UMAction Briefing HomepageMark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy



February 14, 2001

In December the dean of the chapel at Duke University in North Carolina, along with the school’s president, announced that same-sex “weddings” could be celebrated at Duke’s imposing Gothic chapel. The announcement was somewhat of a surprise. Duke is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, which officially disapproves of same-sex unions. And the dean, the Rev. Will Willimon, is a United Methodist pastor who has supported the church’s teaching against homosexual practice.

According to Duke’s reasoning, the “diversity” on Duke campus requires toleration for same-sex ceremonies conducted by religious denominations that approve of them. Potentially, this could include services led by clergy from the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association, some Jewish groups, some Episcopal clergy, and perhaps a few others. Most Christian clergy would be forbidden by their own denomination from conducting such ceremonies, including any clergy from The United Methodist Church.

“It is not, in our opinion, a matter of the Chapel approving or disapproving of this liturgical innovation, but rather a question of how much religious diversity we should accommodate,” explained a statement from Willimon and Duke’s president, Nannerl Keohane. Willimon had previously opposed same-sex ceremonies in the chapel. He now says that allowing the ceremonies in the chapel “in no way legitmizes these unions from a United Methodist point of view.”

The recommendation from Duke’s Committee to Explore Blessing of Same-Sex Unions admitted the Chapel’s “rootedness in specifically Christian tradition.” But its statement notes that many of its committee members believe that it is that very tradition that mandates the Chapel’s offer of “hospitality” to same-sex couples who “seek support in pursuing their faith development.” The committee generously promises that no clergy will be compelled to perform homosexual “marriages” if their conscience precludes it.

Most of the verbiage from the chapel’s dean, from the university’s president, and from the Same-Sex Unions Committee presumes that Duke Chapel is a crossroads of interfaith, social and sexual diversity. Duke officials grudgingly admit that it is primarily a Christian church. But their definition of church is noteworthy. For them, the chapel, as a church, is assumed to be a religious market place where there is a cacophony of divergent voices, with no single unifying message beyond that of tolerance. There seems to be no thought that United Methodists have a right to asks others, in an ecumenical spirit, to refrain from activities that Methodists (and almost all other Christian churches) would consider desecrating.

It is not surprising that Duke’s current vision of its Chapel is quite different from the vision offered by the chapel’s founders. But the sermons from the Chapel’s 1935 dedication ceremonies still make for fascinating reading. For its founders, the chapel was not to have been a debating hall, or a laboratory for social experimentation, but preeminently a pulpit of Christian proclamation and truth. A current Duke web site describes the chapel’s founding ceremony as “interfaith.” But the documents from that day show only Christian hymns, Christian prayers, and Christian sermons.

The world of 1935, amid depression and the rise of both fascism and communism, seemed to be engulfed in resurgent secularism and paganism. Nearly all the speakers at the Chapel’s dedication portrayed the chapel as a spearhead for reclaiming a waning culture for Christianity.

In a statement that would not be expected from President Keohane, then Duke University President B. R. Lacy declared: “The chapel says to the world that here God has the preeminence and that all life should be lived under His shadow, within the sound of His voice, and under the influence of His beauty and holiness.”

Duke’s Nineteenth Century founders, along with the Twentieth Century tobacco heirs who endowed it with money and a new name, envisioned Duke as a Christian center of higher education, under the tutelage of the Methodist Church. The chapel was to have been the spiritual centerpiece of that Christian oasis.

“This chapel must speak of Christ,” President Lacy insisted, and “its simple ceremonies of our Protestant faith [must] center in the open Word of God…” Lacy envisioned a “thousand voices” within its walls reciting the Apostles Creed. In contrast to young people elsewhere in that day’s world who were following Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin, he saw the chapel leading Duke’s students to “Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.” Here they would “form a deathless loyalty and a glowing love for Him who gave Himself to reveal the Father’s heart and to bring all men under the Father’s reign.”

As St. Paul appealed to the younger Timothys and Tituses of his day, so too would Duke Chapel make disciples for the Lord, or so Lacy hoped. “It is for this we pray as in this high day this chapel is dedicated to God.” Duke’s president, with the other speakers, portrayed the chapel as a seed ground for future generations of Christian scholars who would conform a fallen world to the will of the Triune God.

Episcopal Bishop Edwin Penick, in his sermon at the dedication, saw in the chapel’s dominance of the campus skyline the hope that God’s truth would guide the university. “A Christian pulpit, set up in the center of such a university as this, calls not for mere approval of the life of Jesus or pious recommendation of the principles of His teaching, but for an intrepid demonstration of how that life may be emulated, and specific directions as to how His teaching may be applied to modern life.” Penick saw Duke Chapel as sounding the “passionate crusader’s call” and “rallying men to standards of righteousness against disintegrating social forces.”

Like other speakers, Penick saw the Gospel proclaimed from Duke’s Chapel as part of one coherent presentation of God’s truth found throughout a Christian university. The various departments and courses were not to be unrelated or pursuing separate “chaotic” paths, but each was to be a spoke of the wheel of God’s revelation. “May God abide in this holy place, and the Spirit of Truth keep the message and usages of this chapel, like light, pure and undefiled,” Penick concluded.

The Reverend Willis Richard Cullom from Wake Forest College, a Baptist institution, saw the chapel as a sign of hope against the “well-organized spread of secularism.” It would aid in “capturing and subduing to Christ and His ideals the new civilization which is emerging from the shattered ruins of the old.” The chapel would help to determine whether the common culture would be “inspired by Christian or pagan conceptions of the meaning and purpose of human life.” As the “heart of the university, it would proclaim “eternal verities” and insist that “Thou shalt have no other gods.”

Lynn Hough, then dean of Drew Theological Seminary in New Jersey, delivered the main dedicatory sermon. “The cathedral on the campus is the perpetual witness to the imperial place of religion in human life. …The cathedral on the campus embodies in stone, the very genius of the Christian religion. …The cathedral on the campus is a summons to men to find the synthesis of all experiences in Jesus Christ.”

“By and by not only here, but about the United States and out over the world the influences of this chapel will be felt,” Hough concluded confidently. “It will give gracious inspiration to spiritual pilgrims, and it will speak its deepest word to those who have been captured by the incredible love of Jesus Christ.”

These were justifiably mighty and soaring words to describe a towering stone edifice, in which the figures of not only biblical heroes and heroines are engraved, but also the heroic visages of Methodist luminaries John Wesley, Francis Asbury, Thomas Coke and George Whitefield.

When the first same-sex ceremony is celebrated in the nave of Duke Chapel by the bold Unitarian or United Church of Christ clergy-person who claims that honor, the frowning faces of those evangelists, along with the downcast eyes of Duke family members memorialized in marble, will ponder the scene beneath them.

Their spiritual legacies and philanthropy have been betrayed, they will surely realize. They will also understand perhaps that Duke Chapel has, as the dedicatory sermons prophesied, become a spiritual beachhead. But that beachhead is not facing outward from the church into the world, but now instead points inward from the world into the church.

“And if there ever comes a day when Christianity has waned in power, men will come into buildings like this and say: ‘What majesty of thought lived in the mind of man before it was flung out in this magnificent nave,’” sermonized Lynn Hough at the Chapel’s dedication. “And they will go back and listen again to the words of Jesus, and they will go back to the long centuries of Christian history, and the old faith will once more command their minds and dominate their conscience and bend their will to its purpose.”

The words of Jesus have not been silenced in Duke Chapel. Orthodox sermons can still be found on Sunday mornings. But the power of Christianity has clearly waned during the rest of the week and around the rest of the campus.

Perhaps some day Duke Chapel’s divinely inspired architecture will remind the university administrators more forcefully of the One to Whom the chapel still belongs.

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