Historic Wren Chapel

Students and alumni from the College of William & Mary who assembled more than 17,000 names on a petition protesting the college president’s arbitrary decision to remove a donated cross from the historic Wren Chapel say they are glad it’s being returned. But they also want an explanation for what happened.

Supporters of the cross displayed in the chapel for decades put together their protests at Save The Wren Cross, and had lobbied since last fall against President Gene Nichol’s sudden abandonment of tradition at the nation’s second-oldest university.

The university, which assembled a special committee that was given the responsibility of dealing with the situation as reports surfaced that Nichol’s actions could cost the school a $12 million donation, announced just this week that the cross would be put on permanent display in a special glass case in the chapel.

“We are very thankful that the Wren Cross will be returned to permanent display in Wren Chapel,” supporters of the cross said. “We urge the Committee to follow through on an implementation of a cross display practice that is consistent with those used by other Colonial Colleges with historic Christian chapels.”

The group also said it would urge the committee “to follow through on its original charge to examine broader questions involving the role of religion at public universities, and to solicit a wide spectrum of student, alumni, and community input.

“Specifically, there is still a significant amount of clarity that the Religion Committee can provide to the issues involving the display of the cross. With the removal of the cross from Wren Chapel last October, there was a theory advanced over the last several months – as late as March 1 – about the inappropriateness of the ongoing display of a Christian cross in an historic Christian chapel. With the Committee’s unanimous recommendation, this theory has clearly been repudiated. Yet, in the 71 word recommendation by the Committee, no explanation has been advanced for why its new approach to the cross display policy has been adopted,” the group said.

“We believe it is important to ground in sound reason and logic the rationale for departing from the previous cross display policy that had been in place for nearly 70 years.

“This is especially important since we are a university community, and since as the second oldest university in America – and one of her great liberal arts universities – the decisions made on this campus have great significance. They must be thoughtful, made with deliberate consultation, with accountability, and above all, with respect to the traditions and heritage that make William and Mary the Alma Mater of a Nation.

“When we proceed to alter traditions, a decent respect for public and College community opinion would suggest that a thorough accounting and explanation for such a departure is warranted,” the group said.

It was last fall when WND revealed that university administrator Melissa Engimann circulated an e-mail noting that the cross in Wren Chapel was going to be placed in permanent storage to make the chapel “less of a faith-specific space.”

Nichol said he’d gotten a complaint about the cross, and order it removed without consultation. As the number of names on the Save The Wren Cross petition rose, he admitted he “acted too quickly and should have consulted more broadly” in the decision to remove the cross. In an unsuccessful attempt to repair the damage done, he dictated that a plaque would be put up in the chapel and the cross would be put on the altar for extended hours on Sunday.

Sandra Day O’Connor, under whose watch on the U.S. Supreme Court tolerance for Christian symbols in public locations eroded significantly, is chancellor, but she’s declined to return WND calls seeking comment.


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