As many times as I have seen it, I never ceased to be in awe of it: a church, a chapel, a room full of students, taking up virtually every space to be found, gathering for school chapel, sometimes even potentially alarming the fire marshals! Where else, I say to myself (and sometimes to others), would you find that many teenagers or children together for worship on a regular basis?
Maybe, as an Episcopalian, I have grown accustomed to seeing as many rows of pews in churches being empty as filled. Or it may well be that, given our demographic as a denomination, seeing any number of young people in a house of worship still seems to be a novelty. Whatever it may be, it still gives me a thrill when that many children or teenagers come together under the guise of worship.
To be sure, I am not under the illusion that all rejoice in being there in that place. Admittedly, in most circumstances these young people are required to be there; it is part of their daily routine, their daily requirement to “show up.” Many would obviously prefer to be elsewhere, and in many cases they sit in chapel thinking about how they could be spending their time being more “productive,” rather than just “sitting there” in a chapel seat. No matter how engaged and attentive a group of students can be in chapel (and I would rate student attention in our chapels, as a whole, pretty high) you can always spot at least a few who are not—or refuse to be—connected to the service.
It also continues to amaze me that the one group of people, on the whole, that seems to have the hardest time with the notion of required chapel is students at our theological seminaries. How can a school require non-Christians, non-theists, to sit in an Episcopal service, they often ask me as I strive to introduce them to the opportunities and advantages of ministering in a school. Isn’t that offensive, even hegemonic? Perhaps steeped as they are with a constant diet of theology, liturgy, and spirituality, these students are intent upon forming communities of believers who “really want to be there,” instead of being told they have to be there. Their sensitivity to the feelings and convictions of the non-Christians in that context gives testimony to the fact that some of the greatest empathy toward people of differing beliefs or non-beliefs comes from those deeply committed to a particular tradition.
Many of us spend time as grudging apologists, defending the notion of required chapel to both skeptic and ardent believer. The more I think about it, however, the more I see required time in worship as something not just worth maintaining in our schools, but something that is both distinctive and of great relevance to our culture today. I say this for two reasons.
The first has to do with time, or the reality that, as one school head recently put it, “No one has time for anything, anymore.” Whatever one makes of that comment —one might be tempted to ask, “Well, then what arewe doing with our time?”—the implication is that life has all too easily been robbed of its rhythms, patterns, and routines in the midst of a frantic and frenzied world. To “have no time for anything” is to see, in essence, no commonalities to the pace of life we live. What has happened to the vital links that serve as the glue in the midst of all that we must do and the expectations we must meet? The touchstones, the practices and places we come back to with some regularity are harder and harder to find.
All one needs to do is talk with parish clergy to know just how difficult it can be to sustain a program, a course of study, or retain a core of regular worshippers in a world where patterns of life are increasingly rare. Too many things are pulling at people, from all sorts of directions, to allow regular practices of worship and religious education to thrive
In the midst of this crunch for time, compulsory worship allows for a community to make space for something not to be found in any other area of school life. Students (and sometimes their teachers!) who complain that all they do in chapel is “sit there and do nothing” are actually articulating one of the most compelling arguments for school chapel than can be found today! The school community is forced to ground itself in a rhythm and practice, not to mention a change of pace, rarely encountered, due to the lack of time, in any other context at school or at home.
Secondly, I believe it is a reality in most of our schools that an ever-growing segment of the school population belongs to the “none of the above” category, when it comes to identification with or adherence to a particular religious tradition. For many of our students as well as our faculty and staff, these individuals are second generation “none of the aboves,” and statistics are telling us that they are now more people in this country who do not belong to any particular religious group than there are mainstream Protestants—the term traditionally use when referring to denominations such as Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and—yes—Episcopalians.
In many of our schools, the non-Christians and non-Episcopalians attending our chapels come increasingly from no tradition at all, rather than from an alternative tradition. What’s more, many of these who fit into the “none of the above” category are not atheists or agnostics: current statistics are telling us that as many (or even about 10% more) of them believe in God as do not.
In Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious (Oxford University Press, 2014), Linda A. Mercadante affirms what many sociologists of religion have already concluded: there has been a rapid rise in the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation, and this rise has been particularly acute among younger generations, meaning that it is very likely that we will be seeing more, not less, of the “new nones,” as they are often called, into the future. They are the fastest growing group on the religious landscape in the United States. Rapid, as well, is the growth among those who have changed religious traditions for reasons other than marriage. But Professor Mercadante takes the understanding of these groups one step further. She warns against the assumption that the growth of religiously unaffiliated Americans automatically implies a growing secularization of America. In fact, she claims, through her extensive interviews of this population group, that a great many of those who do not identify with a religious tradition do so for quite sophisticated theological and moral reasons. We are not seeing a casual, unthinking abandonment of belief systems.
Professor Mercadante goes on to say that there may be whole new theologies emerging from this group of people (hopefully allowing all of us to begin identifying them in ways that are not predominantly negative), that a great many of them, in her words, “try to make sense of their lives, to find some compelling reason to get up each day, endure difficulties, find joy, and live with hope.”
I believe this is a vitally important and pioneering perspective on those who refer to as “none of the above.” It also, I believe, has important ramifications for the value of compulsory chapel. Episcopal schools do chapel in such ways as to encourage serious thinking, passionate questioning, and celebration of a wide variety of traditions. For the fastest growing “religious population” both in our country and in our schools, chapel offers a tremendous opportunity to celebrate the theological and moral seriousness of those young people and adults who may never otherwise come into contact with a house of worship or religious tradition. Just as our schools are eager to help, for example, Jewish students be the best Jews they can be, or our Muslim students to be the Muslims they can be, so our chapels can assist those who claim no affiliation to be the best “none of the aboves” they can be, within a context they might not otherwise experience in their lives, doing what they and their families are likely doing already—grappling with theological, moral, and philosophical ideas and their applicability to our lived worlds.
Whether we be stressed for time, or seeking to make sense of our lives outside of traditional religious categories, these contemporary realities will challenge us to think about chapel in new ways. They will certainly challenge the assumptions we have been making about just who is out there among that captive audience, and how are they are living their religious or spiritual lives. But these realities do not render chapel irrelevant. Instead, rather than viewing it as an outgrowth of a desperate attempt to cling to an outmoded practice, compulsory chapel may actually be speaking to some powerful contemporary challenges and allowing us some unique opportunities. With a captive audience we might well be effectively addressing current and future patterns in a way few other religious or non-religious contexts can.