Duke Chapel's Multiple Layers

Like any symbol, it can mean many things
April 29, 2015

Shadow a Duke admissions tour, and you’ll soon join a ragged circle on the Chapel Quad. On this St. Patrick’s Day in mid-March, the green-shirted student guide will run down a familiar list of Duke virtues: small classes, diverse majors, caring professors.

Through all of that, the gaggle of Duke hopefuls will be drawn as much to the sight of the chapel as to the well-delivered script. They’ll return with a lot of information about life at Duke, and with cell-phone images of the school’s most familiar marker. Maybe they’ll return with more: They’re eventually led into the Bryan Center, where they’ll find a vaguely Impressionist poster, a pen-and-ink drawing, and a limited-edition ceramic model—plus the latest Duke calendar—all featuring the chapel. If they’re lucky enough to enroll as students, they’ll carry a DukeCard with a Duke Chapel image: One way or another, the chapel is built into the Duke experience.

Duke is more diverse, culturally and religiously, than ever. Duke Chapel, then, carries out its mission in a context that’s more complex than ever. There are multiple paths for engaging with the chapel, and for interpreting its role. A few weeks before the Chapel Quad gathering of prospective students, those complications came to the surface. The Muslim call to prayer would sound every Friday from the chapel bell tower. An initiative from the chapel staff, the planned prayer call was meant to promote the chapel as an icon of interreligious understanding. The decision set off a fierce debate, both inside the university and outside, about the role of religion, the meaning of symbols—and Duke Chapel. The original plan was quickly revised by university officials; the call to prayer moved to the chapel steps for one Friday, and then returned to the chapel basement, provoking an equally fierce reaction.

Through that initial and intensely waged debate, some were looking for reassurance about Duke Chapel’s spiritual underpinnings. Now the university will solidify the chapel’s physical underpinnings. Joining the long lineup of campus construction projects, the chapel, beginning the day after graduation weekend, is to have its ceiling rehabilitated and its original roof replaced. For the coming year, services and events normally held in the nave, the main worship space, will move elsewhere. “Christmas Eve will be in Cameron Indoor Stadium,” says Luke Powery, dean of the chapel. “That will be a sort of baptism for Cameron.”

With those events—past and future—in the background, Powery convened a panel for a chapel program: “What Is Sacred Space?” The panel was driven by a set of questions: Is Duke Chapel sacred space? Something more? Something less? Old questions, but newly relevant. Powery mentioned that the conversation itself pointed to the chapel’s role of promoting “a rich and charitable dialogue” across the religious spectrum.

Photo by Jared Lazarus

Powery was named chapel dean three years ago; the first ordained Baptist minister in the position, he was formerly at Princeton Theological Seminary. His first acquaintance with Duke Chapel came as his brother was working toward his Ph.D. in Christian origins, in the 1990s. He came late to a Christmas Eve service and found the place filled to capacity. So Powery stood in the back and didn’t have much of a sightline. Today he has an altar-position vantage point for the Sunday “Protestant hour of preaching, music, and liturgy,” as he described it in the Sacred Space conversation. “If you’ve ever been here on a Sunday morning, you know what a majestic and inspiring time it can be.”

The chapel represents the “alpha and omega” of the undergraduate experience, Powery continued. It’s where the newest students are oriented to the ways of the campus. It’s where they’re sent off into the world on graduation weekend, when the chapel faithfully runs through multiple baccalaureate services to accommodate the interest. Day after day, students will listen to the carillon mark the five o’clock hour. And they’ll look to the chapel as a familiar Duke icon, “a powerful symbol of pride and belonging, of shared experience.”

For generations, the chapel has been the center of that shared experience. It’s where the Duke community celebrated the lives of former governor, senator, and Duke president Terry Sanford; philanthropist and Duke family member Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans ’39; author and teacher Reynolds Price ’55; John Hope Franklin and his wife, Aurelia, with former president Bill Clinton remembering the historian as “a passionate rationalist”; and Major Charles Jerome Honeycutt Jr. ’65, who was killed flying a combat mission in Vietnam.

Image courtesy Duke University Archives

In 1945, it’s where students, their professors, and others assembled to commemorate victory over Germany and then Japan. In 1986, protesters flocked to the Chapel Quad to call on Duke to divest from companies with South Africa holdings; the protest involved two plywood shanties and an “Apartheid Prison” made of rusty wire. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, The Chroniclereported that it was “only natural” that thousands would seek out the Chapel Quad—for a program dedicated to bridge-building and community—as “a source of comfort.”

This past April, after a noose was found hanging near the Bryan Center, another large crowd stood in the Chapel Quad as president Richard H. Brodhead said of the ugly image of lynching, “That’s not the Duke I know.” One member of the crowd noted a paradox hovering over the whole scene: It played out under the chapel’s front-portal sculptures of, among others, Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

It hasn’t been often that the chapel’s history has been linked with controversy, but that history isn’t controversy-free. In 2000, then-dean of the chapel Will Willimon and Duke president Nannerl O. Keohane affirmed the recommendation of a committee that the chapel would permit same-sex unions. While the decision went against the position of the United Methodist Church, they noted, the chapel should be seen as a “university facility” not tied to any particular denomination. The decision didn’t go down well in all quarters: Students in the Duke Conservative Union pushed back with a “Save Duke Chapel” campaign.

If saving Duke Chapel seemed like the imperative of the moment, it was all about what James B. Duke is said to have described as “the central building” of the campus he envisioned. (James B. Duke’s financial support through The Duke Endowment turned Trinity College into Duke University.) A church, “a great towering church,” would “dominate all of the surrounding buildings, because such an edifice would be found to have a profound influence on the spiritual life of the young men and young women who come here.”

When the chapel was dedicated in June 1935, the dedicatory sermon was offered by the Reverend Lynn Harold Hough, dean of the theological seminary at Drew University. The chapel should be seen as “a kind of glorified, solid monument of that authority and learning for which the university stands,” he said. “Personally I should want the cathedral on the campus somehow to reach out arms wide enough, if I may put it so, to give every human being who comes within its walls a home for his highest ideals.”

The ideals may have been faithbased, but only in the most general sense. In The Launching of Duke University, history professor emeritus Robert Durden notes that from the start, Duke was “a nondenominational university without religious tests for faculty or students. Accordingly, any service in the chapel must necessarily be nondenominational.” William Preston Few—whose presidency straddled Trinity and Duke—insisted that the chapel “was no ordinary Protestant church,” in Durden’s words. The services initially followed that formulation. “There were no robes, no processionals, no collection, no communion service, no hymnals, no any-number-of-things that would be familiar and assumed later on in the chapel.”

This is what Few told the Trumbauer architectural firm, which would give physical shape to the Duke idea: “As I understand it, the Duke Chapel will never be a church and will therefore have no ritualistic services. It is a Gothic cathedral, and I have always thought [it] should have in it what essentially belongs to such a structure from the artistic or aesthetic rather than the functional standpoint.”

Now the chapel’s functions are multiple, and its metaphorical embrace is wider than ever. Its associate dean for religious life, Christy Lohr Sapp, says, “I think a lot of people see the building, and the shape of the building, and make assumptions about what that means. I’ve heard students ask, ‘What does it mean for me to be a student of a different faith, or of no faith, and have this at the center of my campus?’ ”

And what does it mean to see the cruciform chapel, not just at the geographic center, but also as a Duke icon? “In the popular parlance of icon as a symbol of a place—well, the chapel holds that for the institution. But icons, traditionally speaking, are windows into the divine. We have to be careful that we don’t elevate created things to the level of divine things. At the end of the day, the chapel is gorgeous. It’s awe-inspiring. But it’s a building.” And in its role as a building, she observes, it doesn’t operate in the same way that a traditional, denomination-specific church does.

As part of its operation—the basic part of Lohr Sapp’s portfolio— the chapel functions as a convener for some two dozen student groups. Along with Christian students of various denominations, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims have sought out chapel space for prayers and meditation sessions; before the opening of the Freeman Center, Jewish students used the building for worship and study.

Lohr Sapp finds the term “religious pluralism” unhelpful; it could suggest “putting all traditions as equal and kind of melding them into one mush of religious practice.” Rather, she says, “What we have here is what I would call religious plurality. It doesn’t mean any lack of respect for the diversity of traditions. It does mean a lifting up of the distinctiveness of those traditions, so that the evangelical Christians can be authentically evangelic Christian on campus, the Mormons authentically Mormon, the Muslims authentically Muslim.”

Notions of the chapel’s authentic mission shaped responses around the prayer-call controversy. Writing on the Al Jazeera America website, Ian Curran M.T.S. ’98, a Methodist theologian who teaches at Georgia Gwinnett College, noted that Duke Chapel—“with its neo-Gothic architecture, stained-glass windows depicting biblical stories, large wooden cross in the center of its chancel, sculptures of famous American Methodists above its portal, and vibrant interdenominational congregation”—is “a distinctly Christian worship space, where particular Christian theological doctrines are physically embodied.”

But we no longer live in shielded, self-reinforcing religious communities; people are torn between loyalty to a particular faith and an obligation to be open to others. The prayer-call episode illustrates the challenge—including the challenge for Duke Chapel—in achieving “both identity and openness,” he wrote.

Another alumnus, Todd Stiefel ’97, is openly committed to secularism; he’s chair of a national coalition called Openly Secular. While mildly religious as a freshman, he became, by graduation, agnostic, and later atheistic. One of his first student memories was writer Maya Angelou’s charge to the freshman class—a “beautiful and memorable” chapel moment. But it’s the building, he says, that he still finds breathtaking. “It was designed to be awe-inspiring, and it still does that job. As a student, I remember walking by it at night, as it was illuminated. It always reminded me of an enchanted European castle. The enormous, beautiful organ sings in its own melodious voice. The thing that really stands out is the stained glass. I love stained glass; I love the way the colors vibrantly light up a room and dance in your eyes.”

For Stiefel, the prayer-call controversy was a reminder that Duke Chapel is “a Christian building, designed in the shape of a cross. But it has more meaning than that.” It appropriately welcomes all believers and nonbelievers, in his view, “much as Duke itself has expanded to be a place of tolerance and love.”

But the controversy highlighted that for some, everything else the chapel does is ancillary to its role in Christian worship. As the episode was playing out, the dean of the divinity school, Richard Hays, wrote a letter to the Duke Divinity School community. He reminded his constituency that the school and the chapel— while physical neighbors—function administratively as separate entities. The school had no role in the original decision (or the reversal). He noted that “Duke University is quite properly a place where people of many different faiths, as well as those of no religious faith, work and study together.” But he questioned the “wisdom and propriety” of allowing the Duke Chapel to be used as “a minaret for Muslim proclamation.” The chapel “was constructed with explicitly Christian iconography,” he wrote, “and it has a long history of explicitly Christian worship.”

In his divinity school office, about two months later, Hays reaches for a letter he had just received. It came from a 1949 alumna. “I entered Duke long ago, as a sixteen-year-old, attending in part because my parents felt that the Methodist connection would be a stabilizing factor for me,” reads the letter. “That proved to be so.”

Hays talks about how his own spiritual development was encouraged, at Yale University, by William Sloane Coffin. Coffin was the longtime campus chaplain, an outspoken champion of civil rights and opponent of the Vietnam War. “He took those positions out of a very robustly and explicitly Christian theological stance. If you went to Battell Chapel on Sunday morning, you would hear him preaching out of the Bible. He wasn’t just a political activist. He was a theologically informed Christian pastor.”

Likewise the historic power of Duke Chapel comes from the fact that it’s not just “some kind of big auditorium.” There’s that long Christian association, and there’s also the appropriate “hospitality” to a wider university community, Hays says. “The interesting question is what it means for Duke to maintain a Christian worship space at the heart of its identity, given the pluralism of the contemporary university. I think Duke sends rather mixed signals about that these days. For the people who value it, it feels like an important and precious aspect of the university’s identity and heritage. But for those who don’t identify with that tradition, the significance of the chapel is unclear and open to various interpretations.

“My own view is that the wisest course is for the chapel unambiguously to maintain its Christian roots and identity, while also seeking to encourage—in the words of the opening paragraph of the university’s bylaws, as revised in 2014—‘a rigorous scholarly community characterized by generous hospitality towards diverse religious and cultural traditions.’ ”

However Omid Safi interprets Duke Chapel, it comes from a long acquaintance. Safi ’92, Ph.D. ’99 is director of Duke’s Islamic Studies Center. As a student, he pushed successfully to have Muslim students pray in the chapel crypt. He recalls the space as “medieval, awesome, and slightly spooky.” Still, it was an institutional, chapel-led embrace of his identity: “We were praying in a building that was our space as much as anyone else’s.” Since then, Muslim students have outgrown the crypt as a prayer site; they now use the chapel basement for prayer.

The chapel was the site of Safi’s wedding, across faith boundaries, presided over by religion professor (now emeritus) Bruce Lawrence, who is also a Christian minister. “It was a proper Christian service that very subtly incorporated exquisite references to the Islamic tradition,” Safi recalls. “And, from my point of view, it was a pretty historic occasion. It was the first time the Qur’an was recited from the altar of the Duke Chapel.”

With the prayer-call controversy having receded, Safi continues to question whether the chapel should follow a model of “hospitality” or one of “citizenship.” In his words, “We tend to think about hospitality as a display of kindness, of generosity. Hospitality is preferable to having someone tell you that you don’t belong here. However, hospitality contains the assumption that this is really some people’s house, and those people have a privilege—there’s my least favorite word.” Duke Chapel, in his view, is “like the larger Duke, a place that has a Christian origin but today serves a larger, global community.”

Even if the announcement of the prayer call didn’t bring “unity,” he says, neither did the earlier decision to accommodate same-sex unions. “At certain times and in certain places, we decide to take a stand. At a time when, all around the world, some are fostering a notion of inherent conflict between Christianity and Islam, this would have been a powerful and beautiful message about the kind of community we are at Duke.”

Powerful and beautiful might define the chapel, which is dealing with the yearlong restoration process, various venue changes for its high-profile activities, and the interruption of a long legacy: the chapel as a romantic touchstone. The chapel does seventy-five to eighty-five weddings a year, according to its wedding planner, Sara Clark M.T.S. ’09. (She and her husband, Banks Clark M.T.S. ’12, count themselves among the chapel marriages.) About three-quarters of those ceremonies involve alumni; most of the rest are university employees.

She hears the sweetly serendipitous stories—the couple who met sitting next to each other at opening convocation in the chapel and who returned there to get married. She runs across those who feed off a familiar Duke ritual, student “tenting” for basketball games: They camp outside the chapel to claim a spot for a busy weekend. And she grapples with the occasional offbeat request: How about removing the altar or obscuring the (fixed-in-place) cross in the chancel? How about allowing a pet dog to serve as ring-bearer? How about placing candles at the end of every pew? (No, no, and no.)

Weddings are basic to the work of Duke Chapel; the chapel’s even more basic work happens every Sunday, when it draws some 500 worshippers. It reaches many more through live-streaming and radio, particularly on Christmas Eve. For the chapel’s director of worship, Meghan Feldmeyer Benson, the relocations of worship services, with the upcoming academicyear, are a step into the unknown. (Benson leaves the chapel this summer for a position with the divinity school.) Those alternative sites will not convey, as the chapel space does, “a sense of exultation and glory,” she says. “If you think of church architecture, that’s what it does: The soaring ceilings, the stained glass are designed to turn your gaze upward and to allow you to have an encounter with God.”

Sunday morning encounters with God—through the avenue of worship services—shift this summer to Baldwin Auditorium, and then to Page Auditorium. The divinity school’s Goodson Chapel is the temporary site for Thursday evening vespers services. For Powery, such adjustments are opportunities “to think about what it means to be the chapel community.” This summer’s preachers will include local leaders; next spring, the chapel will join with Habitat for Humanity to put up a house in Durham. “The building is a tool to help us live our mission. But we can do our mission outside this building.” For inspiration, as he said in his installation sermon, he looks to his father, a minister, who once “started a little congregation called the Cathedral of Care.”

Boundary-crossing is a very Luke Powery thing; it’s embedded in how he has been articulating his role and the role of the chapel. In considering the deanship, he was drawn to the variety of activities: preaching, teaching, research, pastoral care. In his installation sermon, he talked about big, boundary-crossing dreams for the chapel: “an international, intercultural, interracial, interethnic, interdenominational religious space where the organ and steel drums are liturgical best friends.” That and “a ministerial world for high-church folks, low-church folks, and no-church folks through which we transgress the normal boundaries of stereotypical difference.”

Others may place their own boundary lines on the chapel. He’s fine with that. “There are various roles served by Duke Chapel. It’s a symbol of the university. And like any symbol, it can mean many things. I think disagreement is fine. But we need to learn how to disagree lovingly. We hear that James B. Duke quote about the great towering church. My hope is that we become known as the great loving church.”

In the past academic year, Powery unveiled a strategic plan with an expansive understanding of the chapel’s work: “Through worship, student ministry, community connection, interfaith engagement, and the arts, Duke Chapel stands as a beacon of Christian hope that bridges faith (religio) and learning (eruditio).” In the Sacred Space program, he talked about the chapel not just as a beacon or a bridge, but also as a place for people seeking sanctuary in ways, as he put it, known only to God. Often when he walks through the main sanctuary, he said, he comes across someone sitting by herself or himself in a pew.

“What has brought them to this space? I don’t know. But I am grateful that this human being—this child of God, created in the image of God—has found this building to be a place of refuge, a sacred space set aside from the busyness of life where prayers can be lifted and joys and pains contemplated in peace.”

  • As editor, Bliwise has overall responsibility for editorial direction and content and for representing the magazine to its various constituencies. He also teaches a seminar in magazine journalism through Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.