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Education: We love this place of prayer

21 September 2012

Refurbish­ment is taking place in the chapel at Highgate School, to ensure that it inspires pupils for the future, says Verity Smith

Victorian: an inside view of the Chapel of St Michael

Victorian: an inside view of the Chapel of St Michael

FILING into chapel a fortnight ago, pupils at Highgate School in north London left off comparing summer-holiday anecdotes, and gossiping about new teachers, and the iniquities of the homework schedule, and almost as one murmured: "This is weird."

This was because they weren't filing into the chapel, but into a version of that institution relocated, for the time being, to a more prosaic auditorium space. The venerable building that usually houses their weekly service is being restored.

Weird, because they associate the auditorium with assemblies, rehearsals, and concerts. Weird, because in chapel, you don't have the words to your hymn projected on to a large screen. Weird, because, well, it just isn't chapel, with its rod-straight pews shiny with wear, its beautiful stained-glass windows, gold-leaf apse ceiling, and Victorian idiosyncrasies.

HIGHGATE is an independent day school comprising a senior school, junior school, and pre-prep, which form a foundation total of about 1470 children.

It is unusual in having a fully operating chapel as part of the fabric of its buildings and timetable. Consecrated in 1867, the Chapel of St Michael stands on land originally given by the Bishop of London for the foundation of the school in 1565. Going even further back, it sits on the site of an 11th-century hermitage.

Today, the building needs a little loving care: a big refurbishment project will be completed in early 2014. It incorporates an ambitious reworking of the adjoining building, an equally splendid Victorian hall known to the pupils as "Big School", which is to be transformed into a state-of-the-art library.

THE school chapel has been presided over by the chaplain, the Revd Paul Knight, who also teaches RS, and has supplied a general fund of wisdom and humour for 20 years. He is delighted to see the scaffolding in place: "The building needs to reflect the very positive nature of the gospel, and so a tired and neglected chapel did speak of an irrelevant and tired religious faith. Bringing the building back to its original glory will re-affirm the value of faith, and the importance of chapel in the ethos of the school."

Highgate is not a faith school in the modern sense, but it continues to be run according to the values of its Christian foundation. As an Anglican school, it is also conscious of the welcome that` should be offered to pupils of other faiths.

In the senior school, all pupils attend a weekly chapel service, unless they attend "Jewish Circle" or the Dyne House Assembly. The former is a pupil-run society dating from the school's war-time evacuation to Westward Ho!, which was out of reach of a synagogue; the latter is for pupils of faiths other than Judaism or Christianity.

But whatever their faith background, the Chaplain is the person they can turn to for support and consolation when bereavement or family breakdown occurs.

THE school day at Highgate is packed, as at other schools. But this does not mean that chapel is pushed to one side. Quite the opposite, says Mr Knight. "Chaplaincy is pastoral and spiritual care embedded in the institution. To a large extent, people have lost the sense of belonging to a parish, and having a parish priest. In school, when adults and children need someone, the chaplain is the obvious person to turn to.

"And their chapel service is part of their weekly routine, a chance to pause and reflect. Although they won't often articulate it, they find that an opportunity to stop and be still is an important part of what school offers them."

He reports, too, that he has helped a number of adults through distressing times - as well as marrying several of them off, christening their babies, and officiating at sadder occasions such as funerals and memorial services.

THE chapel's crypt houses the Coleridge family tomb. Mr Knight has frequently had to turn down requests from film companies and poetic Goths eager to enjoy the atmosphere. He has officiated at the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate the remains of one of the survivors of the mutiny on The Bounty, one Peter Haywood, who is buried in the crypt; and he has had the pleasure of hearing John Rutter, a former pupil at the school (along with John Tavener), playing the chapel's organ.

"The building, stained-glass windows, and apse painting, when restored, will speak their own message to our pupils," he says. "That the building is old is of no relevance; that it is beautiful and well cared for is vital. That sends out its own message."

'When restored, the building will speak its own message to the pupils'

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