Thursday, 17 July 2008

Visiting Christ’s Garden and God’s House

The Revd Christopher Woods in Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he is chaplain (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford

Last night, a former student at the Church of Ireland Theological College, the Revd Christopher Woods, invited me to dinner in the Fellows’ dining room at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he has been chaplain since last September.

Christ’s College is the college of the poet John Milton, who came up in 1628; Erasmus Darwin (1825), to my delight because of his Lichfield connections; the historian Simon Schama; the satirist Sacha Baron Cohen; and Archbishop Rowan Williams, who must be facing the toughest weeks ever at the moment at the Lambeth Conference.

This year in Christ’s, they are marking the four-hundreth anniversary of Milton’s birth; next year, the plan to mark the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth; the portraits of both hang in the Hall, which was largely rebuilt by George Gilbert Scott the younger in 1876. Perhaps after this year’s events at the Lambeth Conference they will want to hang a portrait of Archbishop Williams in the Hall too. Christ’s was also the college of the novelist C.P. Snow, who was a fellow of Christ’s in the 1930s and 1940s, and he described the college in his novel The Masters (1951).

The Fellows’ Building in Christ’s dates from 1642, and is one of the earliest examples of classical architecture in Cambridge. The central gates lead to the Fellows’ Garden, which was laid out in the early 19th century. Despite that date, it claims to still have Milton’s mulberry tree. This mulberry tree was probably planted 400 years ago in 1608, the year of John Milton’s birth, on the orders of King James I to encourage the silk industry. The scheme was short-lived, because the wrong sort of mulberry bush was planted. But it is said Milton sat under the tree to write his poetry. It is said that Milton was a pale, delicate, long-haired young man, and that the other students nicknamed him “the Lady of Christ’s.” The Fellows’ Garden also has several beehives, and even has an early 18th century bathing pool, built for hardy bathing.

The origins of Christ’s College date back to 1440s, when the small College of God’s House was established in the aftermath of the Black Death as one of the first dedicated teacher training colleges in England.

Almost a century later, Bishop John Fisher used his influence with Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII and grandmother of King Henry VIII, to secure a new charter on 1 May 1505 that turned the College of God’s House into a new college dedicated to Jesus Christ. But it is has been known ever after as Christ’s College. I wondered why it wasn’t known, perhaps, as Jesus College. But Jesus College – the college of Thomas Cranmer – is in Jesus Lane, just around the corner from me at Sidney Sussex College. But I’m still learning about the peculiarities of Cambridge college names – Jesus College was established in 1496 as “The College of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and the Virgin Saint Radegund.”

The entrance to Christ’s College is also peculiar. In many ways, it is similar to the magnificent gateway of Lady Margaret Beaufort’s other foundation, Saint John’s. But due to the rise of the street levels over 500 years, the bottom of the wooden entrance gates has had to be removed. When I walked through these entrance gates, I found that the First Court, which dates from the time of God’s House, is not square like other Cambridge college courts, because it follows the street line.

The chapel of Christ’s dates back to God’s House, and retains on the north side some of the oldest stained glass in Cambridge, dating back to pre-Reformation days of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, as well as one of the few surviving mediaeval eagle lecterns. High on the wall on the south side of the chapel is the window of Lady Margaret’s oratory, which allowed her to view the worship in the chapel below. The window, which connects the chapel with the Master’s Lodge, was later blocked up but was reopened in 1899. The chapel was enlarged in 1506, and Christopher showed me some of the original features, now hidden behind the wooden panelling which dates from 1702.

On the north side of the altar, there is a peculiar monument to two inseparable fellows of Christ’s, Sir John Finch and Sir Thomas Baines – Baines died in Constantinople, and Finch had his body embalmed and shipped back to England, so they could be buried together in Cambridge. I wonder what a Lambeth Conference would have thought of that in those days.

Christ’s College also played a central role in the story of the Cambridge Platonists, whose numbers from Christ’s included Ralph Cudworth, Henry More, Benjamin Whichcote and William Paley, author of the Evidences of Christianity (1794). They believed, in contrast to many of their contemporaries, in reason as the primary route to God, “for the spiritual is most rational,” as Whichcote declared. Charles Darwin later lived in Paley’s old rooms in First Court.

The last ordained Master of Christ’s College was the Revd Dr Charles Raven an outspoken pacifist in the 1940s and 1950s who was a great friend of the late Archbishop George Otto Simms. And in the 1950s, the Revd John Brown was chaplain before moving to the Church of Ireland Theological College.

There is an apocryphal story that once after he had said grace in Latin before dinner in the theological college, he was challenged by a student who said: “I didn’t understand what have you said.” To which John Brown retorted immediately: “I wasn’t speaking to you.”

We said grace in Latin before and after dinner last night. Then, after a bottle of port it was back to the B Bar, which was once the old Arts Cinema in Market Passage, a few steps away from Sidney Sussex, to catch up with my email, my Facebook messages, and my blogging.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, Church of Ireland Theological College

A Living Word (IV): Learning from others: Sikhs

Patrick Comerford

A few weeks ago, I was celebrating the Eucharist in Saint John’s Church, Sandymount. As I strolled back to lunch, I passed the old cinema on Serpentine Avenue that is now home to Dublin’s Sikh community.

During the warm welcome I received in the Sikh temple or Gurudwara, I was reminded constantly that this too is one of the great monotheistic communities of faith.

There are 20 million Sikhs around the world. They are the world’s fifth largest religion. There are about 1,200 Sikhs in the Republic of Ireland. It may be one of Ireland’s newest religious communities, but the Sikh religion dates back to the 15th century.

People of all religious backgrounds, even those with no religious faith, are welcome in the Gurudwara, where Sikh public worship of the one God focuses on listening to and singing the words of the Sikh Scriptures.

Men and women are equal among Sikhs. All sit on the floor, symbolising down-to-earth humility before God and equality with one another. The equality of all, regardless of religion, caste, colour, creed, age, gender or class, is a core Sikh value.

Afterwards, everyone present – Sikh or not – is invited to the Langar or vegetarian meal, expressing the Sikh values of sharing, community, inclusiveness and the oneness of humanity.

This meal reminds Sikhs they must be prepared to serve all who come to their door. The voluntary serving of the meal shows the Sikh value voluntary, selfless service. The meal reminds Sikhs that everyone is equal and that Sikhs must be prepared to share their possessions.

I left the Gurudwara wondering whether we Christians convey the same values when strangers visit our churches.

This contribution to A Living Word was first broadcast on 17 July 2008 on RTÉ Radio 1. A Living Word is broadcast Monday to Friday at 6:40 a.m. as part of Risin Time with Maxi and repeated Tuesday to Saturday at 12:58 a.m. as part of Late Date. A Living Word is Radio 1's long-standing two-minute daily meditation. The archives are available at:

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College