Friday, 3 September 2010

Life in a Cambridge college chapel is like the life of the Church in minature

The Revd Dr Peter Waddell, Dean of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Focus on university chaplains

Patrick Comerford profiles two Irish chaplains working in Cambridge colleges

For a third consecutive year, I spent part of the summer on study leave, participating in the summer school organised in Sidney Sussex College by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, part of the Cambridge Theological Federation.

In Cambridge, I enjoyed the opportunity to stay at both Sidney Sussex College and at Christ’s College, Cambridge, along with the hospitality of these college communities and their chapel life.

Irish connections

Both colleges also have Irish-born chaplains. The Revd Christopher Woods was a curate in Saint Mark’s, Dundela, Diocese of Down, before moving to Christ’s College in 2007.

The Revd Dr Peter Waddell, from Newcastle, Co Down, has recently been appointed Dean of Sidney Sussex College; he completed his PhD while he was an ordinand at Westcott House, Cambridge, and was appointed chaplain of Sidney Sussex in 2005.

Christ’s College, Cambridge

The Revd Christopher Woods has been chaplain of Christ’s College, Cambridge, since 2007 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This year is a busy one for Mr Woods as the Chapel of Christ’s College marks the 500th anniversary of its consecration in 1510. Last year, however, was also busy, as the University of Cambridge celebrated its 800th anniversary and Christ’s College marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of its best-known students, Charles Darwin.

Christ’s College was founded in 1505 and generously endowed by Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. As the first buildings went up in what is now First Court, a new chapel was built in beside the Master’s Lodge and consecrated by Bishop James Stanley of Ely – Lady Margaret Beaufort’s stepson - in June 1510.

High on the south wall of the chapel nave, an open casement window from Lady Margaret’s oratory recalls how she sat there in prayer five centuries ago, watching the liturgy below.

The chapel survived the Reformation and the Cromwellian era and has seen great changes, but the original chapel building is almost entirely in tact and continues to be a spiritual presence at the heart of Christ’s College.

The Chapel of Christ’s College, Cambridge … this year marks the 500th anniversary of the consecration of the chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

To mark the chapel’s 500th anniversary, the choir launched a new CD and in June the Bishop of Clogher, the Rt Revd Dr Michael Jackson, presided and preached at a Solemn Evensong of thanksgiving and re-dedication.

Other anniversary events later this year will include a celebrity poetry reading in the chapel with Ruth Padel, the poet-in-residence at Christ’s College, who is a direct descendant of Charles Darwin. Her latest book, Darwin – A Life in Poems, celebrates his life in verse.

The statutes of Christ’s College continue to demand that every fellow undertakes to uphold it as a place of education, religion, learning and research. As part of this tradition and heritage, the chapel offers the college community a space set aside for quiet reflection, prayer, meditation and worship, says Mr Woods.

The liturgy is usually relaxed, yet formal, with three choral services a week and many occasional services. The welcome is reflected in the refreshments served after chapel services; they can include coffee and croissants, port, sherry, fruit juice, hot chocolate or – when I was preaching there last year – prosecco.

The chapel is a focus for many college activities, including music and the arts. Mr Woods points out that the chapel is open and inclusive and a place of inquiry. “In fact, many people come to chapel on their own to take time out,” he adds, “and to gather strength, to find space, to pray and worship or simply to ‘get away from it all’.”

He comments: “I say to first-year students: ‘Nowhere else in the world are you going to get such beauty at your fingertips, that you can own, that you can be a part of.’ Every time I walk in, I think how beautiful it is, and how privileged I am to be here.”

Sidney Sussex College

The chapel of Sidney Sussex College is at the heart of Chapel Court (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Sidney Sussex College, a short, five-minute walk from Christ’s College, was founded in 1594. Dr Waddell points out that the chapel is at the heart of life in the college, serving as the centre of worship, prayer and inquiry for the whole Sidney family. The chapel is open all day and the Lady Chapel, with the Reserved Sacrament, is especially conducive to private prayer. Lectio Divina is an integral part of chapel life every Tuesday night.

The chapel choir in Sidney Sussex sings at Choral Evensong on Fridays and Sundays, regularly tours, and has produced award-winning CDs.

Oliver Cromwell’s head is buried in the chapel and his portrait hangs in the hall. On the stairs leading to the Old Library above the ante-chapel is a portrait of John Garnett, a former fellow who became Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin (1752-1758) and Bishop of Clogher (1758-1782).

Like many Cambridge colleges, Sidney Sussex also has strong Irish connections – the Minister for Finance in the Republic of Ireland, Brian Lenihan, was a postgraduate student at Sidney Sussex.

Cambridge college chaplains find the diversity in chapel worship to be a great strength and Dr Waddell says that chaplains have wonderful opportunities for ministry. He believes that, in many ways, the chapels are miniatures of the Church of England and its parishes, with constant requests for baptisms, weddings, and funerals, so that the college chapels are part of the complete cycle of life.

“The notion of a chaplain being in this kind of environment is very, very unusual, but absolutely essential,” says Mr Woods. “The opportunities for ministry here are unheard-of. It’s work I love; work you can get your teeth into.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This two-page feature and these photographs were published in the Church of Ireland Gazette on Friday 3 September 2010