Chapel is a vital and important part of the Christian context of the school and is typically held daily at 10:15am in the gymnasium. It also counts toward the Ministry of Education’s mandated teaching hours. Students who repeatedly miss chapel risk falling short of the Ministry’s requirements for graduation. A variety of worship experiences, speakers and musical groups are presented during this time. All students are required to be at Chapel and are requested to participate in a manner fitting to the occasion.
During a chapel session in late May 2016, Principal Dr. Mark Anderson delivered a speech that we wanted to share with families and friends of Luther. The following is an edited excerpt of that speech, which we hope will help to answer questions you may have about chapel, and help you understand why this is such an important Luther College tradition.
The place where you sit today was once described by Pastor Fry as sacred ground. On an obvious level it is sacred ground because it typically houses chapel, which often is our time to contemplate the sacred. But it’s also sacred because it is a communal place of equity. We all come as seekers and learners, equally and humanly compelled, frustrated and intrigued by the great mysteries of life. This is the time and place when it is most obvious we really are a community.
But chapel’s also sacred because it is a truly unique opportunity. Unlike the vast majority of high schools across Canada—and probably around the world—we devote 20-30 minutes a day, five days a week to gathering students and employees to worship, to reflect, to broaden our understandings, to be spiritually challenged or uplifted, to be entertained, to hear of others’ accomplishments. We are given the opportunity to actively listen to both religious and non-religious viewpoints that we may or may not agree with, to grow spiritually, to think critically about what we believe and don’t believe, and to consider why we hold the views we do. The Ministry of Education agrees chapel is uniquely valuable, allowing us to count it as instructional time.
But chapel is even sacred in a secular or non-religious sense as it ideally seeks to develop the values and skills Canadians hold most sacred to citizenship in a liberal multicultural democracy, values and skills I’ll speak more of in a minute.
For all these reasons and others, I would suggest to you that chapel is a rare opportunity, one that many of our alumni tell us they didn’t fully appreciate until later in life, one that is integral to a Luther College education.
Part of basic good citizenship, whether here in chapel, or in your classes or in our broader society is the responsibility to sublimate selfish interests for the sake of a better communal experience whenever necessary. This is part of what it means to really live out the commandment to treat others as we would like to be treated.
Demanding quiet but engaged listening isn’t just some heavy-handed, random school rule; it’s common courtesy, our most basic expectation of you in chapel. Otherwise you’re implying you don’t value others’ thoughts or rights, that you have nothing left to learn or think about, that you and what you’re doing is more important.
But, this is not just on you the students. For example, I’m late for chapel way too often myself. Other days, my mind will sometimes wander to worries and strains from the day rather than genuinely engaging the thoughts and contributions of whoever is leading chapel. It’s only human that we all have days when we come to chapel grudgingly or under stress or angry at the world.
But, then, even more reason for us to value and appreciate chapel. It affords us a window of time to leave those frustrations and stresses at the door. At the very least chapel offers us a breather from the rat race, and at best helps us to feel renewed, more informed or more hopeful than when we first arrived.
Does chapel always do this? Of course not, because nothing in life achieves its own ideal all the time. But I respectfully suggest to you that everyone in this room, including me, can do a much better job of maximizing this unique opportunity rather than disengaging or undermining it for selfish reasons.
So why do I argue that chapel really is an opportunity both to grow spiritually and to prepare for citizenship? Because the experience better equips you to contribute to the public good, as you’re more able to make discerning choices, more likely to understand and respect other worldviews and religious viewpoints; and, therefore, better able to effectively strengthen a free, diverse society.
Chapel equips you because it is inclusive, varied and a natural, safe forum for the free exchange of religious perspectives. How many places in our society can we say that’s true of? Yes, it is informed by a particularly Christian viewpoint, especially Lutheran understandings of grace, truth, purpose, love and justice, but it is not designed to exclude or to coerce you to abandon your beliefs or religious views. After all, Luther himself championed the freedom to critically pursue truth, for everyone to be educated. In fact, chapel is not designed to convince you of anything other than the notion that consideration of the spiritual or the religious is part of a well-rounded education. Chapel aims to disturb you out of complacent, lazy thinking about what might exist beyond our physical selves, to deepen your understandings of your own beliefs and the beliefs of others.
No matter whether you consider yourself religious or non-religious, I would argue we share the conviction that to be fully human is to experience spiritual impulses, to ponder whether or not there is a God, to contemplate eternity, to wonder what comes after death, if anything. Chapel grants us time away from our busy lives to learn about and weigh both Christian and non-Christian understandings of these big questions. I believe anyone of any religious or non-religious persuasion can come to our chapel time, find it a non-threatening sacred place and walk away afterwards with something to think about. That alone makes chapel time valuable.
Chapel also prepares you for citizenship in a multicultural democracy because it models how civilized people of conscience are to live with their differences of belief. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Beverly McLachlin argues Canadian students need to learn the art of respectful deliberation and discernment, where they are taught to be independent thinkers who can hold differences without condescension, who can assess competing versions of truth without dismissing the worth and rights of people who hold those opposing views. This requires more than mere polite tolerance of others’ views. It means active listening, critical reflection, honest debate and boldly defending everyone’s right to freedom of expression (as long as it’s not used to the detriment of others’ rights or dignity).
Sure, sometimes it’s timely, healthy, even necessary to hear someone speak of that which we already believe, but if that’s all we’re interested in listening to, we’ve missed the point of chapel, especially chapel in an educational institution like ours. This doesn’t mean we need to apologize for what we believe or be shy about expressing it respectfully. Respect is not a synonym for blind or passive endorsement of other viewpoints; neither does it mean abdication of independent thought. There is nothing wrong with firmly and confidently held core convictions. The problem arises, I think, when some people are prepared to be certain for everyone else as well. That is not the aim of our chapel time.
Yes, Luther College’s very beginnings were strongly influenced by Lutheranism. And, yes, we strive to educate in a Christian context. We don’t need to apologize for that or hide it, but neither does that mean Luther is a confessional school seeking to indoctrinate or convert or exclude. We don’t pretend to know all the answers to all the great questions and mysteries of life, but we do believe grappling with them and relentlessly pursuing truth are essential to a fulfilled life. And, Chapel is a natural forum for such pursuits.
I’m a Christian because what it teaches about the human condition, about grace and forgiveness, about love and the humble sacrificial cost of that love all resonate with me. Many of you are not Christian or even religious. That’s more than ok. Chapel doesn’t require that of you. Your presence and involvement in chapel are not somehow less valuable. The kind of chapel we envision and nurture at Luther invites each and every one of you to critically examine and further define the rationales and pillars that form the bedrock of your belief systems, and to deepen your appreciation for and understanding of other faiths and beliefs. Because for any of us to claim we have it all figured out is, I believe, close-minded and arrogant. It’s also lazy and cynical. As one thinker once famously stated, "There are two ways to slice easily through life; to believe everything or to doubt everything. Both ways save us from thinking” (Alfred Korzybaski). Chapel is not an attempt to save us from thinking.
I firmly believe coming together on this sacred ground each day isn’t a have to. It’s a get to.