Rockefeller at 75
The Reverend Alison Boden, ordained in the United
Church of Christ, is in her second five-year term as dean of Rockefeller
Memorial Chapel. Since her 1995 arrival she’s increased Sunday
worship attendance, local preacher visits, study groups, and neighborhood
programs. Her Divinity School and College classes focus on preparing
students for the ministry and on human rights and religion. For
Rockefeller’s anniversary year she helped to create a March
1–June 18 exhibit at the Special Collections Research Center,
“Life of the Spirit, Life of the Mind: Rockefeller Memorial
Chapel at 75.”
Illustration by Allan Burch
Previously Boden served as Bucknell University’s
chaplain and as Union College’s Protestant chaplain. She earned
a doctorate from Britain’s University of Bradford in 2003
and a Master of Divinity from New York’s Union Theological
Seminary in 1990. Her 1984 Vassar College bachelor’s degree
is in drama: “I was an actress in New York City before going
What are your biggest short- and long-term goals
My goals fall into several overlapping categories.
The first is programmatic: to increase our historically high-quality
musical offerings—our choir, organ, and carillon programs,
plus outside artists. I also hope to increase the number of programs—lectures,
concerts, travel seminars, discussion groups—that appeal to
and bring together members of various religious communities.
The second goal is worshipful: to enable and
expand all of the religious communities at the University and to
deepen the chapel’s own worship-based offerings, including
our ecumenical Christian services on Sunday mornings and our interfaith
gatherings at other times of the year.
The third goal is to restore the chapel building
and its instruments, all of which need significant repairs after
75 years of use. The original 1928 Skinner organ, for example, needs
some $2 million in repairs and endowment, and the carillon needs
another $500,000. Both the carillon and organ are extremely significant
instruments, not just on campus but nationally and even internationally.
Why are academic rites held at Rockefeller, and
how does your role as dean serve them?
The first reason that such secular events are
held here is simply that the chapel has the largest seating capacity
on campus. The second reason is that the University has long sought,
rightfully, to wed something “eternal” to its most important
events, the ones that it knows point to something beyond the mundane.
Many of the great moments of transition that we have as a community—convocations,
white-coat ceremonies, hoodings, weddings, memorial services, military
commissionings, significant lectures, moments of artistic endeavor—happen
here. I hope that, as dean, my participation in some of these events
helps to enhance the idea that what we are doing has the deepest
value and testifies to our greatest hopes for ourselves: that we
should be healers, that we should be enablers of justice, that we
should be, collectively, a place where the most profound questions
of our corporate life are examined.
Although John D. Rockefeller was a Baptist, the
cathedral has a somewhat secular feel, with abstract stained glass.
Does the chapel consciously try to be non- or multidenominational?
In recent months I’ve studied the documents
concerning the chapel’s founding and design. What strikes
me is how forward-thinking its builders were. They knew, in the
1910s and ’20s, that the University was going to become a
more multireligious place, so they built a chapel that was relatively
lacking in religious imagery. They wanted it to be accessible to
as many people as possible. They also wanted it to be as grand and
as architecturally appropriate as the great cathedrals of Europe.
In fact, President Ernest DeWitt Burton went to Europe to study
those cathedrals to make sure that the University’s would
In its early years the chapel boldly was intended
to be interdenominational Christian, and those who have served on
the chapel staff have tried to make it more multireligious, in keeping
with the changing religious make-up of the University. We’ve
had programs such as concerts of Jewish sacred song, a performance
by the University’s Indonesian gamelan with shadow puppets,
and the construction of a Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala. The University’s
Buddhist organization currently meets for meditation in the chapel,
and at one time the Muslim student organization used the chapel
for its Friday prayers.
When will the Muslim prayer space in Rockefeller’s
basement be ready?
The Muslim prayer space will come about next
fall, when the new Inter-Religious Center opens in the chapel’s
basement. That whole basement space will be renovated to permit
dedicated prayer rooms for our Muslim and Hindu communities—two
of our larger groups that, to date, don’t own their own housing.
There will be three other rooms available for all other religious
groups to use as they need.
How do you appeal to a predominantly young audience?
Is Rockefeller part of the larger nationwide trend of alternative
Not at all. On Sunday mornings we offer a quite
traditional Christian service, liturgically. The theology of these
services is progressive, inclusive, and interdenominational Christian,
but the form is not alternative. As the saying goes, “the
architecture always wins.” We are working with an architecture
of gravitas. We use the liturgical and theological traditions that
we have received to speak to very contemporary questions and challenges—we
think the traditions are that elastic and that relevant.
Have you noticed an increase or decrease of interest
in organized religion?
We are in the midst of an ongoing national increase
in religious participation. I suspect that this is a pendulum-theory
kind of thing—that we are still on the upswing of a great
renewal of interest in things religious, and that this upswing will
eventually turn downward. Meanwhile, though, we continue to see
greater and greater interest in formal religious participation.
Students raised by parents who once left religious communities are
now interested in engaging such communities themselves as young
adults. Other students raised in the bosom of particular religious
communities are interested in what others might have to teach them.
The lines of religious identification are shifting,
which “should” be a time of religious uncertainty, but
these are also times of religious growth and intensification. At
Chicago there is both shift and growth, and so the demographic lines
of religious participation are hardly clearly drawn, but very much
on the upswing.