Yale to reform campus religion

Following the recommendations of a University committee, Yale officials are searching for ways to implement wide-ranging reforms to religious life on campus, including increased support for the Protestant and Muslim communities and additional space for campus religious groups.

The University Council Committee on Religious Life, which presented its confidential report to Yale President Richard Levin this December, called for general support for an increasing diversity of religion on campus and proposed making Battell Chapel a non-denominational church, University officials said. The committee, convened last year by Levin to analyze religious and spiritual life at Yale, included religious leaders from across the nation.

“I think the committee did a successful job,” Levin said. “They were a very successful group with a wide array of backgrounds. I think it worked out quite well.”

The University has already acted on some of the report’s recommendations, including one that called for better dining arrangements for observant Muslim students during Ramadan. The University strives to support religious life for students of faith in the same way it fosters students’ intellectual, athletic and artistic instruction, Yale Secretary Linda Lorimer said.

“We should make sure we are doing all we can to support students’ religious formation,” Lorimer said. “We want to be more supportive, and we can be.”

The committee called for a second associate chaplain position at Battell to focus on the needs of the Protestant community, which Yale has served since its founding in 1701. University Chaplain Frederick Streets said he hopes to fill the position by the fall of this year. The current associate chaplain, Cynthia Terry, will continue to work with the multi-faith community, he said.

The committee proposed Battell become non-denominational in order to welcome a wider array of students to Sunday morning worship. Battell is currently a member of the United Church of Christ and is also the oldest college church in America.

“It’s an exciting time for the Church of Christ in Yale,” Streets said. “We’ve always been a progressive and theologically liberal congregation that will continue to do broad outreach.”

With the growing number of student religious groups, the council also addressed the issue of space for them to meditate, pray and practice their faiths. Many student groups have expressed a need for more regular meeting areas, and the Chaplain’s Office has been wrestling with problem for some time. Often, the groups’ only solution has been to find vacant rooms on campus from week to week.

“We’re aware that space is a problem for a lot of things, and it is a major need for our growing religious diversity,” Streets said. “We hope that in the long run we’ll be able to identify more usable space.”

Chris Ornelas ’07, a member of the student Buddhist group Lotus, said that there have been occasional scheduling conflicts with the Trumbull art gallery space. Lotus meets there three times a week, but Ornelas said he hopes to find a more permanent space.

“Most of the colleges are pretty resistant to giving space to a University-wide group,” Ornelas said. “They prefer to reserve it for students in their own colleges.”

In addition to more readily available rooms, many student groups have requested new or renovated space to accommodate their worship. But Levin said the administration will not immediately follow the committee’s recommendations for space renovations.

“We’ll have to develop a plan and financial resources to undertake [the renovations],” Levin said. “That will take a little time.”

While the committee made several other recommendations, committee chair Bishop Fred Borsch said it is also important to highlight what Yale is doing well. Borsch said the committee found the University has strong communities for Catholic and Jewish students, as well as a sound curriculum in the Religious Studies Department. Lorimer said the University wants to provide the same “vibrant worship experience” for those of other faiths.

“The committee found that a lot of good things were happening at Yale,” said Borsch, the former interim dean of Yale’s Berkeley Divinity School.

By next year, Streets said he hopes Battell will host additional speakers, lectures and guest preachers. The chaplain’s office will continue to find ways to make worship more exciting while expanding social ministry, he said.

“Religion gives an opportunity for people to come to know people of other religions in backgrounds, which we think is terribly important in this day and age,” Borsch said. “We like to think that graduates of Yale in many ways are going to be world citizens.”

Battell Chapel may become non-denominational to accommodate more religious beliefs if Yale follows a recommendation in a report by the University Council Committee on Religious Life.
Gary Fox
Battell Chapel may become non-denominational to accommodate more religious beliefs if Yale follows a recommendation in a report by the University Council Committee on Religious Life.

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