By Libby Ellis
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane

When Elizabeth Davenport arrived at the University of Chicago, she was struck by a sense of belonging. “I was an undergraduate at Oxford, and I felt very much at home here from the moment I stepped on campus—and it wasn’t just the architecture. There is a great intellectual strength here,” she says.

Davenport, installed last month as the sixth Dean of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, sees her job as extending through the campus, the city, and the global community. She leads students and the University community in their quest for religious and spiritual meaning, supervises weekly religious services at Rockefeller, oversees the musical programs (she’s a mezzo soprano and pianist), and attracts speakers and special events to the chapel.

After a 17-year stint at the University of Southern California, most recently as Senior Associate Dean of Religious Life, Davenport was ready for a change of scenery. “I love the snow,” says the native of England, “I had been in California for so long I missed it.” Davenport was drawn to Chicago after being inspired by the larger sense of change on campus and the chapel’s opportunity to play a role it in.

“There is a sense of forward-looking and a desire from the administration to position the University of Chicago for the 21st century, in terms of responding to the issues of today that pertain to religion and society,” she says. “We live in an era with so many questions, and Rockefeller is well positioned to address those. I hope to fill the building often and with many different people. I hope to build on the work of my five wonderful predecessors.”

Filling pews (and meditation room)

Davenport was formally installed as dean on Nov. 9. She began the ceremony by knocking on the chapel door and was invited in, saying, “Peace be to this house and all who enter here.”

James Kallembach, the University’s Chorus Director, wrote a peaceful, celebratory anthem for the occasion based on Eastern and Western texts Davenport selected—all with wisdom as the theme. The celebration included readings and sacred dances, chanting by monks, traditional Medieval English dancers, and even a Chinese lion dance as a blessing to close the proceedings. Davenport presented gifts of hand bells and plants to represent harmony and growth.

“Giving and receiving in a mutual way is what I perceive this role to be about,” she says. Since arriving on campus last July, Davenport has been working to infuse the chapel with life and events representative of the diverse student body and exploring Rockefeller as a building, focusing on religious, ceremonial, and academic uses of the space. She also is focused on building the reputation of the new Interreligious Center located in the basement of Rockefeller. She has been working with different student groups to encourage daily use of the building for prayer, meditation, restorative yoga, and other forms of spirituality. The challenge, as it is at many educational institutions, is providing a welcoming space for all but also a sanctuary for those involved in daily religious or spiritual practices. “I’m working with students who are feeling, as undergrads often do, that there isn’t a place for their religious beliefs, that other students look down on them [for those beliefs], but I think that self-exploration leads to healthy self-examination.”

One community, many beliefs

Davenport will work with students to explore how they understand religion in today’s world. To illustrate, there are 35 different religious groups on campus and, Davenport reports, 20 percent of University of Chicago students were born into mixed-faith families.

“A smaller percentage than a generation ago has a strong sense of religious identity, but today, religion impacts the world at large, our news, and political debates,” Davenport says. “We need to foster religiously literate citizens and ensure they understand what it is to live with an engaged pluralism that works for the 21st century.”

One group that Davenport is hearing from is atheists. “Atheism is one way of looking at life’s major questions and, in some ways, they too have important questions to ask of us all,” says Davenport, who while not trying to claim the atheist population in any way, is glad to support and encourage them as any other group. “There are issues we need to address here, such as what would it take for someone who is atheist to run for high office. If they see brainstorming with me might be helpful, that’s wonderful because we’re interested in good programming for everyone.”

Her interest in the interaction of religion and spirituality dates to her childhood. “My background is ethics, broadly, and I have a particular interest in medical ethics because of my strong family background in this field. But as a girl, I wanted to be a priest. I have come full circle, and at a place like this, where we’re known for high standards of scrutiny, it’s exciting to be involved in these debates.”

Originally published on December 22, 2008.