Back to Baccalaureate
by Donald G. Shockley
Dr. Shockley is university chaplain at Emory University in Atlanta. This article appeared in the Christian Century June 2, 1982, p. 666. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Robert Dewey, dean of Stetson Chapel at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, pointed out that about ten years ago many seniors registered their preference not to have the service. Faculty and administration resisted the abandonment of the tradition, and the service limped along for several years in a quasi-religious vein. But a half-dozen years ago the occasion was reasserted as “unapologetically a service of worship,” and attendance has been strong. “It is not required,” the dean says, “but it is always packed.”
From all around the country -- from Brown and Yale in the east to Occidental and Puget Sound on the opposite coast -- come reports of full houses at baccalaureate. At Emory, in Atlanta, invitations were limited to undergraduate seniors and their families for the first time last spring, and the 1,200-seat campus church was filled to capacity. And in places where the traditional event has not re-emerged, kindred observances are being spawned. Reservations for a commencement-week prayer breakfast at Howard University were cut off, at 500. A “Senior Sunday” at Alma College in Michigan has filled the regular chapel service to capacity for the past two years.
The revulsion against established rituals was a part of the era of student disillusionment with the role of institutions. Baccalaureate programs in many places withered and died in that environment, but some were taken over and transformed by students into events more to their liking. So what we have in today’s resurgence is what has evolved from experiments in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, along with the more traditional forms that survived more or less intact. Of particular interest is the way in which the religiously pluralistic character of student bodies, including those of many denominationally affiliated schools, is being addressed.
At the far extreme of innovation is the baccalaureate service which is such in name only. At Grinnell College, for example, the annual event has remained, but it has lost all the overt trappings of a religious ceremony. Gone are the hymns, prayers, litanies and anthems. The president of the Student Government Association serves as “master of ceremonies,” the president of the college makes comments, and there are two faculty and two student speakers, who are as likely to offer reflections on the year just ending as to address them-selves to questions of value and meaning. Awards are given by the Alumni Association. The affair is well attended, but it suggests what used to be called “Class Day” more than the mainstream of the baccalaureate tradition.
If we are to speak of extremes -- without pejorative intent -- at the other end of the spectrum would be those services planned by administrators (whether presidents, deans or chaplains) which have survived as full-blown Christian liturgies expressing the theological tradition behind the institution’s establishment. Such is the case, for example, at Duke and Southern Methodist, where the baccalaureate services are major events at which the institutions’ ties with the Christian tradition are celebrated in an unselfconscious fashion. One is left to wonder if Jewish faculty and students simply take the character of this service for granted and stay away, having assumed that their decision to affiliate with a church-related institution took their potential exclusion from certain university activities into account.
More typically, the renewal of baccalaureate services has been accompanied by various attempts to accommodate the pluralism which is common to most campuses. How much accommodation there is varies from the excision of overt references to Christ in hymns and prayers, to the inclusion of representatives of other faiths in the planning process. That the new baccalaureate program at Cornell University would be thoroughly interfaith in character is not surprising, since the Cornell United Religious Work has functioned on an interreligious basis for many years. Indeed, an interfaith service is conducted each Sunday morning of the academic year in Sage Chapel.
At Stanford, the choice of baccalaureate speakers rotates among prominent representatives of Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish traditions, with the choice being made by an inclusive committee of students and campus clergy. At Yale, where by longstanding custom the president of the university provides the address, Jewish and Roman Catholic chaplains have recently been asked to participate by reading Scripture lessons. At Emory, another school whose president speaks at baccalaureate, care is taken to plan the service in a broadly inclusive manner even though the school’s church-relatedness is currently being reaffirmed in various ways. Being in close touch with its Christian roots is not viewed as incompatible with hospitality toward the many Jewish students who attend the Atlanta school.
There remains another approach worthy of comment. The surge of student assertiveness during the protest years resulted in student-planned baccalaureate services, which tended to be innovative and less formal than the usual pattern. In some places this approach has not only survived but prospered. Until 1973, for example, the baccalaureate service at Illinois Wesleyan was conducted at the near-campus United Methodist church as a special emphasis in an otherwise regular Sunday liturgy. That year members of the senior class obtained permission to plan their own service, and that has been the practice ever since. The service, held outdoors, features contemporary poetry, dance and popular music as well as more traditional hymns and lessons. The change from a traditional to a contemporary idiom occurred at the University of Redlands in the same year with the same result, right down to the inclusion of dance and the student artwork on the program cover.
At Denison University, an attempt is made to plan a service that is “as nonsectarian as possible,” leaning heavily on contemporary forms and student initiative in planning and presentation. The principal difficulty with such a service is that innovation can so dissipate form and substance, particularly when planned by persons with little liturgical experience, that the overall experience loses focus or veers too sharply toward subjectivity. Nevertheless, at a time when traditional ways are “in” again, it is important to note that the spirit of novelty and innovation continues to be quite strong on Baccalaureate Day.