Monday, 6 October 2008

How shall I sing that majesty in Cambridge?

Bicycles are part and parcel of daily life in Cambridge (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford

As the University of Cambridge prepares to celebrate its 800th anniversary next year, I had a pleasant week in Cambridge this summer, thanks to the generosity of the J.E.L. Oulton Memorial Fund. I was staying at Sidney Sussex College while I studied at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, one of the eight theological colleges in the Cambridge Theological Federation.

William Thackeray first coined the term Oxbridge in the 19th century. Yet, despite the ubiquitous bikes and the ever-present flurry of gowns in the narrow streets, there is a world of difference between Oxford and Cambridge.

Magdalene Bridge and punts on the Cam ... two dozen bridges cross the River Cam on its way through Cambridge (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Insiders know the difference between a quad and a court, tutorials and supervisions, Magdalene and Magdalen, Queen’s and Queens’, and the real end of a punt. Cambridge has a more intimate feeling about, and more green space. Everyone knows the charms of the Backs, where several colleges back onto the River Cam, is spanned by about two dozen bridges as it wends its way through Cambridge, from Queens’ to Magdalene.

Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world, yet it is also one of the most modern. It is consistently ranked in the world’s top five universities, and at 82 has given the world more Nobel Laureates than any other university. Cambridge has a strong reputation for both mathematics and the sciences, and the university is closely linked with the development of the high-tech business cluster around Cambridge known as “Silicon Fen” or the “Cambridge Phenomenon.”

Cambridge also has strong humanities and social science faculties, and the church and the teaching of theology has played an important part in the stories of the university and most Cambridge colleges.

Exiles from Oxford

The university dates from 1209, when two Oxford scholars were convicted of murder and hanged publicly. The University of Oxford suspended its activities in protest, and many teachers and scholars fled, with some choosing Cambridge, where John Grim had been running a school from at least 1201. These exiled students and researchers formed the nucleus of a new university in Cambridge in 1209. By 1226, we find the first mention of a chancellor. University status was mentioned in a decree by Pope Gregory IX in 1233, Cambridge was described as a studium generale by Pope Nicholas IV in 1290, and university status was confirmed by Pope John XXII in 1318.

The first faculties were arts and theology, and for many generations theology was at the heart of learning in Cambridge. The office of the Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity is the oldest chair in Cambridge. At the dissolution of the monasteries, the university disbanded the Faculty of Canon Law and stopped teaching the “scholastic philosophy” associated with John Duns Scotus.

Cambridge is a federation of 31 self-governing colleges, with each college a mini-Cambridge in itself, appointing its own teaching staff and fellows. The oldest college, Peterhouse, was founded in 1284. More colleges were founded in the following centuries. The most recent college is Robinson, built in the late 1970s, while the newest college is Hughes Hall, which achieved full college status in April 2007.

Many mediaeval colleges are named after sacred figures and were founded under the patronage of saints or for students who prayed for the souls of the founders. Peterhouse was founded by the Bishop of Ely in 1284. Gonville and Caius (pronounced Keys) was founded by a Norfolk rector. Trinity Hall was founded by a Bishop of Norwich who lost almost 700 of his clergy in the Black Death in the 1340s and needed new priests for his diocese. Corpus Christi was founded by two town guilds so students could pray for the members’ souls, and at they first used Sain Bene’t’s (Benedict’s) Church as the college chapel.

Saint Catharine’s was founded for a master and three fellows to study nothing but “philosophy and sacred theology.” Christ’s College began life as the College of God’s House. St John’s stands on the site of a monastic hospital and – like Christ’s College – was founded by Lady Margaret Beaufort, who also established the Lady Margaret Chair in Divinity. Magdalene (pronounced Maudlin) began as Monks’ Hostel. Sir Walter Mildmay, the founder of Emmanuel, wanted his college to be a “seed-plot of learned men” for the Reformation.

The most interesting modern connection between church and college life is found in Selwyn College, which was built in memory of George Augustus Selwyn, the first Bishop of New Zealand, and later Bishop of Lichfield. The foundation charter limited membership to baptised Christians and said the college should “make provision for those who intended to serve as missionaries overseas and … educate sons of clergymen.”

Among the 31 Cambridge colleges, three admit only women – Murray Edwards (formerly New Hall), Newnham and Lucy Cavendish. Magdalene, the last all-male college, began admitting women in 1988. Two colleges – Clare Hall and Darwin – admit only postgraduates. Some colleges maintain a bias towards certain subjects, so that Churchill leans towards the sciences and engineering, while others such as St Catharine’s College aim for a balanced intake.

Eight theological colleges or foundations are loosely affiliated with the university through the Cambridge Theological Federation. They include two Anglican colleges – Westcott House and Ridley Hall, both founded in 1881. In addition, the Eastern Region Ministry Course is ecumenical but more than 80 per cent of its students are Anglicans. The five other theological colleges in the federation are Wesley House (Methodist), the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology (Roman Catholic), Westminster College (United Reformed Church), the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, and the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies (Eastern Orthodox), which organised my summer course.

Early church history

Cambridge is part of the Diocese of Ely, and unlike Oxford has no cathedral. But it has a lengthy church history that predates the university. In 695, a group of monks from Ely arrived in Cambridge looking for a stone coffin for Saint Ethelreda, and found an empty and desolate settlement. Church life was soon revived, and Saint Bene’t’s Church has a Saxon tower and arch dating from 1025 – the oldest building in Cambridge. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or the Round Church, is one of the few round churches in England. It was built around 1130, following the design for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and has been described as “a mushroom in a forest of Gothic and traffic.

There has been a church on the site of Great Saint Mary’s, the university church, since the year 1200 or earlier. The present church was built in 1478, and was used for conferring degrees until the 18th century, when this function moved to the Senate House.

The connections between Cambridge colleges, church history and the life of the Church of England continues to this day: the library at Corpus Christi College has a sixth-century Gospel believed to have been given to Saint Augustine by Pope Gregory and it continues to be used at the enthronement of the Archbishops of Canterbury.

Theologians and Cromwell

Among the great Cambridge theologians was John Duns Scotus (ca 1266-1308), one of the most important theologians and philosophers of the High Middle Ages. For some time he was a member of the Franciscan community in Cambridge, whose friary stood on the site of Sidney Sussex College. He died on 8 November 1308, but 700 years later the debate continues over whether or not he was Irish.

Prior to the reformation, Erasmus had rooms at Queens’ College while he taught Greek in Cambridge between 1510 and 1514. A generation later, three of the key Reformation bishops and martyrs who met their deaths in Oxford were all Cambridge men: Thomas Cranmer (Jesus), Hugh Latimer (Peterhouse) and Nicholas Ridley (Pembroke). In 1557, the body of Martin Bucer, who had been Regius Professor of Divinity for a brief period, was exhumed from Great Saint Mary’s. On the orders of Queen Mary, the dead German reformer was put on trial for heresy, and sentenced to be burnt at the stake in the Market Place.

Oliver Cromwell, who has been the subject of recent re-evaluation in television documentaries and new biographical studies, was an undergraduate at Sidney Sussex. His portrait hangs in the hall where I dined each evening, and his head is buried in a secret place in the ante-chapel. Dr Samuel Johnson stayed at Sidney Sussex, and this is also the college, according to deductions by Dorothy L Sayers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has placed Sherlock Holmes as an undergraduate. Perhaps he might have well placed to unmask the Cambridge spies, Blunt, Burgess, Maclean and Philby, had he been there a few generations later.

Irish connections

Cromwell’s head apart, the Irish connections with Cambridge are numerous. Lucy Cavendish College is named after Lucy Cavendish, whose husband, Lord Frederick Cavendish, was assassinated in the Phoenix Park in Dublin in 1888. More recently, the historian Professor Nicholas Mansergh (1910-1991), from Co Tipperary, was Master of St John’s College from 1969 to 1979. During my stay in Cambridge, I was entertained to dinner at Christ’s College by the chaplain, the Revd Christopher Woods, who studied for ordination at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

Today, one of the best-known Irish academics in Cambridge is Professor David Ford, who has been Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge since 1991. Previous holders of this chair include the reformer Martin Bucer, Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott, who founded Westcott House, Charles Raven, Archbishop Michael Ramsey, Henry Chadwick, who died earlier this year, and Bishop Stephen Sykes.

Dr Ford was born in Dublin in 1948. He was educated at the High School and studied classics at Trinity College Dublin before going on to study theology at Saint John’s College Cambridge, Yale University and the University of Tübingen. He is a fellow of Selwyn College and a former chair of the council of Westcott House. He is the first Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge not to be an ordained Anglican priest.

The best-known building in Cambridge must be King’s College Chapel. Each Christmas Eve, BBC radio and television broadcasts the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, a festival that began 9o years ago in 1918.

But my favourite piece of church music associated with Cambridge is Coe Fen, described in the Companion to Church Hymnal as “one of the outstanding hymn tunes of the 20th century. It was written by Kenneth Naylor, when he was the music master at The Leys School, Cambridge, as the tune for John Mason’s hymn, “How shall I sing that majesty.”

Coe Fen is close to Peterhouse, the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Backs. As I left Cambridge the words of that hymn remained in my heart:

How great a being, Lord, is thine,
Which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
To sound a vast so deep.


Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the October editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough), the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) and Newslink (Limerick and Killaloe).