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Religious Controversy Surrounds Annual School Tradition
sarah woolf 12 front page editor volume 86
December 15, 2009

Confusion surrounded the details regarding Deerfield’s Vespers Service. Although originally a required event for all students, it was quickly changed to an optional one.

Vespers, planned for December 13 this year, is an annual event held at the First Church of Deerfield for the DA community. It features both religious and non-denominational musical performances and readings of poetry and prose. The seasonal service has been present at Deerfield for years. Dean of Spiritual and Ethical Life Jan Flaska organized this year’s event. This was the first year that a dean required attendance.

According to Mr. Flaska, feedback from certain members of the community who attended the service last year was overwhelmingly positive. Many of them felt it was a shame attendance was not greater. In making the event mandatory, Mr. Flaska hoped to provide a time when all students could breathe, be still, and reflect together. “I don’t think we meet enough as a school. There is value in sitting with a community in silence.”

The First Church felt, to Mr. Flaska, to be a more appropriate, and certainly a more intimate and beautiful location than the Large Auditorium. The service is not meant to be specific to any religion, but rather includes readings and music from as many religions as possible. “I wanted a moment for everybody,” said Mr. Flaska.

Readings included a Chinese poem by Li Bai and a passage from the Old Testament. Head of School Margarita Curtis read the poem, “O Day of Peace” by Carl P. Daw, Jr.

“Music and inspirational readings enhance our sense of community,” said Ms. Curtis. “They provide an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of our work and lives. I always encourage any event that invites us to share our thoughts and aspirations with one another.”

The term “vespers” often refers to a Christian evening service. These religious overtones, along with the event being mandatory, made many members of the community uncomfortable.

There was a greater response against the service being required this year than Mr. Flaska expected. Most of the responses were from faculty, he said. Among students, there was an overriding sense of confusion. “I thought it was odd that they were requiring something that seemed so religious,” said Isabel Kent ’12.

Mr. Flaska understands people’s reactions to the combination of location, name, and required attendance. “In hindsight, I can see how that could put them in an uncomfortable position.”

Even after the decision to make Vespers attendance optional, not everyone felt satisfied. “Deerfield Academy is a secular school and it is important that it remains so,” said English teacher Joel Thomas-Adams.
“No matter how hard we try to give the semblance of accepting all denominations, it is impossible to ignore the Presbyterian-Christian structure,” he said.

Mr. Thomas-Adams believes that the school should remove any explicit religious practice from its traditions, such as holding Baccalaureate at the First Church and saying prayers at various school events.

Although he thinks it is important to study different religions, he feels that involving them within our community’s traditions “shows a lack of imagination.” He believes we should take traditions and reform them to fit the modern community to which we all belong.

The location of the service does not bother French teacher Claudia Lyons. “I wouldn’t care if it were in a mosque or a synagogue, as long as we can appreciate the atmosphere of the season.”

“Part of me is always concerned that we forget that students here may have had a religious upbringing,” she said. She feels that at Deerfield, expressions of body, art, and mind are encouraged, and we should therefore encourage the expression of the soul and inner essences as well.

“We must remember to celebrate peoples’ spiritual lives,” said Ms. Lyons.