Monday, 25 July 2011

A room with a view in Blundell Court

Blundell Court ... a modern accommodation block at the corner of Malcolm Street and King Street, named after a Tudor merchant (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Each year I have stayed in different rooms in different courts in Sidney Sussex College. This year I am staying in Room 103 in Blundell Court, looking out onto the college gardens, with an abundance of trees in front of my window.

Blundell Court is at the back of Sidney Sussex, close to the Malcolm Street Gate and the corner of Malcolm Street and King Street. The rooms in Blundell Court are all en-suite, and relatively new, and were refurbished two years ago. The kitchens here are shared by six-nine students and are considered the best kitchens in college.

Although this is a modern accommodation block, it is named after an Elizabethan merchant, Peter Blundell (c. 1520-1601), who was one of the early benefactors of Sidney Sussex College following its foundation in 1596.

Blundell was a prosperous clothier, trading between London and Tiverton, his home town, in Devon. He died in April 1601, a mere five years after the foundation of Sidney Sussex, and shortly before the death of Queen Elizabeth I. He was buried on 9 May 1601 at Saint Michael Paternoster Royal in London.

Blundell never married and in his will he left over £32,000 to fellow clothiers and their families and to his employees, he created several charitable trusts, and he left £2,400 foundation of Blundell’s School as a free grammar school in Tiverton so that it would – in his own words – teach and maintain sound learning and true religion.

But Blundell also left £2,000 to endow six scholars from Blundell’s School in Divinity at the University of Cambridge and the University Oxford, and his executors made arrangements for these Blundell Scholars to enter Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge and Balliol College in Oxford.

Blundell educated clergy and gentry who took leading roles in the English Civil War and the Williamite Rebellion in “preserving the Protestant Religion and the liberties of the subjects,” according to the values of the founder. But the links between the school and Sidney Sussex and Balliol survive to this day.

Later pupils included Richard Blackmore, author of Lorna Doone, Archbishop Frederick Temple of Canterbury, AV Hill, winner of the Nobel Prize for Biology, and Knox Shaw, a Master of Sidney Sussex who has given his name to the Knox Shaw Room in Cloister Court, where I stayed on staircase K during my first year here in 2008.

Peter Blundell ... his legacy survives in the name of Blundell Court

For my second year, I stayed in a set on one of the old staircases in Chapel Court. Needless to say, the sets in the old staircases and in Cloister Court are the most coveted rooms here. These sets consist of a bedroom and a study room/living room, although the kitchen and bathroom facilities for the staircases are fairly basic and are shared between about five students each.

Last year, I stayed in Garden Court, in the middle of college, directly above the library. There, floors R, S and T have some big rooms with large windows and some even have fireplaces. The top floor (T) is where most international students are housed, and there are rumours of planned revamping for the kitchens and S floor. But I shall always remember Garden Court for that amazing lift with no door, which left me looking at the wall slide past as I went up and down.

Both Garden Court and Sussex House, which is reached by a footbridge across Sussex Street, have the advantage of being near college and having hobs, while Cromwell Court – about five minutes further along King Street – is said to have a great social atmosphere, and was renovated three years ago.

There are also several college-owned houses around Cambridge, including Portugal Street, Park Parade, Huntingdon Road and near the river (De Frev). The houses on Huntingdon Road are the furthest – although in Cambridge terms “far” means about a 20 minute walk from college.

Walking on grass

During the afternoon, I enjoyed the pleasure of walking through the gardens in Sidney Sussex after lunch. Unlike some other Cambridge colleges, it is possible to walk on about half the grass at Sidney Sussex – and it is always a joy to be able to step onto grass in Cambridge.

The front courts – Hall and Chapel – are off limits, as is the Master’s Garden, but the gardens at the back, including those at Blundell Court, are among Sidney’s best-kept secrets.

Sidney’s three gardens – Cloister Court, Fellow’s Garden and Tennis Garden – are large, and well-maintained, they play host to a number of events in the Easter term, including plays and garden parties, and they are wonderful places to relax and to think.

Over the past few days, I have eaten in Hall in Sidney. Formal food at Sidney is considered one of the better formal halls in Cambridge, and the chefs are said to be among the best in Cambridge, having won many national awards. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served Mondays-Fridays, while brunch and dinner are served on Saturdays, and dinner is served on Sundays.

Formal hall takes place three times a week – on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays – and are very popular, often selling out weeks in advance in Michaelmas and Lent.

Little known fact, or useless information:

Blundell Park, the grounds of Grimsby Town Football Club in Lincolnshire since 1899, is named also after Peter Blundell. His legacy was used by Sidney Sussex College to buy the land in 1616.

Theocracy and secularism: confusion in high places?

The Chapel in Sidney Sussex College this afternoon ... Dr Jonathan Laing identified five features of what he called a “Christian democracy” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

At the summer school this afternoon we heard a call for response to modern secularism with a spiritually that is alive and a faithful Church that is equipping its members “to be wise and effective Christian democratic citizens and office holders.”

Dr Jonathan Chaplin, who is the Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics in Cambridge, and a member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University, was speaking at the 12th Summer School of the Institute for Christian Orthodox Studies in Sidney Sussex College.

Dr Kirby, who describes himself as part of the Neo-Calvinist Movement, said he found a number of convergences between the ways Orthodox and neo-Calvinist theologians read secular modernity. He was speaking on: “Between Theocracy and Secularism: Religion and the State in Britain Today.”

Examining the relationship between religion and state in Britain today, he said there is widespread confusion in Britain today about the meaning of the terms we use in this debate, and this confusion is widespread in intelligentsia, media and legal classes.

Referring to the controversy three years ago that arose after a lecture by Archbishop Rowan Williams, when the Archbishop of Canterbury was interpreted as advocating a place for sharia law in Britain, Dr Chaplin quoted Janet Daly, who wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “In the contest between principles of modern democracy and doctrine of faith, democracy and the rule of secular law must always win.”

He said she had made the assumption that there is a straight choice between faith and democracy, and had then argued for the primacy of the latter.He also quoted too from Baroness Warnock during in the debate on Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (2008), and the ruling by Lord Justice Laws in McFarlane v Relate Avon (2008).

Dr Chaplin then discussed what he identified as four varieties of secularism:

● Militant secularism, such as atheism, secular humanism or fascism;
● Exclusive secularism, such as French secularism;
● Impartial secularism, example in the US, which he says in its original expression flows logically from the Reformation tradition of religious toleration;
● Justificatory secularism, where a state refrains from officially offering religious justifications for its laws and policies.

Justificatory secularism restrains the state, but it must not restrain members of the public offering a faith-based critique of society, he said. Otherwise, Archbishop Desmond Tutu should not have campaigned against apartheid on the grounds that it denied we are all created in the image and likeness of God.

Religious language is not necessarily inflammatory, but secular language as expressed in fascism and communism can be deeply divisive, “even demonic,” he said.

Exclusive secularism is based on two false assumptions, he said: that secular reasoning unites people, while religious reasoning divides them; and that secular speech is rational and objective, while religious speech is irrational and subjective. Reason and faith have always gone together in Christian theology, he said.

He identified two damaging consequences of exclusive secularism: it violates the norms of liberal democracy; and it deprives democracy of an indispensible resource.

Church and State in Greece ... Dr Jonathan Laing identified five features of what he called a “Christian democracy” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

He listed five features of what he called a “Christian democracy”:

1, an impartial secularism that gives religion no constitutional privilege, yet where the state remains open to co-operation with religious organisation for the common good.
2,it implies justificatory secularism on the part of state officials.
3, a presumption that the state accommodates individual religious conscience as far as possible.
4, a presumption of autonomy for faith-based organisations in the private and in public sectors.
5, there should be full freedom of expression for citizens and representatives.

But all this presupposes a spiritually alive and faithful Church, equipping members to be wise and effective Christian democratic citizens and office holders.

Dr Chaplin has been the Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics since 2006, and is a member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University. He is a visiting lecturer at the Free University of Amsterdam and an adjunct faculty member of the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS) in Toronto.

A specialist in Christian political thought, he is the author or editor of seven books. His latest publications include: God and Government (London: SPCK 2009), co-edited with Nick Spencer; God and Global Order: The Power of Religion in American Foreign Policy, co-edited with Robert Joustra (Baylor University Press, 2010); and Herman Dooyeweerd – Christian Philosopher of State and Civil Society (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Art, religion and the challenge of a Secular Age

Sidney Sussex College this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

The theme of this year’s summer school at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, is “The Challenge of a Secular Age.” This the 12th annual summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, and the programme includes speakers from Britain, Greece, Romania and Switzerland, including theologians from universities and centres for study in Bucharest, Cambridge, Durham, Moscow, Thessaloniki and Winchester.

After breakfast, the conference was introduced by Professor David Frost and Dr Christoph Schneider. Professor Frost spoke about a “new and aggressive attack on religious beliefs,” and said religious faith is under aggressive attack. Both he sees this as both a threat and an opportunity, and hoped that during the week we would hear less about the wrongness of the unbeliever and more about what we need to learn and what we need to put right.

Dr Schneider, who is acting director of studies at the IOCS, said the title for this year’s summer school had been inspired by Charles Taylor’s book, A secular age (2007). He asked what it means to say we live in a secular age?

This morning’s lecturers were Dr Andreas Andreopoulos, of the University of Winchester, who spoke on “Art: from Ritual to Voyeurism,” and Dr Mihail Neamţu, of the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and for the Memory of the Romanian Exile, who spoke on: “Communism: a Secularized Eschatology?”

Dr Andreas Andreopoulos speaking at the summer school this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Dr Andreopoulos began by looking at several theories of art and what it does in our culture. He outlined several ways of understanding art, including art as entertainment, and art as a form of communication, even when it is not necessarily words and is non-discursive.

There are rules of how we define space. But when does something become a work of art, and when does what we admire remain mere delineation. Are the vestments of the priest at the Liturgy art or identification? Is an icon a piece of art or a part of worship?

Art fills in the gap in the way we define ourselves, provides a framework, a background and a narrative for our metaphysical and cultural identities. In non-discursive narratives, art contributes greatly to the way we exist. We touch on what is nothing less than the way of existence.

Turning to ritual and origins of art, he talked about the beginning of culture and the presence of art in the caves where we find scenes of hunting. Although we do not know why they were there, they were not merely practical notes on where to find or how to kill buffalo, but appear to provide an “as-if” reality; they talk not just in symbols, but in imagination.

One of the ways we are different from the animal world is we can know there is something else, two different kinds of reality. Much of scripture in the ancient and classical religions was formed within a dramatic context and the re-enactment of events, such as the birth and death of the Sun. It provided an “as-if” alternative.

Some rituals were not for anyone and everyone, such as the many rituals in Egyptian, Greek and Hebrew religion that included initiation. The transition from ancient mysteries involved rituals or “sacraments,” and these “as-if” dramatic presentations engaged with what is not quite what our senses are telling us, pointing towards immortal reality and not just mortal reality.

Looking at the transition of ritual to the secular, he looked at the movement from mysteries to tragedy in classical Greek culture. Without wanting to sound like a character from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, he said almost all words associated with the theatre in English are Greek in origin, including drama, comedy, chorus, tragedy and theatre.

Tragedy (τραγῳδία) is a fully-developed, articulated dramatic production that means something at many levels. It is entertainment, communication, but also provides a description of our metaphysical identity. For example, modern psychology is founded on observing one myth and tragedy, Oedipus.

Aristotle provided a classical definition of tragedy

Aristotle provided a definition of tragedy: “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions ... Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality – namely, Plot, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Melody.” – Poetics, VI, 1449b, 2-3.

How does an imitation compare with its archetype? Art does not draw us away from the archetype, but to a process where we can approximate as much as we can with what is beyond the senses.

How does this apply these to liturgy? And what is the dramatic element in liturgy?

In liturgy, certainly there is interaction, and a sense of participation. We can compare the dramatic elements of tragedy and dramatic elements of liturgy. By the end something has changed, not just for the performers and the choir, but for everyone present. We have not just been watching a play from a distance, but we have been participating.

Plato, describing his ideal state, argued it did not really have a place for art – although he made an exception for military art, such as beating of drum, he did not see the necessity of art or that it has anything useful to offer.

The Christian inheritance from Greek and Jewish art makes it virtually impossible to separate liturgical art from other art. In Christian art, the “as-if” element is not just a quest of the imagination, but is a statement of reality. There is a distance between what we can see and what is represented in a ritual way, but this is not the distance of imagination. The distance between history and eschatology, what separates this from that, is what gives substance to “as-if.” We live in historical time, but we have a foretaste of end of time, here-and-now but not-just-yet.

Instead of remembering or looking at the past, we are looking towards the future; instead of imitating action, instead of memory, our re-enactment of past becomes a mystagon (μυσταγωγών) that takes us from here to there, so that we are in reality and not just in imagination.

Looking at the iconoclastic debates, we said the arguments against icons were Platonist rather than Biblical, articulating concerns that are not in the Old Testament. The arguments debated by the Fathers of the Church and in the Councils of the Church were about different ways of understanding reality – how we send the soul, the person, the Church, from the here to the there.

He referred to the works of Saint John of Damascus, who defended icons but was also a key figure in the also on emergence of modern music and codifying it. He wrote extensively, defending the honour and use of icons; but he is also seen as the turning point between ancient and modern ecclesiastical music, having formalised and renewed sacred music and its writing system. Aristotle too thinks of music as a constituent part of tragedy.

In its early stages, Christianity shows little interest in who the artist was, as opposed to the art. Art is not for the glory of the artist but for the glory of God and for the people, but at the time there was never a separation of the artist and his art from the ritual of the people.

The Renaissance sees the emergence of the artist as an individual, and from the 16th century interest grows in the artist as the creator, so that the artist emerges as the individual genius. But we know virtually no names of early writers of icons or writers of melodies.

Rene Magritte’s painting, This is not a pipe

Dr Andreopoulos said there are several ways of looking at and defining postmodernism, and these include providing a critique of renaissance and post-renaissance art, and questioning the figure of the artist.

He took as an example Rene Magritte’s painting This is not a pipe. Magritte painted below the pipe: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). Although this seems to be a contradiction, it is actually true – the painting is not a pipe, it is an image of a pipe. It does not “satisfy emotionally” – when Magritte was asked about his image, he replied that of course it was not a pipe ... just try to fill it with tobacco.

Moving on to the folk artists of the 1960s, he quoted Andy Warhol, who said in 1968: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” This has come about with today’s “reality” TV shows today. But is this art? He argued these could be seen as expressions of “pop art” in the ways in which they force us to look at ourselves who we are and how we interact with the world.

Art is not an end product, but an entry point, an open work, to touch what is beyond words, to touch the apophatic, the unspeakable and the unknown.

Dr Andreopoulos is the Senior Lecturer in Orthodox Christianity and the programme leader of the MTh in Orthodox Studies at the University of Winchester. He has published widely on sacred art, ecclesiology, Christian semiotics and liturgy. He is the author of four books: This is my Beloved Son: the Transfiguration of Christ (Orleans, MA: Paraclete Press, 2011); The Sign of the Cross: the Gesture, the Mystery, the History (Orleans: Paraclete, 2006); Art as Theology: from the Postmodern to the Medieval (London: Equinox, 2006); and Metamorphosis: the Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology and Iconography (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir Seminary Press, 2005).

Dr Mihail Neamțu spoke of the failures of Communism, which he described as “a secularised eschatology.” He spoke of the secular promises of communism as false promises.

He asked too whether modernity had succeeded in its quest, and if so at what price?

The era 1917-1945 had been marked by genocidal actions, rampant nationalism, and misdirected utopian dreams, and put forward an analysis of the contribution of Communist ideology to this. He went on to offer a deconstruction of communism as a heresy of the modern age.

Dr Neamțu is a Romanian historian of ideas, with a degree in Continental philosophy and a PhD in theology and religious studies from King’s College, University of London. He held post-doctoral fellowships at New Europe College (2005-2007) and at the Woodrow Wilson Center (2009).

He is the author of several books on the religious, political, and cultural encounter between Christianity and modernity. In addition to other scholarly studies in patristics, he has written a number of essays on the experience of Communism in Eastern Europe.

Working in threes

Dr Neamțu repeated a well-known joke from the Stalinist era in Russia:

Why does the KGB operate in groups of three?

One can read, one can write, and one can keep an eye on the intellectuals.

On a different topic:

A Greek man, sitting in the sun outside an island taverna, was asked by a visiting tourist: “Does Greek have a word similar to mañana

He thought for a moment, contemplated the meaning of “αύριο,” but then, instead, replied: “Yes, but it doesn’t convey the same sense of urgency.”
He is the scientific director of the Institute for the Investigation of the Communist Past and a member of the Christian Democratic Foundation in Bucharest.

Earlier in the morning, in the chapel of Sidney Sussex, the chaplain of IOCS, Father Alexander Teft, served the Divine Liturgy marking “the Dormition of the Righteous Anna, Mother of the Most Holy Theotokos.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Walking along the backs at Cambridge

Punting on the Backs at King’s College Cambridge yesterday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

After registering for the summer school in Sidney Sussex College on Sunday afternoon, and checking into my room, I went for a stroll along the Backs, one of the pleasant ways of spending a sunny summer’s afternoon in Cambridge.

The Backs lie east of Queen’s Road, an area where several colleges back on to the River Cam, with their grounds covering both banks of the river. The area is rich with trees, lawns and gardens belonging to six colleges: Queens’ College, King’s College, Clare College, Trinity Hall, Trinity College and Saint John’s College.

Along the upper reaches of the river, above Silver Street, the river is known in Cambridge as the Granta, and as the Cam below Silver Street Bridge.

Six college own their own part of the river banks along the Backs, so it was not possible to walk a continuous, uninterrupted path. But I was able to walk most of it, on occasion walking through college grounds and crossing the river using college bridges at Queens’, Clare and Saint John’s. and two free public bridges – Silver Street Bridge and Garret Hostel Bridge, which is open only to pedestrians and cyclists.

I suppose the best way to see the Backs is from a punt, a flat bottomed boat that is poled along. Punts are available for hire at Silver Street Bridge and at the Quayside by Magdalene Bridge.

The area, from Silver Street Bridge in the south to Magdalene Street Bridge in the north, consists of the “backs” or rear grounds of six colleges:

Queens’ College: with buildings on both sides of the river, spanned by the Mathematical Bridge;
King’s College: with buildings on the east bank, spanned by King’s Bridge;
Clare College: with property on the both banks, lined by Clare Bridge;
Trinity Hall: buildings on the east bank but with no rear grounds on the west bank;
Trinity College: with buildings on the east bank and grounds on the west bank, , linked by Trinity Bridge; and
Saint John’s College: with buildings on both sides, linked by Saint John’s kitchen bridge and the Bridge of Sighs.

Punting on the River Cam or the Backs, behind Clare College, with the pinnacles of King’s College Chapel in the background (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Until the foundation of King’s College in 1441, there may have been a continuous lane along the east bank of the river, called Milne Street, leading to the mills at Newnham, and joined to the High Street (now King’s Parade and Trinity Street) by a number of smaller lanes. But this only survives in parts as Queens’ Lane and Trinity Lane.

On the west bank of the river, more lanes led down to the hythes or landing places for goods brought up by river from King’s Lynn and the sea.

River frontage was as valuable as street frontage in those days, and the colleges were anxious to preserver and expand their access to the river. When King’s College was founded, royal patronage provided it with a more than ample site between the High Street and the river, sweeping away a large stretch of Milne Street and all that lay in the way, and more fields on the west bank.

Royal patronage also provided Trinity College with a large site, enhanced by the amalgamation and eclipse of two smaller colleges.

In the past, college grounds by the river were more utilitarian than ornamental. The colleges used much of the land for grazing livestock or growing fruit, and the river served as an important commercial thoroughfare to the mill at Silver Street. In the 16th century, the area consisted of pasture, gardens and orchards owned by colleges, with wooden bridges across the River Cam.

Punters beneath the Bridge of Sighs at Saint John’s College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Over time, the colleges planted avenues of trees and built sturdier bridges. Then, in 1772, Saint John’s College commissioned Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716–1783) to lay out a “wilderness” on the college side of Queen’s Road – a creation that exists to this day.

In 1779, Brown proposed creating a country-house-style parkland, with its focus on the Gibbs Building at King’s College. The plan involved removing avenues, transforming the river into a lake, and planting groves of trees to screen other colleges. It was never implemented, perhaps because it would have removed historic college boundaries and three important bridges. The colleges even resisted building a shared towpath along the banks to help the passage of horse-drawn barges.

With the loss of many elm trees due to Dutch elm disease, a Backs Committee was formed in 1979 to take a joint approach to the problem facing The Backs. The committee’s work saw trees being cut down, and new ones planted in their place. But the committee’s work ground to a halt in 1994. A year later, English Heritage listed the Backs as a Grade 1 Historic Park.

In the 2000s, six colleges on the Backs commissioned Robert Myers, a landscape architect from Girton College, to prepare a new landscape management plan for the area. His report, The Backs Cambridge Landscape Strategy, published in 2007, set out proposals for The Backs over the next 50 years. He proposed improving the “legibility, coherence and visual quality of the landscape as a whole” by retaining and enhancing the existing structure of the landscape and sight lines, while screening off the traffic on Queen’s Road. Over-mature and inappropriately-sited trees would be removed and new ones planted, there would be a phased replacement of avenues, an extension of the “wilderness” planting behind Saint John’s and along the edge of Queen’s Road, and a “wildlife corridor” would be created.

The Mathematical Bridge at Queens’ College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The beauty of the Backs has been admired and been a source of envy. Hartley Carrick of Hertford College, Oxford, wrote in 1907:

Oxonians, doff your naughty pride,
And go and put your heads in sacks;
Though you may boast the Oxford Side
You’ve nothing like the Cambridge Backs!


After Vespers in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex and a reception in the garden at Wesley House, some of us went for dinner last night in the courtyard at d’Arry’s in King Street. Sidney Sussex has no direct access to the Backs, but there are delightful places at the back of the college to spend an evening with friends.