29 October 2013

A theological college in Oxford
with new prize-winning chapel

The new chapel at Ripon College Cuddesdon may be the most interesting chapel in any theological college in the Church of England today and has attracted considerable media attention (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

I am visiting a number of theological colleges in England this week, with plans to meet colleagues who teach in the same areas as me, and who share the same fields of academic interests.

Apart from the mutual support of colleagues who teach in the fields of Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, it is also interesting to see how these colleges share community life, how they worship as communities, and the settings in which that worship life is expressed.

My room in Ripon College Cuddesdon, south of Oxford, is looking out at rolling Oxfordshire countryside, and to my left from the window is perhaps, the most interesting chapel in any theological college in the Church of England today. This new chapel has attracted considerable media attention in recent months, ranging from the BBC to the Financial Times and to professional architectural journals.

There has been a theological college at Cuddesdon for over 160 years. Cuddesdon College was established in 1854 by Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, under whose portrait I sat at lunchtime today His vision was for a college independent of any specific Church faction, and with a focus on the discipline of daily prayer and spiritual formation. The college buildings, most of them designed by GE Street, were built opposite his episcopal palace, Cuddesdon Palace. Staff members in the past have included Bishop Charles Gore, editor of Lux Mundi and founder of the Community of the Resurrection, and Robert Runcie, later Archbishop of Canterbury, both of whom have buildings named after them here.

A merger with Ripon Hall, Oxford, in the 1970s, forming Ripon College Cuddesdon, brought in new resources and fresh thinking, and helped develop a new and open approach to theological study.

With the incorporation of the Oxford Ministry Course (2006) and the West of England Ministerial Training Course (2011), the college was able to offer a wide range of additional non-residential courses. A new partnership with the Church Missionary Society (CMS), means the college also offers training for Ordained Pioneer Ministers.

Last year, the five remaining sisters from two Anglican religious orders – Saint John the Baptist and the Good Shepherd – joined the college community at Cuddesdon. They provide a praying presence throughout the year and offer spiritual direction, quiet days and guided retreats.

The Community of Saint John Baptist (CSJB), also known as the Sisters of Mercy or the Clewer Sisters, was founded by the Irish-born Mother Harriet Monsell (1811-1883), from Dromoland Castle, Co Clare, a sister of the Irish patriot William Smith O’Brien.

The chapel was voted into second place in the prestigious architectural prize, the Stirling Prize (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

With their move to Cuddesdon, they built a new Harriet Monsell House in the college grounds and endowed the new college chapel. I can see Harriet Monsell House to the right of my room in Liddon, the chapel is to the left. Earlier this month, the chapel was voted into second place in one of Britain’s most prestigious architectural prizes, the Stirling Prize, awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

Harriet Monsell House seen to the right of my room in Liddon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The BBC and the RIBA ran the online poll in conjunction with a series of television features on the six shortlisted buildings. The winning building was Astley Castle, Warwickshire; the other shortlisted buildings were the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre, the Newhall Be, Park Hill Phase 1 and the University of Limerick Medical School.

I last visited Cuddesdon, about five or six miles south of Oxford, in 2007, when I was shown around the older chapels by the Very Revd Lister Tonge, now Dean of Monmouth and Newport Cathedral. The old chapel is now part of the library which is next to my room in Liddon.

The new, elliptical Bishop Edward King Chapel at Cuddesdon is the place of worship for the nuns and for the staff and ordinands. The chapel name honours the saintly Edward King, Bishop of Lincoln and a former chaplain and principal of Cuddesdon Theological College.

Ripon College Cuddesdon stands in beautiful countryside south of Oxford, and the chapel, which stands at the centre of the college, is dramatic and subtle, modern and yet crafted from natural materials. It can seat 120 people, cost £2.6 million, and took 18 months to build. It was designed by in 2009 by Niall McLaughlin Architects and was opened last February.

The outside wall is made of Clipsham stone arranged in a dogtooth style (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The outside wall is made of Clipsham stone arranged in a dogtooth style, with alternate rough and smooth edges facing outwards. Each one was individually snapped using a hand-held tool.

Refined and restrained, timeless and serene – this new chapel projects a remarkable sense of permanence. The sophisticated design is beguilingly simple, as light streams down through the hip-high windows. The furniture and beams are made of larch and ash, the walls and ceiling, rendered in lime plaster, with subtle variations in textures and shade.

Worshippers enter the chapel at Cuddesdon through a dark hallway. There are three steps down to the polished floor of the chapel, but above, the latticed woodwork draws your eye up towards high windows with dappled light from the surrounding trees.

The elliptical shape achieves another layer of symbolic detail. On one side the window protrudes exactly between two trees, offering the only uninterrupted view across the valley. On the other, the heavy, thick wooden doorway is aligned with the trunk of a large copper beech tree.

“Much like when people come out of the cinema and it feels like they’ve been immersed in one world and are coming out into another, that's what I wanted from the chapel,” says Niall McLaughlin. “I wanted people to come out underneath the protective canopy of the beech.”

The college grounds are rich in trees, and trees are a recurring theme in the chapel. They surround the chapel, they fill the views from every window and their dappled light creates a soft and nuanced light – like moving stained glass. Inside the building, sweeping wooden arches rise up to the ceiling. They are the trees, the gothic arches and a whisper of the ship.

Part of the inspiration for the new chapel was a play on the word nave (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Part of the inspiration for the building was a play on the word nave. As well as referring to the main part of a church, nave is derived from the Latin word for boat, and also refers to the hub of a wheel and to the navel.

“It is the bit that doesn’t move, everything else swirls around it. This is a place of stillness and watchfulness. This is a place where people come to gaze,” the Principal of Cuddesdon, Canon Martin Percy, recently told the BBC. He described the acoustics inside the chapel as “seeping through your skin and into your soul.”

“This chapel with its use of light, space, glass, wood and stone captures our hope for the church and the world, and for the shaping of religious and spiritual life,” Professor Percy says.

“There is so much metaphor in this chapel,” Edwin Heathcote, architectural critic, wrote in the Financial Times. “It has all these layers of imbued meaning, perhaps there are too many. Maybe they tried too hard. But it works. It’s a very pure kind of architecture. It would have been a dream commission.”

Ripon College Cuddesdon has around 150 students training for ordained ministry on various courses. It is the largest provider of ordination training in the United Kingdom, and has trained a third of the current bishops, deans and archdeacons in the Church of England. Its strength comes from the acceptance of diversity and the students come from across the breadth of church traditions.

● The public can see the exterior of the chapel and walk in the college grounds at any time. However, access to the interior of the chapel is by appointment only.

Autumn leaves in Ripon College Cuddesdon this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)