… underway at William and Mary college, Thomas Jefferson’s alma mater and the 2nd oldest school in North America, where a cross that once adorned the alter in 300-year old Wren Chapel has been removed from permanent display. The cross remains available for display during specifically Christian events. William and Mary was founded as an Anglican seminary; the charter is here.

Forasmuch as our well-beloved and faithful subjects, constituting the General Assembly of our Colony of Virginia, have had it in their minds, and have proposed to themselves, to the end that the Church of Virginia may be furnished with a seminary of ministers of the gospel, and that the youth may be piously educated in good letters and manners, and that the Christian faith may be propagated amongst the Western Indians, to the glory of Almighty God; to make, found and establish a certain place of universal study, or perpetual College of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, and other good Arts and Sciences, consisting of one President, six Masters or Professors, and an hundred scholars more or less, according to the ability of the said college, and the statutes of the same; to be made, increased, diminished, or changed there, by certain trustees nominated and elected by the General Assembly aforesaid, to wit, our faithful and well-beloved Francis Nicholson, our Lieutenant Governor in our Colonies of Virginia and Maryland; Wm. Cole, Ralph Worm[e]ley, William Byrd and John Lear, Esquires; James Blair, John Farnifold, Stephen Fouace and Samuel Gray, clerks; Thomas Milner, Christopher Robinson, Charles Scarborough, John Smith, Benjamin Harrison, Miles Cary, Henry Hartwell, William Randolph and Matthew Page, gentlemen, or the major part of them, or of the longer livers of them, on the south side of a certain river, commonly called York river, or elsewhere, where the General Assembly itself shall think more convenient, within our Colony of Virginia, to be supported and maintained, in all time coming.

The college became non-denominational, and publicly supported, in 1906. The college explains the decision thusly:

“In order to make the Wren Chapel less of a faith-specific space, and to make it more welcoming to students, faculty, staff and visitors of all faiths, the cross has been removed from the altar area,” Engimann said. The cross will be returned to the altar for those who wish to use it for events, services or private prayer. Student tour guides have been directed to pass any questions or complaints about the change on to administrators.

Now, the word “chapel” may be understood in either of two ways, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

1. gen. A sanctuary or place of Christian worship, not the church of a parish or the cathedral church of a diocese; an oratory. (In earlier times always consecrated, and having an altar; in modern use not necessarily so.) 2. spec. A private oratory or place of worship. a. A room or building for private worship in or attached to a palace, nobleman’s house, castle, garrison, embassy, prison, monastery, college, school, or other institution.

The first usage, which is specifically Christian, dates to 1225, and the second, which isn’t specifically Christian, to the mid-1750’s. I am sure the latter, non-specific usage is more common today. Hospital and airport chapels are scrupulously non-denominational, displaying either no symbols or every symbol imaginable. Always, there is a guide to local clerics of all the major faiths. I think it’s reasonable to expect a chapel on public property to be non-denominational and to make all faiths welcome, and I think a permanently-mounted cross, if it is displayed exclusively, defeats that expectation. It says, This is a Christian place. Since the cross remains available for use during sectarian meetings, I’m hard-pressed to conclude the college acted from anti-Christian impulses and, so far as I’m concerned … no foul. The folk who read Snapped Shot see it a lot differently, though.

  • “Disgusting! If you are so ashamed of the Christian fait that you need to hide the cross, …”
  • “But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.”
  • “If you are ashamed to be Christian, step aside. You’re in the wrong place. This is a shameful repudiation of our religion and history. We should not have to hide what we are. Those who come into our chapel should tolerate our beliefs.”
  • “How dare you throw the cross in the garbage.This is a democracy, not sharia law! The majority wants the cross.”
  • “There is a way to fight back against this anti-christ anti-religious and anti-christmas behavior. Look to www.savingchristmas.org to see the rally held in Seattle to combat this stripping the country of our culture and heritage. VOTE!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Surely these reactions are overwrought? Even I, indubitably a non-expert, knows that Christian theology teaches that He may be present whether or not a cross is. So … ho-hum. What this is really all about is the growing recognition that Father Jake is right: Christianity is no longer The Main Event. And there’s a lot more angst to go as it is pushed more and more toward the margins.

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