Recently controversy erupted over the displacement of an altar cross in Wren Chapel on the venerable campus of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. The president of the college took the unilateral and unprecedented step of removing the Cross from the chapel. Wren Chapel is not only a place of worship but also one of the oldest and continuously used academic building in America.
Folks were told that the cross could be returned at the request of groups using the chapel, but after months of student and community protest (including the loss of more than $12 million in alumni donations), the president relented. The cross would be returned but it would be housed in a special glass case with a note extolling the cross for its historic value as a link between the Chapel of William and Mary and its sister parish, Bruton Parish Church, in Colonial Williamsburg.
In other words, the cross would no longer be allowed on the altar. Instead, it was relegated to a museum piece, safely ensconsed away from any practical use.
Williamsburg is a city of brick-lined civility. William and Mary is perhaps one of the most beautiful campuses in America. But neither Wren Chapel nor its students are museum pieces. I've had first hand experience with the college and students to see that their Christian faith isn't a museum relic either.
So now the cross is separated from those who venerated it. Here I indicate my Orthodox Christian sensibility which differs in places from the Faith upon which such American institutions as William and Mary were built. Allow me to explain how Orthodox Christian veneration manifests itself.
At our last college retreat, Orthodox students were invited to come forward and venerate the cross. In Orthodox Christianity this means to step forward and kiss the Cross itself. All the students venerated the cross with gentle reverence. We prayed for those present and also for the college. The cross was used as an icon; an object that reveals the image of God in the world. It was not worshiped but used as a visual and tactile focal point for our prayers; a placeholder in space and time that pointed to the sacrificial death of Christ. The cross directed our dialogue with God.
The students approached the cross with spiritual depth, sincerity, and love. They seemed to grasp, perhaps imperfectly but nevertheless with a particular certainty that the cross was the tool of Christ's sacrifice. They venerated the cross not because of its place in the history of William and Mary College, but because it was in its own way a manifestation of the Lord's salvific work in the world.
Now such veneration is to be no more -- at least with the Wren Cross. Sure the cross was returned to the chapel but it's a Pyrrhic victory. The cross may have been returned to its rightful place, but not its rightful practice. But we continue to pray.
Rev. Fr. John Manuel serves Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Richmond, Virginia.