Selective History: The Cross and William and Mary

Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.

Founded in 1693, the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia — my alma mater — is the second-oldest college in the United States after Harvard. Like Harvard, William and Mary was founded for explicitly Christian purposes: The Royal Charter listed the training of "ministers of the gospel" and the propagation of the Christian faith among the "western Indians" among the school's founding purposes.

Not surprisingly, given the school's history, one of the oldest buildings on campus is the chapel, designed by Sir Christopher Wren who also designed St. Paul's Cathedral in London. On the altar stood a gold cross that was donated to the school by the nearby historic Bruton Parish church in the 1930s.

I say "stood" because in October, William and Mary President Gene R. Nichol ordered that the cross be removed from the altar. His goal was to "make the Wren Chapel less of a faith-specific" place and to "make it more welcoming" to people of "all faiths."

As you probably guessed, Nichol could not cite a specific instance of non-Christians being made to feel unwelcome by the presence of the cross.

Not surprisingly, the decision did not go over very well with William and Mary alumni and students. One alumnus wrote Nichol asking whether William and Mary students are "so fragile that the mere symbol of a religion, which they may or may not agree with, should reduce them to [a] pool of blubbering Jell-O?"

Even worse, from the school's point of view, were the words of an alumna who has been "very generous to the college since [she] graduated." She pledged not to "donate another penny to the school until the cross is returned to the altar" and to encourage other donors to do the same.

After the intense reaction, which included editorials in leading Virginia newspapers criticizing the move, Nichol offered another rationale: that the cross was not part of the original design of the chapel, and removing it is in keeping with the restoration of the Wren Chapel. This is my favorite, really.

This concern for William and Mary's history here is, at best, selective. The concern for the "original" William and Mary is limited simply to architecture: the Wren Chapel being restored to its original design. But if returning to originality were really the main concern, then there would be a discussion going on about returning William and Mary to its original mission of training ministers of the Gospel and propagating the Christian faith. That discussion is not occurring.

While a subsequent compromise will allow the cross to be displayed during Christian events, the fear of offending someone still prevailed. This "fear" is also why Christian programs like the InnerChange Freedom Initiative launched by Prison Fellowship are under attack by people who think that unwanted exposure to religion will irreparably damage people.

Understanding this fear still leaves us with the question of how do we respond in a culture that is increasingly less welcoming to our faith? For both the Christian students at William and Mary and for you and me, the answer is to be "Christ-bearers," ourselves — living crosses.

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