditation at times when services are not being held.

    I would think that any religious group present on campus should be able to place their own symbols on the altar during their own services. But, if it is open to all students for private prayer or meditation at other times, then it should be religiously neutral — welcoming to students of different faith traditions who may wish to pray at the same time. A good example of this is the beautiful, elegant Delegates’ Chapel at the United Nations.

    If I go to a church affiliated school (and, actually, I did, and loved it there), then the chapel will be set up according to that church’s customs, and I have no basis for complaint. But, in a public school, any facilities should be equally available to all.

    warmly / Judy

  • tmatt


    Yes, a state-funded campus needs to have multiple chapels or to have an mutli-faith neutral chapel.

    Religious colleges are voluntary associations and have the right to promote their own worship, doctrines, moral codes, etc.

    Why doesn’t W&M keep the historic chapel intact and build another neutral chapel for other faiths?

  • Micah Weedman

    As someone who dealt with this very issue at a non-state run (United Methodist) school, I think a more pertinent question that a reporter could ask is “Is hospitality to others itself an expression of historic Christianity that at once links the school with is own history and still recognizes the complex contemporary setting?” Furthermore, can hospitality to others, an historic Christian virtue, be faithfully expressed in the very way that W&M is expressing it?

    There are, in fact, ways to go about thinking through this that befuddle the culture-warrior mentality.

    Moving symbols in order to welcome others does not, de facto, render a space “neutral.” My hunch is that if the christian heritage of W&M is more than just nominal, there are plenty of other resources and practices to help it navigate this issue. If it is just nominal, then the lack of said resources and practices makes the symbols useless anyway.

  • Mark

    I am a Mormon. We don’t use the cross as the symbol of our faith. You will find no crosses or crucifixes anywhere in our buildings. The only depictions of a cross you will see will be on the library pictures showing the crucifiction.

    I have attended LDS meetings held in a wide variety of venues. They’ve ranged from rented Elk lodges where the church members as part of the rent had to clean up the debris from the Saturday night party before starting Sunday church, through outdoor settings sitting on crudely hewn logs, through modern LDS meetinghouses, and even to a beautiful rented Catholic Church with all its statuary, crucifixes, trimmings and trappings.

    But whether it was a garbage can of empty beer bottles just outside the door, or a 100 year old crucifix on the pulpit, it made little difference to the spirit of the meeting.

    I think this controversy centers around tradition more than dogma, doctrine, or legal niceties. When you butt up against tradition, you almost always ruffle feathers. People don’t like their traditions changed. And when they see no good reason to change, they fight even harder. I suspect changing the policy from always there except when it’s not, to never there except when it is, is a change people see no good reason to make.

  • John Mark

    To me, the tragedy is that so many of our “Ivy League” schools, established to educate students in a way that truly connected (Christian) faith and learning, have now become totally empty of their Christian roots. Once a school becomes a state institution, then, of course, they must bow to the pluralistic spirit of our age, and the mandates of our law. We are poorer for it, though.

  • Alexei


    For traditional Christianity, icons, crosses and other symbols are organically linked to worship. So it’s not so much tradition with a small ‘t.’ For some people, it is a dogmatic issue.

  • Dick

    It seems to me there is an important difference between not adding vs. removing religious symbols. Think of the extreme case of the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan. No one is offended if an Islamic country fails to create Buddhist images, but we are offended when they are destroyed.

    Similarly, no one is offended or surprised when public universities do not build chapels. Or if a chapel is built, we expect it to be sensitive to multiple faiths. But when the administration actively purges an historically Christian space of its identifying symbols, the action is not viewed as neutral toward faith, but as inconsiderate at best, hostile at worst.

  • Samuel J. Howard

    Is there in fact any case law on “removing” religious symbols as a form of establishment?

    If the chapel and it’s furnishings (even if that doesn’t mean “this particular cross”, but having a cross in it) are older than the constitution doesn’t it seem like a form of preference for irrelgion over relgion to force it’s removal at this point.

  • Tom Harmon

    At the time of the transfer from private to public hands, did the state see this transfer as necessitating the removial of the cross from the altar? Why or why not? If not, what has changed with respect to our understanding of the relationship of Church and state? Which understanding is closer to that enshrined in the Commonwealth’s constitution? The U.S.’s constitution? The American Founders?

    To me, that’s the real story.

  • Scott Allen

    Dick, thank you for your comparison to the Taliban vs. Bhuddist images. It is a good analogy.

    In the first comment, Steve asks “Wasn’t the cross *added* to the chapel a significant period of time after it was first constructed? Doesn’t the removal make it more authentic?”

    Steve, I admittedly do not have a reference for this, but I strongly suspect that the chapel had a cross on display before the other one was donated. Simply put, “chapel” and “christianity” were synonymous in the 1800s.
    When you assert that the cross was “added” you are making a very odd assumption. I believe the onus is on you to explain why a chapel, in the 1800s, would not have a cross on display.
    Please recognize that this is “not just any” cross — it is 2 feet high, and made of bronze, and was in all likelihood a superior replacement. Such “upgrades” of donated property happen all the time, in churches, universities, and all sorts of private institutions.

    Overall, I believe your desire to claim greater “authenticity” reflects an eagerness to erase the authentic, christian elements of our history and our society.

  • Brad

    …..and does it matter to anyone that the chapel is in fact a reconstruction, on original foundation elements, of what architects THOUGHT it might have looked like in the 18th Century? Granted, I believe the chapel in the current reconstruction is precisely where the original one was – and I do believe there are original catacombs below it. But I think this chapel is from the 1930s (??) Also, was it ever consecrated?

    I graduated from WIlliam and Mary – If I recall correctly, the chapel could be ‘reserved’ for almost any purpose by probably any group on campus. I’m quite sure I remember being inducted into two fraternities within its walls – heard concerts performed, etc. etc. Lots of secular uses.

    Additionally, while the college is steeped in history and tradition (I truly doubt any Amercan college can claim to be MORE so) – still, W&M is a modern university, promoting cutting-edge thinking… And producing cutting-edge thinkers! Take, for example, Thomas Jefferson himself!

    Since this lovely panelled room functions as so much more than just a Christian chapel, and at a State College, I’m for keeping the cross in storage until it is requested. Indeed, the chapel is a perfect place for weddings – how lovely if that beautiful space can be chosen by ANYONE for a wedding, without them having to think of it as a thinly-disquised Christian chapel.

    (Going onut on a bit of a limb, I have to think that ol’ TJ would absolutely have agreed.)

  • N Hartley

    The Path to Being Great and Diverse is Paved with the Display of Crosses in University Chapels all over the USA

    The controversy surrounding the Wren chapel and the Wren Cross appears to be one in which all facts have not been brought to light. A recent survey of Top National Universities demonstrates results contrary to Nichol’s decision, and does not support the idea of no chapel or cross in a “Public” school. Please understand that the College of William and Mary is not a full blown “public” school but only fractionally state supported by a small minority contribution from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Please refer to the data on the link
    N. Hartley
    Alum of William and Mary

  • Scott Allen

    My comment that the Chapel probably had a cross in it in the 1800s is contraverted by this quote from the Florida Times-Union: “Holmes noted that the chapel, built as an Anglican place of worship in 1732, did not even have a cross until about 1940.”
    I’m not sure that this is “proof.” I’m a bit curious why an “Anglican place of worship” would not have a cross on display? Is this common Anglican practice? Oh well, my question is a bit late given that many days have elapsed since this original post.
    I find Brad’s comments about multiple use of the chapel only confirm that secular humanism rules at W&M (what he calls a “modern university”).
    Brad, you can keep Thomas Jefferson. I went to his university (UVA) and TJ is only a hero if you are very selective in studying the details of his life.

  • Brad

    I read the website linked in N. Hartley’s post, and, doesn’t the site’s entire case boil down to Tradition and Peer Pressure (among similar American Universities)? Forgive me for trotting out the usual arguments, but – of course, Tradition and Peer Pressure were, in a very real sense, what kept slaves enslaved, women lacking the right to vote, blacks (and now gays) out of the military, inter-racial marriage illegal, etc. etc. All very popular ideas in their time, now gone the way of the dodo. Point being – popularity has no direct correlation to whether an idea is intrinsically right or moral or ethical.

    Logical fallacy here: “The Path to Being Great and Diverse is Paved with the Display of Crosses in University Chapels all over the USA.” No cerrelation has been shown (or attempted) between diversity and cross-display (and common sense tells us there couldn’t be, in the sense of cross-display promoting diversity, which is what the author is subtly suggesting). There are similar fallacies throughout the linked website. (One of my favorites; how does the keeping of a cross in storage until it is requested become “Is the William and Mary community prepared to close the book on this heritage [as a private institution for 2/3 of its history]?”)

    Scott Allen mentions Secular Humanism at W&M with evident distaste. Good heavens – why?? Wouldn’t a secular humanist stance be the perfect one for the administration of a modern, secular university to hold?

    Also, there’s this talk of selective study of the details of Thomas Jefferson’s life. I would love to know what kinds of details one would need to overlook in order to consider Jefferson a ‘hero.’- just because I imagine I would disagree.

    One final thought. While ‘keeping the cross on display unless its removal is specifically requested’ would have to be considered a subtle promotion of Christianity, NOT having the cross on display can in no way be considered a suppression of Christianity. [Or a suppression of Tradition, for that matter, if it is true that the chapel "did not even have a cross until about 1940.”]

  • Brad

    To me, the tragedy is that so many of our “Ivy League” schools, established to educate students in a way that truly connected (Christian) faith and learning, have now become totally empty of their Christian roots. Once a school becomes a state institution, then, of course, they must bow to the pluralistic spirit of our age, and the mandates of our law. We are poorer for it, though.

    Good heaven’s, John Mark – that’s not a tragedy. That is progress – movement toward improvement! And we most certainly are not the poorer for it!

  • Thunder

    Amen. You are so right. Exclusive religious symbolism does not belong at state institutions. I have a strong sense of spirituality and it belongs to me and not on display.

    Thank you.