In October of 2006, William & Mary’s new college president, Gene R. Nichol, ordered the altar cross removed from the university’s colonial-era Wren Chapel. His goal was to make the chapel "less of a faith-specific space, and to make it more welcoming to . . . visitors of all faiths." The eighteen-inch-high brass cross, a gift from neighboring Bruton Parish Church in the 1930s, had been on display unless guests using the chapel requested its removal, according to previous policy.
Shocked by the move, which even Nichol admitted was made hastily and without broad consultation, alumnus Vince Haley began a website and an online petition to return to the old policy. In three months, the petition has accrued more than fourteen thousand signatures and spurred a national discussion on religious symbolism in public spaces.
The Wren Cross episode raises several important questions, one of which is the notion of "historical accuracy" in a historically Christian space.
For more than two hundred of its 274 years, a cross was not displayed on the Wren Chapel’s communion table. Episcopal chapels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shunned crosses as "popish" trappings. Around the time of the Civil War, Bishop Frances Whittle, an acquaintance of Robert E. Lee, directed Virginia’s Episcopal parishes to keep not only crosses but also flowers and decorative candles off communion tables.
Based on this chapter in history, distinguished William & Mary history faculty Melvin Ely and Rhys Isaac have come to Nichol’s support, claiming that the president’s move makes the colonial chapel more historically accurate. But do the first two hundred years of the Wren Chapel¯sans cross¯capture the character of the space more so than do the past seventy years, when the cross has been displayed? Which period in time is the proper reference point?
This dilemma, faced by the staff at William & Mary, is a standard consideration in historical restoration projects. "Historically accurate" architecture often means that a building or interior reflects the time of founding or origin, the point at which the most illustrious tenant resided there, or the years when a particularly significant event occurred. However, restoring an institution or a building to any given point in its linear history is to accomplish "historical accuracy," as far as that moment in time is concerned. Therefore, the restoration reference point for a five-hundred-year-old building may rightly fall within the past hundred years.
Examples of this can be found in Virginia’s Orange County, about three hours from Williamsburg by car, and along the James River, not far from Williamsburg. In rural Orange County, visitors can tour James and Dolley Madison’s Montpelier, nestled in the Appalachian foothills and covered in scaffolding and construction workers. The home has gone through multiple transformations over the space of 250 years. In the most recent restoration project, the family home is not being restored to its sumptuous 1890 appearance, which may have been a worthy project. Instead, restorationists decided to tear the home down to its bones, remove entire additions, and re-create a Madison-era spartan, unassuming house. Seven miles from Colonial Williamsburg, Carter’s Grove, an eighteenth-century Georgian mansion now closed to the public, was shown for years with an interior design that dated back to an 1928 restoration. A preservationist makes a judgment as to where on the timeline he or she will pause.
Back at the Wren, there is another historic decision to be made¯or reversed. Yet the discussion of history may be beside the point as far as the new president is concerned. Nichol has never indicated that fidelity to tradition is what motivated his removal by fiat. What guides Nichol is an apparently heartfelt desire to make the chapel into a special place where there are no "insiders and outsiders." Nichol wrote: "I have sought . . . to find ways to assure that the Wren Chapel is equally open and welcoming to every member of this community. My goal has not been to bleach all trace of religious thought and influence from our facilities and programs, but rather to offer the inspiration of the Wren to all."
History, nevertheless, may figure in again. The cross was not traditionally displayed in Anglican churches, as a Protestant reaction against all things "Roman." Therefore, the motivation for not displaying a cross was anti-Catholic and, one could easily argue, non-inclusive and highly sectarian. The Oxford Movement of the 1840s introduced an Anglican openness to Catholic traditions and devotional practices, as Rhys Isaac pointed out in an editorial. Therefore, displaying the cross could actually be seen through a historical lens as a move toward ecumenism, reconciliation, and, yes, welcoming others.
Nichol assured the student body that "the cross will remain in the Chapel and be displayed on the altar at appropriate religious services. But the Chapel is also used frequently for College events that are secular in nature—and should be open to students and staff of all beliefs . . . . Our Chapel, like our entire campus, must be welcoming to all." The "goal" of the cross removal at the Wren¯to create a chapel that is "welcoming" to those from all religions¯is nebulous and likely unattainable, and it makes the president beholden to the whims of the disgruntled. It is interesting logic that "our most revered place" should "be keenly welcoming." It is an odd, modern remix of concepts: A society’s most revered or sacred places are often not welcoming to the general public. Mecca and Medina come to mind, as do the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and the roped-off High Altar of a cathedral.
The chapel was not designed as a multipurpose room but obviously constructed for Anglican services. This is reflected in its interior¯in large part copied from features in neighboring Bruton Parish Episcopal Church¯and its furnishings, which include a pulpit, a kneeling rail, and a table designed for celebrating the Eucharist. To remove the cross will not erase the architectural message that the chapel was designed to be a space for Christian worship.
In light of the diversity of Williamsburg’s students and tourists, it is a nearly impossible task to create a place of worship where every person will feel welcome or "at home." It is possible to play interior designer at the Wren and add or subtract decorative elements, but is it possible to engineer a worshipful response from a non-Christian in a Christian chapel by closeting the cross? If he is of a mind to be offended by Christian symbolism, he will find much else to estrange him in the chapel, and much else to trouble him at the college. William & Mary’s chancellor’s badge displays the cross from the archbishop of Canterbury’s arms. The Marischal Mace, carried in graduation processions, has a cross atop. Portraits of Episcopal bishops who served as former college presidents adorn the Wren halls. The fourth verse of the Alma Mater ("God our Father, Hear our voices"), sung at all major college events, is addressed to a decidedly male, monotheistic God.
Whatever aspects of it may offend, the Wren Chapel is , and has been, open to all in a very real sense. There is no barrier at the door, no questionnaire one must fill out before entering, and no tithes required. It is physically and spiritually welcoming to everyone, although not all may feel comfortable inside.
After all, a sense of "being welcome" is partly due to the external situation and partly due to one’s own internal disposition, completely independent of external factors. As long as the college maintains Greek residences, foreign-language housing, and graduate student¯only lounges, there are bound to be places on campus where a student does not feel completely welcome or senses that he or she is an "outsider." Whether this is a grave issue, or the main issue, at an institution of higher learning is another question.
And how many have been offended by the cross? College students made an inquiry under the Freedom of Information Act to understand what had impelled the president to make his drastic decision. In response, the Office of University Relations produced a single, heavily redacted letter indicating displeasure with the cross. Dated October 4, 2006, it stated, "I have always felt uneasy with the cross displayed in the Wren Chapel . . . it feels uncomfortable to have ‘our’ chapel with such a sectarian symbol." Nichol says he received numerous verbal comments during his tenure echoing this sentiment, but these are unrecorded.
A handful of the offended have reversed a seventy-year-old tradition at the nation’s second-oldest college. At this point, thousands of students and alumni have gone on record and registered their opposition to the removal of the cross. One can hope that their offense will be noted and their voices heard as well.
Meredith Henne is a student at the College of William & Mary. She has worked as a research assistant for the Historic Campus and is completing her graduate thesis on religious changes in nineteenth-century Richmond, Virginia.