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William & Mary Removes Cross from Wren Chapel

Even as Dartmouth, in a soft concession to dignity, reinstalls the famous Tiffany and Royal Bavarian stained glass at Rollins Chapel—the biblical windows were removed in 1965 “out of concerns that they were letting too much light into people’s eyes and that they undermined the nondenominational character of the chapel”—the College of William & Mary is removing the two-foot-high gold cross from the campus chapel, located in the Sir Christopher Wren Building. The cross was previously located in the altar, and now is right gone.

The college tried to do it quietly. Initially, the only announcement came in the form of an e-mail from Melissa Engimann, W&M’s assistant director for Historic Campus. She wrote to employees who work in Wren, and explained the decision this way: “In order to make the Wren Chapel less of a faith-specific space, and to make it more welcoming to students, faculty, staff and visitors of all faiths, the cross has been removed from the altar area.”

Wren, it should be noted, is a significant building: It is the oldest academic structure in the United States. The present version was completed in 1931, but it is based on W&M’s original College Building, a structure dating to 1699. It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who also built St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Student outrage at the decision, therefore, was not surprising. When the news of William & Mary’s cross expurgation hit the news on Friday, college president Gene R. Nichol was forced to compose an e-mail to the entire university. Nichol, grace be, did not follow the Dartmouth “letting in too much light” precedent by claiming that people were mistaking the cross for a hat rack, and that it therefore had to be removed. Instead, he wrote: “Questions have lately been raised about the use of the Wren Chapel and the cross that is sometimes displayed there. Let me be clear. I have not banished the cross from the Wren Chapel.”

Nichol goes on to assure that the cross has not disappeared, because it may very well reemerge for certain Christian services. What’s interesting, though, is that he begins his e-mail with what seems to be a misrepresentation of history: “the Wren Chapel and the cross that is sometimes displayed there.” It seems obvious that such a brouhaha wouldn’t have erupted if the cross had always been a mere transitory element of the chapel. It must have previously been permanent—only now has it been reduced to temporary status.

The student newspaper, The Flat Hat, reported on the policy change just a few days ago. Reporter Angela Cota closed her story by mentioning that “[t]he cross was in place because of the College ‘s former association with the Anglican Church.” That relationship existed for the first 213 years of the college’s life. It ended in 1906 when it became a Virginia-supported institution. Yet the cross remained for one hundred years. “Though the College is now nondenominational,” Cota reports, “the room will still be considered a chapel.”


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