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In search of a greater light

22 April 2009

The University of Cambridge is celebrating its 800th anniversary. Pat Ashworth investigates the part played by college chapels, one of the University’s oldest features

Spiritual connections: above: St John’s College Choir ST JOHN'S COLLEGE Below: the Victorian tower of St John’s College Chapel PAT ASHWORTH

Spiritual connections: above: St John’s College Choir ST JOHN'S COLLEGE Below: the Victorian tower of St John’s College Chapel PAT ASHWORTH

City of learning: above: central Cambridge, including parts of Trinity Hall, Trinity, Gonville and Caius, Clare, and the Senate House; right: exams under way in the Senate House. Images from The University of Cambridge: An 800th anniversary portrait (Third Millennium Publishing; £45 (CT Bookshop £40.50) 978-1-093942-65-9) a sumptuously illustrated hardback on all aspects of the University's life.

THE azure-and-gold clock of Emmanuel College Chapel, Cambridge, is the first feature to draw the eye when you stand at the gateway on busy St Andrews Street.

But gaze beyond the courts and immaculate college greens, and the chapel’s presence is so assured and commanding that, if the double doors are open, you can glimpse at the end of a long vista the bur­nished gleam surrounding the altarpiece, Annigoni’s The Return of the Prodigal Son.

Glance up inside the exquisite little chapel at 500-year-old Christ’s College, and the open casement window of Lady Margaret Beaufort’s oratory beckons you back through the centuries to witness in the imagin­ation a straight-backed noblewoman eavesdropping on the mass below.

Beauty and history are all around in the Cambridge chapels, to be imbibed by those who work and worship in them in the University’s 800th year.

The ever-presence of history is articulated by the Revd Alice Goodman, a chaplain at Trinity College. “If I preside facing westwards, I look down the chapel into the eyes of Roubiliac’s statue of Sir Isaac Newton. If facing east, I elevate the Host towards the glare of Satan, who is being bound in chains by the Archangel Michael in Benjamin West’s altarpiece of 1770-something,” she says.

There is more to her altarpiece story, though, and it provides an insight into how the Cambridge chapels have wrestled over the centuries with issues of secularisa­tion, atheism, and modernity.

The memoirs of Lady Butler, whose husband was Master of Trinity, tell how she nearly got the college to commission an altar­piece by Ceri Richards. Fellows who never attended chapel rejected the sketches, and voted to have the West altarpiece, which had been exiled to the staircase of the Wren Library.

The memoirs of Lady Butler, whose husband was Master of Trinity, tell how she nearly got the college to commission an altar­piece by Ceri Richards. Fellows who never attended chapel rejected the sketches, and voted to have the West altarpiece, which had been exiled to the staircase of the Wren Library.

“What interests me about that story is the way in which the chapel and its life loom large in the psyches even of what you might call the anti-chapel brigade,” Ms Goodman says. “We have a very fruitful dialectic going on here.”

Trinity has a community of 1600 students and staff, with a Dean of Chapel, two chaplains, and one Fellow in holy orders. “Even for those who don’t come to services, the sight of the chapel lit up and the sound of services coming from it provide a real sense of security — Trinity’s metaphysical boiler humming into life. God’s in his heaven and all’s well with the world,” Ms Goodman says.

“I’m not sure if this is a good thing, mind you, but it does seem to be the case.” She reflects that the chaplains, known by name and moving between students, Fellows, and staff, are “like the glue holding a very diverse mosaic together”.

The majority of the 31 colleges are religious foundations, with statutes that require them to have a chapel. Only a handful are not. With the exception of St Edmund’s Hall, which is Roman Catholic, and Robinson and Fitzwilliam, which are interdenominational, the chapels are Church of England. The chapel at Churchill is interdenominational, but is not formally part of the college.

A SURVEY undertaken in 2006 by the Dean and Fellow of St John’s, the Revd Duncan Dormor, found that college chapels accounted for about 13 per cent of the weekly Anglican churchgoing within the area covered by Ely diocese, and about nine per cent of Sunday attendance.

Between 1000 and 1140 students attended worship in the chapels each week; one third of them were members of chapel choirs. Just under 3000 people attended an act of worship each week, across the 17 places of worship which responded to the survey.

Between 1000 and 1140 students attended worship in the chapels each week; one third of them were members of chapel choirs. Just under 3000 people attended an act of worship each week, across the 17 places of worship which responded to the survey.

More than 30 organ scholars and at least 325 students were involved in choral worship, the survey found. There were at least 89 weddings in the chapels in 2005.

Services such as the Advent carol service, which marks the end of the Michaelmas term, are an integral part of university life and are well attended: in 2005, the service attracted 6500 worshippers from all colleges.

It is the diversity of acts of wor­ship which can be the greatest strength, says the chairman of the Deans and Chaplains, the Revd Hugh Shilson-Thomas, who is Chaplain at Selwyn. “Chapels can be safe places to experiment,” he observes. “At the start of the aca­demic year, an email went out to all our students advertising choral compline — Renaissance poly­phony, candlelight, incense, and a chance to pray for those who wished — and more than 100 people showed up. The potential to communicate with people here in a place like Selwyn is enormous.”

The colleges provide wonderful opportunities for ministry, he suggests, as communities where clerics are readily accessible and where there is a possibility of ministering to the whole “parish”.

“They are real contemporary examples of places where that Anglican notion of ministry to all can flourish, and at the same time where ministry can be shared widely with the laity — students and others — and where close ecumenical bonds are forged.”

The similarities between the college chapels are probably more striking than the differences, suggests the Dean of Emmanuel, the Revd Jeremy Caddick. His college, with its 450 undergraduates, would probably characterise itself as a more relaxed community than other places, he says, and the function of the chapel is to act as a focus.

“It’s physically big, seen there from the front gate. The frontage is the centre of college, and people walk past it several times a day, whatever they’re doing.” Mr Caddick goes on to reflect that having a chapel does not seem to be as controversial as it might have been in the past.

“The chaplains might have found themselves trying to justify it against a body of secular-minded Fellows who think you should have a squash court or something. But now, my impression is that most people are happy to have a chapel, and think that the college does its job better for having it there.”

THE present generation of undergraduate students was born around 1990, and reflects the more secular outlook in the UK. “For those people who don’t come to chapel, what goes on there is more strange. People are aware that they don’t have a religious belief, but less of a consciousness of what they don’t subscribe to,” he says.

“So I think the role of chapel and chaplains is to communicate to people that there is a religious dimension there, so that when they look back, they will reflect that it was a significant part of the experience that there was a chapel, a chaplain, a worshipping community that made the experience what it was. And a consciousness that it is an ongoing option. I think the forces of secularisation make that less of an option for people generally.”

The college chapels exist in ten­sion with the student churches in Cambridge, most of which have an Evangelical bent that historically stems from the influence of Charles Simeon at Trinity.

The diversity of religious groups and churches attended by students has increased in recent years, and, for some Christian students, the relationship with the chapel is only a passing one. At Emmanuel, the once-a-term corporate eucharist, followed by a meal, is intended as a time when everyone comes together, with an emphasis on celebrating diversity.

The chapels also exist alongside student groups such as the Christian Union, a relationship that most acknowledge has to be handled carefully.

Mr Caddick considers it import­ant not to have arguments. “What I say to all those running CUs is that the Kingdom is best served if all the Christian groups are flourishing. They do a different job, and the role of the chapel is more important the more diverse the groups get.”

One shift in recent years to change the geography of CU and chapel has been the emergence of the more Charismatic Evangelical group Fusion.

There can be tensions: Mr Dormor, at St John’s, remembers when “everybody was on board for a Christian Aid service and then the CU people came rather sheepishly and said they were going to have to pull out. Their executive objected to the slogan, ‘We believe in life before death,’ because it cast aspersions on the notion of eternal life. . . But we do have a history of getting along with it.”

MR DORMOR describes his college’s reputation as “slight­ly boisterous, a bit hearty, good on music, and good on sport”.

The great tower of the St John’s chapel, a Victorian edifice that replaced a 12th-century church, rises above its surroundings to stand large and square. The Dean says without hesitation that choral music — “enormously strong” at present in Cambridge — is the colleges’ most distinctive contribution to the Church. He reflects: “If you took out all the London choral singers who were choral scholars at Oxford and Cambridge, London churches would be in a very different situation.

“If you took out the cathedral organists who basically trained at Oxford and Cambridge, my guess is you’d lose 90 per cent. . . Of the top choirs in the world, in choral music, most are within a mile — King’s and John’s in terms of male-only; Clare, Trinity, and Gonville and Caius as the leading mixed choirs.”

Students see it as a stepping stone to a professional career in music, including the opera world. Services from St John’s are webcast once a week, and its international reputation draws visitors from all over the world to evensong.

“You have a formal cathedral style of music, but you also have a community of 850 18-25-year olds, normal but bright, many of them unchurched. It’s how you whet their appetite, and draw them in a bit,” Mr Dormor suggests.

“I think choral evensong does that very well, because they don’t have to do anything: they can see it as a cultural event if they want to, and if they come out feeling moved and affected, as they often do, it’s a starting-point for conversations. There is safety in a formal service. Students can wander in, and no one is going gratuitously to investigate their beliefs.”

He concedes that, for deans and chaplains, Cambridge is in “an élite position, a privileged position, a wonderful place to be”, but also acknowledges that it can be a tough place for the politically naïve.

“Some chaplains have been hanged, drawn, and quartered in the Oxbridge system, because they don’t know how to work with Fellows, and get out-manoeuvred on all sorts of things. I’m very, very fortunate here: some colleges have an ethos that is very anti-chapel.”

Representing the University of Cambridge at General Synod frequently puts him in the position of apologist for an institution he finds difficult to defend at times.

The same frustration is expressed by Mr Caddick: “When the Church of England turns in on itself about relationships and so forth, it makes itself less credible to the sort of people we are dealing with. Hard jobs are made more difficult every time the Church of England starts having a discussion about gay clergy or whatever the issue of the day is.”

All students of the University of Cambridge graduate in the name of the Trinity, unless they sign a paper six weeks beforehand to ask to graduate in the name of God.

THE STATUTES of Christ’s, one of the most academically high-achieving of the colleges, insist that every Fellow admitted has to promise to uphold the college as a place of education, religion, learn­ing, and research.

Academics are happy with three of those, but religion has been ebbing away since the secularisation of the colleges, the Chaplain, the Revd Christopher Woods, says. “My job is to put it back in a way that is not too controversial or too pushy. The notion of a chaplain being in this kind of environment is very, very unusual, but absolutely essential. The opportunities for ministry here are unheard-of. It’s work I love, work you can get your teeth into.”

Christ’s has been largely science-based throughout its history, and excels in Natural Sciences. Charles Darwin was a student there, and so was the naturalist William Paley. The last Master in holy orders was in the 1940s: since then, many of the Masters have been atheists.

“That presents a slight problem for clergy, because the Master retains his privilege of being Ordinary of the Chapel, with canonical and legal decisions to make on doctrine and ritual,” Mr Woods says.

“Our current Master is a Chris­tian, a Roman Catholic who takes his role seriously, but there have been strong tensions in the past.” There are no theological Fellows at Christ’s.

At Cambridge, Mr Woods encounters what he would call atheist fundamentalism: the notion that “religion is not only silly but also dangerous. . . The scary thing is that some students don’t want to engage in any way with the notion that God may exist in some way or another. Those are the kind of challenges that face us.”

College nervousness about science and religion does not extend to the chapel, where he will be having a science-themed series of sermons in the Michaelmas term.

College nervousness about science and religion does not extend to the chapel, where he will be having a science-themed series of sermons in the Michaelmas term.

Real life here, he comments, is a mixture of liturgical and pastoral, dealing with students of all faiths and none in a place where stress levels are enormously high. He works in harness with tutors, the JCR, and the welfare officer.

“Cambridge attracts a high-achieving kind of person, and there are lots of complexities within that personality that you can’t change, you can only support,” he says. “My day’s work is to say, you’re fine as you are: stop putting so much pressure on yourself.’”

Christ’s feels like a kind of secular monastic community, with its own rhythm of life, he observes. The chapel is in a quiet corner by the Master’s lodge, in the 16th-century First Court, and he finds that people without any religious upbringing are open to it as a special space. “I say to first-year students, ‘ Nowhere else in the world are you going to get such beauty at your fingertips, that you can own, that you can be a part of.’ Every time I walk in, I think how beautiful it is, and how privileged I am to be here.”

THERE could not be a greater contrast between the ancient courts of Christ’s and the busy concourse of Robinson, built in the 1980s. It was not required to have a chapel, and the view was allegedly taken at the design stage that a modern college did not need all that religious nonsense. But its bene­factor, David Robinson, said: “No chapel, no college.” The Revd Dr Maggi Dawn, Dean and Fellow of Robinson, confirms: “In the final plans it was placed right next to the porter’s lodge — absolutely critical to the traffic of the college.”

The red-brick chapel at Robinson is famous for the streaming glory of its John Piper window. Dr Dawn has put a lot of thought and experiment into getting people to engage with the building, even if they are not practising Christians.

“One of the anomalies of chapel in a college like this, even more than the traditional college, is that we take in a student body which is largely not interested or au fait with Christian devotions at all,” she reflects.

“A lot of people come here specifically because they like the idea that it is modern and progressive. The chapel just gives permission to people to have a belief. It says that to be an intellectual and rational person in the 21st century, in one of the best universities in the world, doesn’t mean you can’t have faith.”

Faith exploration is often in small groups, or with individuals. Sometimes they engage in “unstitching a form of Christianity they no longer believe in”, Dr Dawn says. “Sometimes they need to reshape. Sometimes they do just walk away. And then others come, bang on the door, and through their studies in English literature or history have come across Augustine’s City of God or some series of events they have not expected. And having come up to college assured atheists, they suddenly find that God is on their left shoulder.”

Sunday worship is interdenom­inational: a short holy communion for the few, followed by breakfast; in the evening, what is billed as the main service of the week, led by the choir, with an address and “a kind of Anglican liturgical flow to it”. But it is the traditional Tuesday-night choral evensong that is the biggest service, and part of the flow of the college week.

The college has about 400 undergraduate and 100 graduate students, 80 Fellows, and 200 support staff and their families. Dr Dawn finds that “there is the whole range of life here. I love it, because I don’t get to stand still very much, and it keeps me youthful in my thinking. I spend a lot of time with people discovering things for the first time. They bring perspectives on theology that, if I’d settled down somewhere, I’d never have encoun­tered.”

The chapels are miniatures of the Church of England on a national scale. Baptisms, weddings, and funerals take place; the mess of life is here as in any other ministry; the colleges, through patronage, education, and training, forge lasting links beyond Cambridge.

PERCEPTIONS of an ivory tower can persist: “You get two reactions: one, you have it easy, you spend all your time drink­ing claret while the rest of us are out there doing the real work. The other is, gosh, you’re at Cambridge, you must be so clever,” Mr Caddick says. “Neither is accurate. It’s a pastoral job, just like a parish would be, with its own joys and frustrations.”

What strikes Mr Dormor is that “people in this place know quite a lot about 17- and 18-year-olds. You have a very particular perspective on a group which you see changing and evolving. Harry Potter has completely transformed first-years nervous about coming to university halls. Ten years ago, they were quite intimidated. Now, people just go: ‘Where are the flying goblets?’”

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