NEW HAVEN, Conn.
Founded by Congregational ministers in the 18th century, Yale University's Battell Chapel was this nation's first college-run church and, as recently as the Vietnam era, a Sunday morning gathering point. These days, however, only a few worshippers sit in the pews under Battell's sweeping Gothic arches, and now Yale is cutting its 248-year-old Congregational roots to try to re-energize the historic church by making services more welcoming.
Beginning in May, Battell will offer ecumenical, or nondenominational, Christian services. The decision has upset a number of Battell regulars, who say that -- after remaining faithful while attendance dropped -- Yale is turning its back on the them.
"It's so painful for us as a congregation because it seems so unnecessary," said Dianne Davis, moderator of the Church of Christ at Yale. "Reaching out to the undergraduates couldn't have been done with us? The congregation is being blamed for the university's failure to attract students to this church."
The university doesn't see it that way. Officials note that since the 1880s, visiting ministers of many faiths have regularly filled the pulpit.
"The university has, for at least 150 years, viewed the church as not affiliated with a denomination," said Martha Highsmith, the university's deputy secretary.
Still, in 1961, Yale's church became part of the United Church of Christ, the successor to the Congregational Church. As that relationship grew, Yale's authority slowly ceded to the church council, which made many of the programming and financial decisions.
A university committee, observing the precipitous decline in attendance, recommended last year that Yale regain control of the church.
"Student apathy was growing and something needed to be done," said the Rev. John Bryson Chane, Episcopal bishop of Washington state and a Yale Divinity School graduate who sat on the committee.
Bryson and other committee members felt that Battell Chapel and Yale had grown apart since the 1960s and '70s, when the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, as university chaplain, united different faiths against the Vietnam War and racial violence.
"People gathered there -- Jews, Christians, nonbelievers, Hindus, Buddhists -- to find a place to gather to discuss these issues at a time of great pain in our country," Chane said. "That's exactly what a place like Battell should be."
Administrators believe this transition, though awkward, will ultimately improve the religious atmosphere at Yale. In recent years, the college has opened Battell before dawn for Buddhist prayers. Last year, dining halls prepared Ramadan meals using recipes from the parents of Muslim students.
But Battell's UCC faithful argue that they're being asked to make a painful decision: Remain at Battell despite its leadership and spiritual changes or leave a church they feel part of.
They point out that Battell was a UCC church during the years that Coffin was its leader.
The Rev. Frederick J. Streets, Yale's chaplain, said the issue is one of governance, not denomination. Sunday services at Battell are already influenced by others faiths and don't resemble a typical UCC service, he said.
Yale wants to return to the days when it ran its own church, he said, and most of the people who are leaving are doing so because they want a greater say in running their local church.
Coffin, reached by phone at his home in Vermont, agreed that the division has little to do with denomination. Underscoring just how divisive the issue has become, however, the normally loquacious minister had little to add.
"I can't figure any way to say anything without it being uncalled for," Coffin said. "It would be unbecoming of me to comment."
Some will stay at Battell after the church changes hands. Others, like Davis, the moderator, are undecided. A small group has already left, setting up a new church called Shalom United Church of Christ.
They will come together on May 15 for a farewell service, a final set of prayers as one church under Battell's lavender and blue ceiling.
In that last ceremony, the church will release its ministers from their covenant, allowing them to leave in whatever direction they choose.