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University chapels host a worshipping community of thousands

06 September 2019


The choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, in November 2018

The choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, in November 2018

CHAPELS at Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham host a worshipping community of thousands, new statistics suggest.

A survey completed by 40 chapels at the universities (out of the 54 surveyed) indicated a Sunday attendance of 3000 people, of whom 46 per cent were students, and a usual midweek attendance of 3300 (one third of whom were students). The chapels estimated a total worshipping community of 4500; on average, 16 per cent of the college student body were considered part of it. The total student population across the three universities is 63,136.

It is the fourth time that the survey has been conducted: there is not enough data yet for trends to be analysed.

The Dean of Chapel of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, the Revd Dr Andrew Davison, said that college chapels “represent something magnificently Anglican: they are thoughtful, liturgical, concerned about the whole person, communitarian, and deeply addressed towards God.

“The humane, intellectual, High Church witness of Merton College Chapel in Oxford in the 1990s saved my faith when the fundamentalism I’d come up with proved inadequate, not least in face of science. Without a doubt, it shaped the whole course of my faith and ministry.”

Although college chapels were not parish churches, they exemplified the parish model, he suggested. “The chapel is there for everyone in the community, and the dean or chaplain is a college figure, part of the institution, and with an open door and a listening ear. They are there for people of all churches, all faiths, and none.

“The pattern of morning and evening prayer, the eucharist, and evensong, has typically carried on over centuries, usually in direct fulfilment of the statutes and founders’ intention.

“Worship that is almost always quite formally liturgical, with choral music as an integral component, is an important part of creating porous edges to the chapel community. People can relate to that in different ways. Intellectually rigorous preaching is also an important draw, but it works best when it aims to be connected to business of life rather than being a lecture.”

Chapels nurtured “faith for the long run,” he said.

The dioceses of Oxford and Ely have both indicated that attendance in the university cities is not matched in surrounding towns. In its strategy Changing Market Towns, Ely noted that Sunday attendance stood at three per cent in Cambridge, and 0.9 per cent across market towns (News, 16 November).

Some dioceses have also secured strategic development grants to reach students. This month, the diocese of Truro was awarded £1.33 million towards establishing St Matthew’s, Exeter, as a “diocesan mission church”, with a particular focus on mission to students (News, 9 August).

The Research and Statistics unit at Church House is designing a new survey to “measure the reach and impact of Anglican chaplaincy and how it contributes to the wider life of the Church”, and encourages anyone interested to contact it.

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