01 February 2009

Back in Cambridge once again

The Great Gate Tower at Christ’s College, Cambridge, looks as though it has been chopped off at the lower end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The celebrations to mark the foundation of Cambridge University 800 years ago began in earnest two weeks ago when 7,000 people watched a light show that also celebrated the achievements of Cambridge alumni such as Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton, and the contribution of Cambridge to scientific discoveries in computing and genetics.

I’m back in Cambridge this weekend, having spent a wonderful time there last year at the course in patristic theology and spirituality at Sidney Sussex College, organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

During last year’s visit, I was also a guest at dinner in Darwin’s old college, Christ’s College, where the chaplain is my friend, the Revd Christopher Woods, a former student at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

Now I’m back in Cambridge once again, to preach at Christopher’s invitation, in the chapel of Christ’s College at the Solemn Orchestral Eucharist for the Eve of Candlemas.

The college of Milton and Darwin

Christ’s College has a reputation for its high academic standards, consistently finishing in the top 10 colleges in the Tompkins Table – a good achievement for Darwin’s old college. Having celebrated the 300th anniversary of Milton’s birth last year, Christ’s College is marking this year the 200th anniversary of the birth in 1809 of Darwin, a grandson of Lichfield, my favourite place in England.

Christ’s also has its own Nobel laureates in Sir Martin Evans (1941). It is also the college of South Africa’s Jan Smuts, of South Africa, of Lord Mountbatten, of the novelist and philosopher C.P. Snow, of the jurist Lord Devlin (1905-1992), who was active in the campaigns to re-open the cases of the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven, of the British historian and author Simon Schama, and of the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

Distinguished theologians

But with a name like that, I’m not surprised to learn that Christ’s has a strong reputation in theology too. Among its great theologians are William Paley and Charles Raven.

William Paley (1743-1805), the English theologian and philosopher, was also an undergraduate at Christ’s College. His great works included his Evidences of Christianity, while his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy was one of the most influential philosophical texts in late enlightenment Britain. It was cited in several Parliamentary debates, and remained a set textbook at Cambridge well into the Victorian era. Even Charles Darwin was required to read Paley’s Principles when he was an undergraduate at Christ’s College.

The radical theologian, Charles Raven (1939-1950), was a controversial but committed pacifist throughout World War II and a friend of Teilhard de Chardin. He was the Master of Christ’s College from 1939 to 1950, and I remember during an interview for The Irish Times, how the late Archbishop George Simm recalled how Raven had been a strong influence on his ministry and how he had invited him to preach in Cork when he was Dean of Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral. In more recent decades, Raven has also had a strong influence on Susan Howatch as she was writing her Starbridge triologies..

With a theological reputation like that, I was interested to find out also that Christ’s College has given the Church of England at least five Archbishops of Canterbury: Edmund Grindal (1519-1583), Richard Bancroft (1544-1610), who organised the King James Version translation of the Bible, Matthew Hutton (1693-1758), Frederick Cornwallis (1713-1783), and – more recently – Rowan Williams (born 1950).

The Revd Christopher Woods is chaplain of Christ’s College, Cambridge

The past as God’s House

I suppose this is the least we could expect this from a college that first began life as God’s House.

God’s House was founded in 1437 on land now occupied by the Chapel of King’s College. God’s House received its first royal licence in 1446, and moved to its present site, which faces onto Saint Andrew’s Street and backing onto the open piece of land now known as Christ’s Pieces, in 1448 when it received its second royal licence.

God’s House was renamed Christ’s College in 1505 when it was endowed and expanded by Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, and received its present charter. Lady Margaret had her own rooms in Christ’s College, which still opens onto the chapel.

The original college buildings date from those early days in the 15th and 16th centuries and now form part of First Court, including the chapel, where I am preaching this evening, along with the Master’s Lodge and the Great Gate Tower.

The gate facing onto Saint Andrew’s Street where it meets Hobson Street is a curious sight in itself. Looking at it from the street, the Great Gate Tower looks as though it is disproportionate, with its bottom part has been cut off to allow for a rise in street level. The same impression is given by the steps leading down to the foot of L staircase in the gate tower.

The college hall, designed by George Gilbert Scott the younger, was added in 1875-1879.

The lawn of First Court is famously round in shape, and there is an impressive wisteria that sprawls up the front of the Master’s Lodge.

Second Court is fully built up on just three sides, one of which is formed by the Fellows’ Building, dating from the 1640s, while the fourth side backs onto the Master’s Garden.

The Stevenson Building in Third Court was designed by J.J. Stevenson in the 1880s and was extended in 1905 as part of the college’s 400th anniversary celebrations. In 1935, Professor Richardson designed the second building, the neo-Georgian Chancellor’s Building (W staircase), completed in 1950. Third Court’s Memorial Building (Y staircase), was completed in 1953 and matches the Chancellor’s Building. Third Court is also noted for its display of irises in May and June.

New Court, which forms part of the northern boundary of Christ’s College, is a controversial tiered concrete building and is popularly known in Cambridge as “the Typewriter.” It was designed in the modernist style by Sir Denys Lasdun in 1966-1970, and in Lasdun’s obituary in the Guardian it was described as “superb”. The design critic Hugh Pearman once wrote: “Lasdun had big trouble relating to the street at the overhanging rear.”

Neighbouring buildings have been absorbed into Christ’s College, including the Todd Building, which once served as the Cambridge County Hall.

The Fellows’ Garden has two well-loved mulberry tress: the older mulberry tree was planted 400 years ago in 1608, the same year as the poet John Milton was born. Both trees have since toppled sideways and are now earthed up round the trunks, but they continue to fruit every year.

The Proctors of God’s House from 1439 to 1505 were succeeded by the Masters of Christ’s, among them Charles Darwin’s grandson, the physicist Sir Charles Galton Darwin (1936-1939). Professor Frank Kelly has been the Master of Christ’s College since 2006. But this Frank Kelly should not be confused with Father Jack … he’s a highly-acclaimed scientist.

A welcome in Chapel

The chapel of Christ’s College, where Christopher Woods has invited me to preach this evening, is a beautiful and ancient chapel, dating from the 16th century and offers members of the college community a space set aside for quiet reflection, prayer, meditation or worship. The chapel is inclusive in ethos where everyone is welcome, and it is used every day for chapel services, by members of college for private prayer, for stillness and also for music practice. The chapel is also a venue for many musical recitals and concerts during term.

The choir of Christ’s College Chapel is one of the finest mixed-voice choirs in Cambridge and there are three choral services per week coupled with many occasional services and events which demand a choral presence. The choir’s repertoire spans many centuries and it often performs, liturgically, works which have not yet been performed in England, and those involved say the quality of music allows the heart and mind to be open to the promise of the presence of God.

And in this heady mixture of science and theology, music and stillness, liturgy and reflection, it is wonderful to be back in Cambridge again.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College, and is a contributor to the Cambridge Review of International Affairs.

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