Monday, February 05, 2007
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, the basics are these: since 1940 or so, the cross in question has resided atop the table (which is used as an altar) at the head of the Wren Chapel at the College of William and Mary. Until recently, a policy was in place that the cross could be removed upon request, in an effort to make the chapel a more accessible sacred space for non-Christians. College President, Gene Nichol, recently had the cross removed from the chapel and revised the policy to say that the cross could be returned upon request. The debate thusly exploded, pretty much along the fault lines you would imagine.
Now, on the one hand I understand the arguments of those people who are upset and calling for the cross to be returned. The chapel was established as a place of Christian worship and consequently, features Christian symbols. To remove the cross removes a primary way through which worshippers experience God, and, if their religious identity is tied strongly to that place of worship, that may signify to them something greater than simply the removal of an 18" piece of brass.
On the other hand, I understand the objections of those who were made to feel uncomfortable by the cross' presence. A Jewish student was interviewed in the above linked story, stating he felt uncomfortable when they were directed to the chapel for freshman orientation. As a public school, religion (and subsequently its symbolism) should not be forced, in a major or minor way, on any student. (At the same time, on the 'opposing thumb' of this hand, I suspect that were I to go study at a traditionally Jewish-though-now-public Israeli university, no such concessions would be made to make me feel "more comfortable.")
On still another hand (or perhaps the first foot?), I conspiratorially wonder if this is really all about money couched in religiosity. By making a "sacred space" comfortable for people of all faiths (and getting themselves prominently displayed in the news), are the big-wigs of William and Mary thinking they'll get more enrollment from students of non-Christian backgrounds, thereby fulfilling the all important diversity requirements of our day and age?
Finally, on the second foot, I am trying to puzzle out what all this says about where God is to be found, and the importance of Christian symbolism. When I was a college freshman, I participated in a poetry group/drum circle (isn't that a college requirement most places?) and made some friends there who were decidedly not Christian. They were however, curious about the silver cross I wore about my neck. One night, one of them asked me about it, saying, "Why do you wear that cross?" I thought carefully and then responded, "Because it is a sign to the outside of who I am inside, and it is important to me to let people know about who I am inside." He accepted this as a answer, and as I write it out now, I am aware of how close it is to the phrase "outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." I also wore it because my Grandmother had gotten it for me and my priest had blessed it. Now that I am an ordained priest, I don't wear it as often, even under my shirt, because the outward sign has now become the clerical collar. I thought about this the other day and wondered if I should still wear it as a sign to myself, but decided I didn't need such a sign. When I dress in my "regular clothes," if I want to wear a necklace, I generally will wear it or another cross necklace I have.
To me God is not found exclusively in the cross, or to put it another way, were a cross not present I would not be prohibited from worship. Theologically speaking, God is off the cross, having already "made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world." God is found in all the world, in each of us, and in the love we bear for one another. God is found on his throne in heaven and on his throne in our hearts. God found in our worship and in our grief. God is found in the poor, in the hungry, in the grief stricken and in the hated. And God is found in the rich, the full, the happy, and the beloved. God cannot be contained.
When we worshipped in college, we worshipped in a little place on campus called Davis Chapel, that sat about 100 people or so comfortably. There was no cross or other symbols of any religion to be seen. But, in the little sacristy off to the side, a small cross was to be found, along with candles, wafers, wine, chalices, patens, and prayer books and hymnals. Furthermore, if you opened up the doors of the alcove above the altar, a seasonally appropriate Christian symbol was to be found. When we came to worship, those of us with sacristan duties came early and set the cross out along with the other liturgical hardware. Doing so was, for us, a part of our worship. When we finished our worship, we cleaned up after ourselves, closed the alcove doors, and put things away, before going to dinner with one another, where we continued our acts of communion.
All of this is to say that our worship of God cannot be limited by the presence or absence of symbols unless we let it. If the cross is important to you in worship, as it is to me, bring it with you in some form or another. We at St. Mark's are anxiously awaiting the arrival of a new Christus Rex for our worship space. We live in a religiously free society, founded on Christian principles, and praise God for it, so you are free to wear a crucifix necklace, carry a rosary or icon, perform the signification of the cross on yourself, or bring an 18" brass cross into the worship space with you. And by God, carry your worship with you when you leave so that others may see Christ reflected in you by whatever means God has given you. For, me, more often than not now, that is by the collar I wear around my neck and the words I speak personally and corporately. For you, it may be something different. If the removal of such a symbol helps others encounter God in a real and living way, God bless them. If for you, the presence of that same symbol helps you encounter God in a real and living way, God bless you. As Jesus said, after telling the story of the Good Samaritan, "Go and do likewise."
People who are searching for their comfort with religion in general (or who are questioning their own background) are less likely to feel welcome in places of worship that are decorated in the tradition of another.
This is simply my observation of friends, family, and strangers.