05 July 2009

Liturgy and mission at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

The Revd Dr Stephen Hampton (left) and the Revd Richard Lloyd Morgan (right) greeting worshippers at the west door of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I queued for almost an hour yesterday to get into the Chapel of King’s College Cambridge for Choral Evensong. The chapel was packed with tourists, visitors and the curious, along with school choirs and small groups who are back in Cambridge for various reunions, dinners and courses.

I am staying in Sidney Sussex College, but the choir is on tour and the normal services are not taking place this week in the college chapel. So this morning, I attended the Eucharist in King’s, at which the celebrant was the Chaplain of King’s, the Revd Richard Lloyd Morgan, and the preacher was the Revd Dr Stephen Hampton, Dean of Peterhouse, the oldest of the 31 colleges in Cambridge.

The setting was Stephen preached on being merciful “as your Father is also merciful” (Fourth Sunday after Trinity, Romans 8: 18-23; Luke 6: 36-42), and the setting was the Mass in G by Vaughan Williams.

This morning (Sunday, 5 July 2009), the queue outside King’s Chapel was shorter – just 20 minutes – but it is easy to understand why this chapel attracts visitors in such great numbers. With its soaring pinnacles, breathtaking fan vaulting, superb windows, woodwork and stonework, the chapel is the most magnificent building in Cambridge, dominating the city by its size and its beauty.

The Choir of King’s – made up of 14 adult male choral scholars and 16 boy choristers aged between nine and 14 from selected from King’s College School – has an outstanding reputation, and performs regular concerts and tours. But the daily services remain the raison d’être of the choir – including the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols which is broadcast live across the world from King’s on Christmas Eve.

It costs King’s College £1,000 a day to keep open the chapel, which took a century to build. Henry VI was only 19 when he laid the first stone of the “College roial of Oure Lady and Seynt Nicholas” in Cambridge on Passion Sunday 1441. At the time, Cambridge was a marsh town and still served as a port. To make way for his college, Henry cleared the centre of mediaeval Cambridge over a three-year period, levelling houses, shops, lanes and wharves, and even a church between the River Cam and the High Street – now King’s Parade.

Initially, King’s was supposed to support 12 impoverished students, recalling the number of the apostles. But once work had begun, Henry changed his mind and decided on a much grander college, with 70 scholars, representing the 70 early evangelists sent out by Christ. These 70 were to be drawn exclusively from the king’s other foundation at Eton, and for over 400 years, King’s College admitted only Etonians – who claimed the privilege of receiving degrees without sitting examinations and who were not subject to the authority of the university proctors – the fellows responsible for discipline.

The soaring pinnacles of King’s College Chapel … Henry VI went to great lengths to ensure this would be chapel without equal in size and beauty (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Henry VI went to great lengths to ensure that King’s College Chapel would be without equal in size and beauty. The foundation stone of the chapel was laid by the king on the site of the High Altar on the feast of Saint James, 25 July 1446, as the first step in his plan for a great court, with the chapel forming the north side.

Work began at the east end of the chapel so that the building could be consecrated and used for services even as construction continued. However, only the chapel was ever completed according to these royal plans, and no other college would ever have a chapel on such a scale.

The Wars of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster disrupted the building work until the death of Edward IV in 1483. Work began again in the reign of Richard III, but it was left to the Tudor kings, Henry VII and Henry VIII, to achieve the final, spectacular completion of the chapel. Henry VII shrewdly perceived that the new Tudor dynasty needed the authority that the “royal saint,” Henry VI, could give. Work began again on a grand scale again in 1508, and his son, Henry VIII, was responsible for the screen and much of the chapel woodwork.

The vault was built between 1512 and 1515, some 70 years after work on the chapel first began. At the time, no-one would have dared to build a fan vault on such a grand scale, and it remains a dazzling tribute to the skills of Tudor masons and craftsmen.

Henry VIII gave the chapel its magnificent dark oak screen, engraved with his initials and those of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. The chapel was completed in 1536, and when Henry VIII died in 1547, just over 100 years after the foundation stone was first laid, King’s College Chapel had become one of Europe’s finest buildings.

It is said that Cromwell’s troops used the Chapel as a parade ground. But over the centuries, the chapel at King’s and its windows have survived England’s religious and political upheavals.

However, Henry VI’s designs for a “Great Court” were never carried out and for almost 200 years there was little more than the Old Court for the everyday life of the College. In the early 18th century, a new plan for a great court was drawn up, but only the Fellows’ building, designed by James Gibbs, was built. Another 100 years passed before the court was completed by the building of William Wilkin’s Gothic pinnacled gatehouse and stone screen, dining hall and library and what is now called the Old Lodge in 1824-1828.

In 1829, Old Court, the original building of King’s College, was sold and became part of Cambridge University’s Old Schools. Non-Etonians were admitted to King’s for the first time in 1873, and the first non-Etonian fellow was elected. The influx of Nonconformist students that followed helped to consolidate the liberal traditions of King’s. The fountain in the centre of the Front Court, which dates from that time (1874-1879), has a statue of the royal and saintly founder, Henry VI.

The vault of the chapel stands 24 metres above the ground; the chapel is 88 metres long from end to end, and is 12 metres wide. The East Window above the altar depicts the Crucifixion, while behind the altar is Rubens’s Adoration of the Magi (1633-1634), a controversial gift to the college that was placed here in 1968.

Today, King’s College Chapel attracts more visitors than any other college chapel in Cambridge, probably because of the fame the choir has earned around the world due to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. This service held, in the chapel each year on Christmas Eve, was introduced in 1918 and was first broadcast in 1928. Now millions of people around the world listen to it every year.

The service always begins with Cecil Alexander’s Once in Royal David’s City. Since his appointment in 1982, the organist at King’s, Stephen Cleobury, has commissioned a new carol each year for inclusion in the festival.

Each year, the demand for seats far outstrips the number available, and hundreds of people are left standing disappointed on King’s Parade, unable to attend. I was glad I was not left standing outside this morning or yesterday evening. I was certainly not disappointed by the liturgy, the sermon, the music or the singing, and the welcome was truly warm and generous. And if only a tiny few among those who attend Chapel in King’s College each day are moved to reconnect with Christian spirituality or to recommit themselves to the Christian faith, then this chapel is making an incalculable contribution to the mission of the Church and God’s mission in the world.

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

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