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Nichol discusses Wren cross decision with BOV

Several weeks ago, President Gene R. Nichol asked the director of the historic campus to change College practice and display the table cross in the Wren Chapel only during Christian religious services or, as requested, for individual worship. The decision generated much debate on campus and in the editorial pages of several regional newspapers (see below). On Nov. 16, Nichol read, in part, the following statement concerning the decision at the meeting of the Board of Visitors. —Ed.

I’d … begin by saying a word about my decision to alter our practice of displaying the cross in the Wren Chapel.   

It will not surprise you that I have heard much about these actions. Some have expressed approval. Others have registered disagreement, or worse. The student assembly has considered the matter. Discussion has occurred in our faculty councils. An on-line petition has been assembled. University officials have received letters, e-mails and phone calls. Board members have as well.

Some have thought that my steps disrespect the traditions of the College, or, even more unacceptably, the religious beliefs of its members. That perception lies heavy on my heart. I understand that I tread on difficult ground.

It is, by now, well known that I am taken with William and Mary students. All William and Mary students. And though we haven’t meant to do so, the display of a Christian cross—the most potent symbol of my own religion—in the heart of our most important building sends an unmistakable message that the Chapel belongs more fully to some of us than to others. That there are, at the College, insiders and outsiders. Those for whom our most revered place is meant to be keenly welcoming, and those for whom presence is only tolerated. That distinction, I believe, to be contrary to the best values of the College.

It is precisely because the Wren Chapel touches the best in us—the brightened lamp, the extended hand, the opened door, the call of character, the charge of faith, the test of courage—that it is essential it belong to everyone. There is no alternate Wren Chapel, no analogous venue, no substitute space. Nor could there be. The Wren is no mere museum or artifact. It touches every student who enrolls at the College. It defines us. And it must define us all.     
I make no pretense that all will agree with these sentiments. The emotions and values touched by this dispute are deeply felt. But difficult issues are the grist of great universities. Amidst the turmoil, the cross continues to be displayed on a frequent basis. I have been pleased to learn that students of disparate religions have reported using the Chapel for worship and contemplation for the first time. In the College’s family there should be no outsiders. All belong.