President's committee to focus on Wren Chapel

Livingston and MeeseThe William and Mary Committee on Religion in a Public University held its first meeting Friday and members immediately agreed on one thing—time is short.

Appointed by President Gene R. Nichol, the committee is studying the role of religion at a public university, including the use of the College’s historic Wren Chapel. The committee has been asked to report back to Nichol and the William and Mary Board of Visitors in April. The Board will meet in Williamsburg on April 19-20.

Given the time constraints, the committee members agreed to divide their charge into two parts. Their short-term focus will be to study the use and placement of the table cross on the altar in the Wren Chapel. In terms of a long-term charge, the committee will examine the broader questions associated with the role of religion at public universities.

“The sense of the meeting seems to me that time is short and we have to prioritize,” said Davison Douglas, the Arthur Briggs Hanson Professor of Law at the Marshall-Wythe School of Law.

The committee agreed to focus on three areas in the short-term—the use of the chapel, history of the chapel and comparative data on how other universities, both public and private, address the use of their chapels and the display of religious symbols. The committee appointed two subcommittees to address the immediate tasks. One subcommittee will work quickly to develop a list of speakers and experts who can come to the College, and possibly meet with the committee, within the next month. Another subcommittee will gather and compile the comparative data of other universities.

“We have a short period of time and we have a lot of material to look at and a lot of thinking to do,” said James Livingston, co-chair of the committee and the Walter G. Mason Professor Emeritus of Religion at the College. “Our charge is that we take action—write a report to President Nichol with our recommendations or suggestions.”

The use of the Wren Chapel and the display of the cross has been the topic of passionate debate on and off campus over the past four months. In October, the decision was made to reserve display of the cross in the Wren Chapel for appropriate religious services or when requested for individual devotion. At other times, the cross is in the chapel’s sacristy with other religious items such as communion vessels and vestments. In December, the president announced the cross will be displayed on the chapel’s altar on Sundays for expanded hours.

Nichol announced in January that Livingston and Alan J. Meese (’86), the Ball Professor of Law, would co-chair the committee on religion. Meese and Livingston already have met with many segments of the William and Mary community, including representatives from the alumni association, student affairs, public affairs and Louise Kale, executive director of the historic campus, which includes the Wren Building.

Another dozen committee members, which include alumni, faculty, students, staff and friends of the College, were announced by Nichol at last month’s Board of Visitors meeting. The board endorsed the religion committee and Michael K. Powell (’85), rector of the College, asked Livingston and Meese to report back at the board’s meeting in April.

Meese began Friday’s meeting by addressing some questions that were raised recently since the committee was announced. A recent op-ed in the Washington Post characterized members as a “hand-picked panel” with “many members” having signed a faculty petition supporting the president. Only one member of the committee has signed that petition, Meese said. “One is not many by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.

The letter, Meese added, also stated committee members needed the president’s backing for programs they support. “I have never felt I needed the president’s backing for any program. I would not have signed on (to co-chair the committee) if I thought we were here simply to rubber-stamp a decision by the president.”

A new Web site, www.wm.edu/committee_on_religion, is also now on-line and will serve as an informational site for the public to learn about committee events or provide the input by e-mailing comments to WMCCommitteeOnReligion@wm.edu.