Circumspice: Reflections in the Wren Chapel

I am in the airport at Newport News, having spent the last few days at the CAMWS meeting in Williamsburg–it’s a small facility, but the coffee is surprisingly good. Yesterday, I made a point of going to the William & Mary campus, and specifically to the Wren Building, the oldest college building in the U.S., and if not designed by then at least modeled after the work of Sir Christopher Wren. In particular, I wanted to see the chapel and the cross that toppled a president.


The building itself, restored in the 20s with funding from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (as indeed is all of Williamsburg) has an antique charm that is satisfying, though it’s not without the odd, anachronistic touch. Upstair there’s a room featuring a portrait of Margaret Thatcher in her full baronial get-up, while on an office door, you can see a poster of Yoda holding a book on which “Torah” has been written. The outside is a pleasing collegiate red-brick, with the occasional oddity, like a stamped brick placed upside down by the door.

But, as I say, it’s the chapel I came to see. The interior doesn’t feel all that Wrennish– when I circumspice, it’s not St. Paul’s but buildings like the Old North Church in Boston I’m reminded of.

On a stand over in a side-case is the cross that ultimately forced the departure of W&M president, Gene Nichol, in 2008.

As Inside Higher Ed reported at the time (Feb. 13, 2008), the so-called Wren Cross was at the center of the storm:

The issue of the Wren Cross was among the incidents cited in Nichol’s letter as leading to his undoing. The cross is a two-foot gold altar cross, donated to the college in 1931. While the cross is relatively young in the history of William & Mary, its name comes from its place in the chapel of the Christopher Wren Building, a prized spot on the campus, and a place used for a variety of meetings and ceremonies — most of them not of a religious nature.

Nichol ordered the cross removed from permanent display in 2006, saying that it was inappropriate for such a prominent space at a public college to be identified with any single faith. He noted that William & Mary is no longer an institution where there is a common religious background for most students, and said that he had heard from non-Christian students who felt unwelcome or uncomfortable participating in events in the chapel.

The response was immediate and intense — with angry alumni barraging legislators and board members with complaints, and some large gifts were withdrawn. Nichol was accused of disrupting history by altering the chapel (even though the cross wasn’t part of Wren’s design and wouldn’t have been consistent with Wren’s approach to religious symbols). Nichol was accused of being hostile to religion, with critics going out of their way to tell reporters that he had done legal work for the American Civil Liberties Union, as if that would make his views clearly wrong.

Many students reported that the cross furor did not dominate campus life nearly as much as the outside debate would have suggested. Last March, in what was described as a compromise but was largely a reversal of Nichol’s decision, the cross was returned to permanent display, although other groups were invited to place objects in the chapel as well. At the time that decision was announced, Nichol was publicly on board. But on Tuesday, he made clear that he was not.

“As is widely known, I altered the way a Christian cross was displayed in a public facility, on a public university campus, in a chapel used regularly for secular college events — both voluntary and mandatory — in order to help Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and other religious minorities feel more meaningfully included as members of our broad community. The decision was likely required by any effective notion of separation of church and state. And it was certainly motivated by the desire to extend the college’s welcome more generously to all. We are charged, as state actors, to respect and accommodate all religions, and to endorse none. The decision did no more,” he said.


When we enter, a small group is reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and the departs. “Hey, that’s triggering me,” jokes my friend Oz. In fact, I do feel a slight traumatic flashback to  a contentious 2013 Franklin County School Board meeting over the place of prayer in schools: after 400+ audience members at the meeting loudly recited the Lord’s Prayer during the School Board’s moment of silence (as they had also done at the October 7th meeting), I understood as I never had before just how belligerent such proclamations of faith can sound, and how they can make one feel unwanted, alienated, and threatened, I wrote in a blog-post at the time. This small group of mixed ages and races doesn’t seem all that aggressive, but, though they are all smiles, there is a deliberate exclusiveness in their proclamation. Not for nothing does Christ say, And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly (Matthew 6:5-6).

I’m thinking about Nichol and his ouster. No doubt, if he had known there was a $12M gift riding on his decision he might have framed matters differently. Still, I admire his willingness to take a stand on the place of Christianity in larger public discourse. The past few years, and the ones ahead, will challenge those especially here in the South about the place of their faith in national debate. The protesters I dealt with, as well as those now up in arms about the FCHS GSA, feel certain that their Biblical principles get to dictate how others behave in the public schools, for all the world as though they are the only tax-payers in the county. By and large, the protesters are solid citizens who contribute valuably to the community–this I freely admit–but their inability to keep their faith in the closet and not in the corners of the streets is concerning, even triggering perhaps.

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Bible, Boston, Classics, Education, Emblems, England, Tennessee, The South. Bookmark the permalink.

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