Now here is a sad little story from this land of ours in which almost anything can be turned into a match to light the fuse on a new battle in the culture wars.
In this case we are not talking about a battle in pews -- because the story focuses on pews that were removed.
Let's go straight to the place that most educators across the country will see the story -- The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Changes in the interior design of a campus chapel at Wichita State University -- lambasted in some online circles as the work of Muslim students -- were, in fact, suggested by Christian staff members and students. The Wichita Eagle reports a former campus minister told the newspaper that removing Grace Memorial Chapel’s pews was intended to make the space more flexible, and that he had suggested the change.
But that’s not how Jean Ann Cusick, an alumna of the Kansas university, saw it. In a Facebook post this month, Ms. Cusick wrote that the changes in the chapel were an “accommodation” of Muslim students. Soon, news outlets like Fox News and Christian Today were weighing in.
Now a personal word. I must admit that the first thing that popped into my mind when I connected "pews" with "remove" -- in the context of Wichita -- was, I am sure, not a connection that would have made sense to others.
The first thing that I thought of was the nationally known establishment called Eighth Day Books -- which may be the best Eastern Orthodox bookstore (mixing in coffee, tea and beer) in all of North America. This is evidence of a very lively and growing Orthodox community in that zip code and I assumed -- naturally! -- that this might have led to a thriving community of Orthodox students on the major campus in town.
Now you know what ancient Christians like the Orthodox are going to want to do with pews, don't you? Get. Rid. Of. Them.
Think tradition! It's hard to do lots of bows and prostrations in a room full of wooden furniture. Right?
But, alas, this was not what people were worried about.
I immediately wanted to know more about what is actually going on inside that -- by law -- interfaith chapel. The full update in The Eagle had the crucial details (although editors slipped and used the term "ecumenical" for the chapel, when the proper word is "interfaith"). A key voice is a United Methodist minister, and former campus chaplain, the Rev. Christopher Eshelman, who says:
“I certainly suggested it, advocated for it. I don’t know that I’m the only one that suggested it, so I’m not trying to say it was all my idea, but I was certainly one of the people who said, ‘What if we did this?’ ” ...
Then-student body president Matt Conklin, who is Christian, sponsored the changes through student government and university administration, which took most of the year he was in office, Eshelman said.
“Eventually, it was approved,” Eshelman said. “Everything went beautifully for six months and then … some people took offense and then it blew up.”
As it turns out, Muslim students do use the interfaith chapel for daily prayers and they did bring in a large rug. People who do lots of prostrations like rugs. (Old joke: How do you know you attended Holy Week services in an Orthodox parish? You have rug burns on your forehead.)
And then there is this, with a crucial "as involved" qualifier:
“The major push was from Christians,” said Chandler Williams, a WSU graduate student who attends Central Christian Church. “The Muslims were not as involved in the discussions as the Christians.”
Williams said she volunteered in 2013 to serve on a committee studying how to make the chapel more effective. The group looked up reservations paperwork to see who was using it. The answer: hardly anyone.
Some people got married there, she said. Fraternities used it for initiation rites. WSU’s school of music sometimes used it for classes.
“So then we called together community people and religious leaders, ministers from the whole community,” she said. “We got an overwhelming response about renovating the chapel and removing the pews. They said it would give the floor a more flexible space, for things like Bible studies and even more interfaith discussions.”
My hunch? The local mainline Protestants wanted to cooperate with the interfaith chapel vibe and a few local evangelicals weren't all that happy about it, because Muslim students were involved in the process.
Which raises another interesting point that could have been added to the story. Other than the Orthodox, you know what kind of Christian flocks build churches without pews these days?
That would be evangelical Protestant megachurches, who like that whole shopping mall-meets-movie theater look that screams modernity. It's easier to move the drums and amplifiers around, when there are no pews in the way.
What a world we live in. Kudos to The Eagle for a story that asked most of the key questions.
IMAGE: The de-pewed chapel, via Facebook.