When a non-sectarian college calls the faithful to prayer

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The Duke Chapel


The Duke Chapel

The Duke Chapel

The Duke Chapel

A couple of weeks ago, Christy Lohr Sapp,the associate dean for religious life at Duke University, took to the pages of the Raleigh News and Observer to let North Carolinians know that amidst all the negative media attention focused on Muslims by Paris and Pakistan, ISIS and Boko Haram, the “peaceful and prayerful” face of Islam would be “given more of a voice” when the university’s Muslim community began chanting the Call to Prayer from the Duke Chapel bell tower on Fridays.

Wham! Franklin Graham, scion of the best-known Tar Heel on the planet, took to his Facebook page to call on Duke donors and alumni to stop their giving until the policy was reversed. “As Christianity is being excluded from the public square and followers of Islam are raping, butchering, and beheading Christians, Jews, and anyone who doesn’t submit to their Sharia Islamic law, Duke is promoting this in the name of religious pluralism,” Graham wrote.

Actually, Duke was promoting it in the name of an Islam that was not “anti-education and anti-Western values,” but never mind. Within 24 hours, the Duke administration had done a U-turn. Citing unspecified security concerns as well as adverse public reaction, the school explained that an effort to “unify was not having the intended effect.”

A decade ago, the Duke administration vigorously defended itself against outside criticism for hosting a pro-Palestinian conference. “Universities, in particular, must give wide latitude to free speech and free debate because the pursuit of truth through the encounter of divergent points of view is the very stuff of education,” wrote then (and current) president Richard Brodhead. “The day we start making it easy to shut down others’ opinions is the day we license a curtailment of freedom from which we could each suffer in turn.”

It’s a bit curious that a university should uphold controversial political speech while making it easy to shut down controversial religious practice. The immediate question, however, relates to the status of a central house of worship at non-sectarian institutions of higher learning.

The Duke Chapel is the university’s signature building, a neo-gothic tribute to its Quaker and Methodist founding that over the years has become something of a pilgrimage site for those eager to hear its famous carillon. Besides tolling the hours and playing daily at 5 p.m. and Sundays before and after worship, it performs “Dear Old Duke,” the university Alma Mater, every Friday. Talk about a Call to Prayer!

The chapel, which today presents itself as “a Christian church of uniquely interdenominational character and purpose,” hosts daily Catholic Mass, and invites applications for grants from all recognized campus religious groups, including Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Mormons, and Muslims. It’s fair to say that this is in keeping not only with Duke’s non-sectarian character but with mainline Protestant ideology.

Trinity College Chapel

Trinity College Chapel

Our chapel at Trinity College is much the same kind of institution. Designed by Philip Hubert Frohman, who also served as architect of the National Cathedral, it is the college’s neo-gothic signature building as well, representing a species of spiritual ideology that might once have been considered hegemonic but which now is determinedly inclusive. It hosts Buddhist chanting and meditation as well as Catholic Mass. Muslim students used to worship there before they got their own space across campus. There’s also a first-rate carillon that has its devotees, and which has been known to play “‘Neath the Elms,” our lugubrious Alma Mater, from time to time.

In line with Trinity’s ecclesiastical origins, the Chapel also happens to be associated with the Episcopal Church, and when we select a new chaplain, he or she needs to be approved by the Episcopal Bishop of Connecticut. The current chaplain, Rev. Allison Read, describes the place in medieval terms — under the temporal authority of the college and the spiritual authority of the bishop.

If the Muslim Student Association wanted to use the bell tower for the Call to Prayer, says Read, “I wouldn’t bat an eye.” She would, however, check with college president Joanne Berger-Sweeney before going ahead. And suppose, asked someone playing devil’s advocate, a campus Satanist group asked to hold services in the crypt?

“Let’s not even go there,” she says. “That’s when I would invoke the spiritual authority of the bishop.”