Cross Controversy at College of William & Mary

Dom links to a (biased) report and a webpage about a controversy surrounding the removal of a cross from the altar at Wren Chapel at College of William & Mary. President’s statement. After the pressure, he said it could stay in the chapel all day on Sunday’s, and he’d put up a plaque commemorating the historical role of Anglicanism at the institution. That didn’t make folks happy.

But here‘s something interesting. The chapel didn’t have a cross on the altar until 1940, notes B.J. Pryor, an interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg:

… In the colonial era, the Church of England was decidedly more Protestant than it has been more recently. The Rev. James Blair was the founder and for fifty years (1693-1743) served as the first president of the college. All the college buildings built before the 20th century were built during his administration, including the chapel wing of the “Wren” building.

The Rev. Mr. Blair would never have permitted a cross to be displayed on the chapel altar. Mr. Blair would have regarded such an ornament as an idolatrous relic of Roman Catholic superstition. Neither was an altar cross employed in any other church in Virginia during the 17th or 18th centuries. …

In 1907 the local Episcopal Church, Bruton Parish, acquired by gift a rather plain brass cross for it altar; the first altar cross in the church’s history. In 1938, they acquired a better one, and donated the old one to the college. This was put on display in the Wren chapel in 1940. The chapel had stood for 200 years and been through several remodelings and rebuildings without anyone thinking to add a cross to the altar. …

Moving the cross is not an insult to the college’s Christian origins. In fact, placing the cross on the altar is an insult to the college’s Protestant origins. Neither the founder of the college, Rev. Mr. Blair, nor the reinventor of the college, Bishop Madison, would have tolerated a cross on the altar. (Bishop Madison and his cousin the president were both great supporters of the Statute for Religious Freedom, and were opposed to religious favoritism in state institutions.) At no point in the college history has anyone thought a cross necessary there until now. There would never have been a cross in the chapel if Bruton Church had not thought this one no longer good enough for the church, and replaced it with a better one. The college received this one almost by accident as a hand-me-down.

Catholic Campus Ministry, by the way, has used the former St. Bede’s Church since that church built a larger space in 2003. No cross-less altar here; rather, all the glorious frills of Catholic tradition that the founders of William & Mary found so appalling. St. Bede’s was the first American shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham.

One critic of President Nichol’s compares him to the Taliban for removing the cross. Well, if anyone should be criticized for abandoning the cross and other symbols, it should be the iconoclastic reformers, for it was in that line that the College of William and Mary proudly stood until this used brass cross was placed on the altar in 1940. We can let Protestants argue about that legacy.

Bottom line as I see it: W&M is a public university, and the chapel is used by people of all faiths. Not having symbols of one religion on permanent display is consistent with practices at US military chapels. Those who want to use the bare cross can retrieve it. Those who want a crucifix can bring their own. Those who want a Bible enshrined can do that. That’s what freedom is about.

F.I.R.E. has nothing about this controversy, and I don’t think it will, because of this. This action isn’t a restriction on freedom, it simply takes the state out of the role of seeming to promote a particular religion–which is just what the First Amendment prescribes.

4 thoughts on “Cross Controversy at College of William & Mary

  1. You don’t give a link. I see she has one webpage where she repeats the complaints of those outraged. But I don’t see anything that adds to the discussion of the points I’ve raised.

  2. This is exactly right. And, the cross-loving evangelicals can still drag the cross out of storage for their worship services whenever they want to.

    By the way, the W & M Catholic Chapel is fantastic! If only all campus ministries had chapels like that!

  3. I’m also surprised that I actually like the Dick Vosko-designed new St. Bede’s Parish – with the exception of the reservation chapel. Well done, Father Vosko, and stick to designing new churches like that and leave the venerable old cathedrals and parishes alone!

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