The fall term at King’s University in Halifax began on a sour note for students and faculty who worship at the college chapel. The Bishop of Nova Scotia sent a letter to the president of the university stating that the diocese could no longer fund a full-time chaplaincy.

And Bishop Sue Moxley went further: “There have been suggestions that this model of chaplaincy is no longer appropriate, that the style of worship is antiquated and the chapel maintains a male-dominated clergy.”

Students, staff and faculty as well as the chaplain himself have all expressed grave concerns about the bishop’s letter.

Bishop Moxley wrote President Dr. Ann Leavitt Sept. 8, asking her to form a committee “to review the chaplain’s position, to consider its value to the university” and to find ways that the university could contribute half the funds needed to maintain the position.

Dr. Gary Thorne is chaplain of King’s College Chapel (and Anglican chaplain to neighboring Dalhousie University), a member of the Primate’s Theological Commission, and a reserve chaplain in the Canadian Armed Forces for 22 years. He was appointed university chaplain in January 2006 for five years ending Dec. 31, 2011.

The diocese currently pays the chaplain’s full stipend and benefits, but says it can only afford half that amount. Bishop Moxley would like to see either the university pay the other half or the chaplaincy become an off-campus model in which a local priest serves as a part-time chaplain. Under this arrangement students would be “encouraged to participate in the local church” and the diocese would pay only “a small honorarium to the parish to subsidize this part-time ministry.”

King’s has one of the busiest and most beautiful college chapels in Canada, and this chaplaincy has borne much fruit. North America is scattered with King’s College grads who were involved in the chapel, including Bishops Anthony Burton and Michael Hawkins.

On Oct. 19, after the bishop’s letter became common knowledge on campus, Thorne issued an open letter to students and faculty. He said he considered the bishop’s reference to “antiquated” worship “a matter of opinion,” but the reference to “male-dominated clergy” was “a factual error.”

“The suggestion that the Chapel worship is ‘antiquated’ (def. ‘obsolete,’ ‘outmoded or discredited by reason of age,’ etc.) is pejorative in tone and this language has upset students who find the worship in the chapel to be beautiful, inspiring, relevant and challenging,” Thorne wrote. “For many students the worship is the means whereby they more deeply enter into a continuing conversion of heart and mind.”

He continued: “The notion that there is no gender equality in the Chapel has distressed students, not only because it is false but because others in the university who do not attend chapel are given the impression of a systemic oppression in a part of the university.”

He said that for the past six years a woman has celebrated the weekly Eucharist regularly, that when women priests are present at Morning and Evening Prayer they give the Absolution and that on Thursdays at the Solemn Eucharist women priests function as liturgical deacons and subdeacons. Moreover, women preach and he encourages the bishop each time she has come to King’s to preach and celebrate Holy Communion. This is the third year that Thorne has “actively sought out and supported a female theological student studying for the priesthood to do her student placement at Dal[housie]/King’s.”

Anglican clergy were trained at King’s until 1971, when the Atlantic School of Theology was founded. In recent years, King’s College Chapel has been designated a multi-faith chapel open to students, staff and faculty of all faiths and traditions.

In a second open letter to students also dated Oct. 19, Thorne wrote that “the chapel, including the music programme, has been the instrument of your continuing conversion, not to a ‘narrow Anglicanism,’ but to a living and bold faith that is able to be thought, lived and shared with students of all faiths and of none. And yes, this has led many to Anglicanism, and a core of students is talking about possible vocations to ministry. Equally, the chapel has been a place where students of other faiths have deepened their spiritual lives, and where vocations have been confirmed for persons of other faiths. And equally, the chapel has been a place of quiet, contemplation and refuge for atheists and agnostics alike.”

One student, Jolanta Lorenc, wrote to President Leavitt: “It is unfortunate that the Bishop and the Diocesan Council have views of the King’s Chapel that are in direct opposition to the place that the Chapel and Chaplaincy hold in students’ lives. I cannot stress enough how much the language in the Bishop’s letter affected those who heard of and/or read it. Such language, which calls into question the authenticity of every personal experience of each person who has found, and continues to find in the Chapel a place of rest, of peace, of humility, of beauty and of truth. The statement contained in the letter questions the legitimacy of one’s core by disqualifying his or her belief and experience as antiquated, archaic and obsolete. This is highly distressing, as you can imagine.”

Veronica Curran, another student who has been also a chapel warden, wrote on a popular Facebook group called “Save the Chapel”: “The idea that the chapel is ‘male-dominated’ is an insult to all of us who have played a role in its life and growth. Is the Diocese trying to say that my contribution is inadequate? For the four years that I have been here, we have had two female wardens out of three every year.”

Leavitt had the Board of Governors form a three-member committee to consider whether university operating funds which come from taxes and tuition “could and should be used to support the Chaplaincy, not only given the University’s current and significant financial challenges, but given that a number of people at King’s would question the appropriateness of what they believe to be a secular institution financially supporting a position which is expressly denominationally affiliated.”

Dr. Neil Robertson, a King’s professor and a member of the committee, told The Watch, the university’s monthly magazine: “I don’t see any need to establish an overarching question ‘Should this be?’ I’m rather of the view that ‘It is good.’ Why don’t we try to find a way to allow it to be a continuing good?”

Robertson had attended chapel as a King’s student in the 1980s. He said the chapel “is in an extraordinary place, in terms of the life of the college and the kind of striving for excellence in music and intellectual and spiritual development. It’s in a golden age. It would be tragic to undercut all of that because we can’t get our financial house in order.”

The diocese has extended its original deadline for ending full-chaplaincy funding from December 2011 to June 2012.

Sue Careless in Toronto