I went to the College of William & Mary. Folks who are familiar with that venerable institution (second oldest university in the country, after Harvard) are often surprised. Guess I’m not a typical grad.
Here’s me in front of the Wren building when I was five, with my dad and brother.
Wren is a magnificent 300-year-old building. My memories of taking classes upstairs and peering into the tiny book-lined offices of my professors are some of the fondest of my tumultuous college years. In that building, time stopped and education seemed sacred. Even the dust floating in the air was magical when lit by sunshine pouring through those enormous round windows.
I don’t have a lot of fond college memoriesâ€”just a few treasured friends I managed to keep. I don’t keep up with alumni affairs, and I’ve actively avoided providing W&M with my current contact info. But today a friend emailed me about the recent controversy over the cross that hung in the Wren Chapel for decades. The new college president Gene Nichol lobbied to have it removed and was charmingly surprised by the brouhaha this created. His thoughtful letter on the matterâ€”written back in December, but new to meâ€”actually made me weep. (Sure, I was emotionally vulnerable from having stayed up til 3, and I do cry rather easily, but still…)
I wish our country’s leadership could harness this kind of compassionate common sense:
Over the past eighteen months, a number of members of our community have indicated to me that the display of a crossâ€”in the heart of our most important and defining buildingâ€”is at odds with our role as a public institution. They did not say, of course, that the cross is an offensive or antagonistic symbol. They often understand that to Christians, like me, the cross conveys an inspiring message of sacrifice, redemption and love. Rather, they have suggested that the presence of such a powerful religious symbolâ€”in a place so central to our effortsâ€”sends a 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 space is keenly inviting and those whose presence is only tolerated.
I have asked myself and others, does the Wren Chapel, our most remarkable place, belong to every member of the College community, or is it principally for our Christian students? Do we take seriously our claims for religious diversity, or do we, even as a public university, align ourselves with one particular religious tradition.
He explains in the letter that the new policy is to have the cross up only on Sundays, and upon individual request for quiet contemplation. As long as nobody tries to abuse that perfectly reasonable policy, it sounds great to me. Good show, W&M!