The Revd Christopher Woods has been chaplain of Christ’s College, Cambridge, since 2007 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
I have just booked myself back into a summer school in Cambridge, and look forward to yet another week in Sidney Sussex College and the opportunity to stay for few days before Christ’s College, Cambridge. Over the past few years, I have stayed in both colleges and regularly enjoyed the hospitality of these college communities and their chapel life.
The Revd Dr Peter Waddell has been chaplain of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, since 2005 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Both colleges have Irish-born Anglican priests as their chaplains: the Revd Christopher Woods graduated from the Church of Ireland Theological College in 2004, and was a curate in Saint Mark’s, Dundela, before moving to Christ’s College in 2007; the Revd Dr Peter Waddell, who is from Newcastle, Co Down, completed his PhD while he was an ordinand at Westcott House, Cambridge, and has been the chaplain of Sidney Sussex College since 2005.
Last year was a busy one for Christopher Woods 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 alumni, Charles Darwin. This year is turning out to be busy too as the Chapel in Christ’s College celebrates the 500th anniversary of its consecration in June 1510.
The Chapel of Christ’s College, Cambridge … in June the college celebrates the 500th anniversary of the consecration of the chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Christ’s College received its first charter in 1505, but its story goes back to 1437, when a smaller college, God’s House, was built on the site of the Chapel of King’s College. God’s House moved to the present site on Saint Andrew’s Street in 1448, and was renamed in 1505 when it received a new charter and was generously endowed by Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort.
Christ’s College was founded by Henry VII’s saintly mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
As a place of education, religion, learning and research, Christ’s College needed a chapel. As the first buildings went up in what is now First Court, a new chapel was built there too in a secluded corner, beside the Master’s Lodge. This new chapel was consecrated by Bishop James Stanley of Ely, Lady Margaret Beaufort’s stepson, 500 years ago in June 1510.
By then, Lady Margaret was dead for almost a year – she died on 19 June 1509. However, even before the chapel was formally consecrated, it is said, she prayed in the chapel before her death. High on the south wall of the chapel nave, the open casement window of her oratory recalls this noblewoman who sat here 500 years ago, prayerfully watching the liturgy below.
In the intervening 500 years, the chapel survived the Reformation and the Cromwellian era and has seen great change and development, yet the original chapel building is almost entirely in tact. Today, this beautiful and ancient chapel continues as a spiritual presence at the heart of Christ’s College.
As this milestone in the history of the college chapel is marked this year, the chapel remains the spiritual, musical and theological heartbeat of Christ’s College. On 2 February, the Quincentenary Candlemas Compline in the chapel included a torchlight procession. The anniversary was marked too by the launch of a new CD by the choir: Requiem: A Thanksgiving for Life. Choral Works by Sir Philip Ledger. The composer was in Christ’s College Chapel on Ash Wednesday to direct the choir.
The chapel of Christ’s College is in a secluded corner beside the Master’s Lodge in First Court (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
On Sunday 6 June next – the Sunday nearest the 500th anniversary of the consecration – the Bishop of Clogher, Dr Michael Jackson, will preside and preach at a Solemn Evensong of Thanksgiving and re-dedication in the chapel.Other anniversary events later this year include a Celebrity Poetry Reading in the chapel with Ruth Padel, the poet-in-residence at Christ’s College. She was elected Professor of Poetry in Oxford last year, but resigned after nine days following a controversial newspaper campaign against her. She is a direct descendant of the naturalist Charles Darwin, who was an undergraduate in Christ’s College. Her latest book, Darwin – A Life in Poems, celebrates his life in verse, covering his science, travels and family life.
An anniversary Choral Evensong and reunion dinner in November also mark the launch of the Christ’s College Choir Association. Later that month, a Festal Evensong for Christ the King will include the world premiere of the quincentenary commission.
Sacred space set aside
The chapel offers members of the Christ’s College community a space set aside for quiet reflection, prayer, meditation and worship. The liturgy is usually relaxed, yet formal, with opportunities to explore through worship how God relates to both the needs and the contexts of those present. The welcome is reflected in the refreshments served after the principle chapel services, and can include coffee and croissants, port, sherry, fruit juice, hot chocolate or – when I was preaching there last year – prosecco.
As well as thoughtful reflections and sermons, the quality of music allows the heart and mind to be open to the promise of the presence of God. Apart from the usual services and the regular rhythm of worship, there are social activities and faith discussion groups. The Sunday collections each term are donated to local, national and international charities.
Christ’s College has one of the finest mixed-voice choirs in Cambridge, with three choral services a week and many occasional services. The choir’s repertoire spans many centuries and it often performs liturgical works not previously heard in Britain. The chapel also serves as the focus for many college activities, including music and the arts, and is a venue for many recitals and concerts.
Christopher Woods says the chapel is an open and inclusive place and a place of inquiry. “In fact, many people come to chapel on their own to take time out,” he says, “to gather strength, to find space, to pray and worship or simply to ‘get away from it all’.”
He says Christ’s College can feel like a kind of secular monastic community, with its own rhythm of life. He told the Church Times last year: “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.”
Chaplain in Cromwell’s college
Cloister Court in Sidney Sussex College recalls that this was the site of an earlier Franciscan house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Once again, the summer school I am attending this year gives me an opportunity to spend a week in Sidney Sussex College, which is a short, five-minute walk from Christ’s College and which was founded in 1594.
The chaplain, the Revd Dr Peter Waddell, points out that the chapel is at the heart of life in Sidney Sussex College, serving as the centre of worship, prayer and inquiry for the whole Sidney family. The chapel is open all day for private prayer, meditation and quiet reflection.
The Lady Chapel, with the Reserved Sacrament, is especially conducive to private prayer, and Lectio Divina is an integral part of chapel life every Tuesday night.
The chapel of Sidney Sussex College is at the heart of Chapel Court (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The chapel choir in Sidney Sussex, which is among the finest in Cambridge, sings at Choral Evensong on Fridays and Sundays, regularly tours at home and abroad, and has produced award-winning recordings.
The choir of Sidney Sussex College Chapel is among the finest in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
All evening collections during this term are going to the Cambridge Central Aid Society, which provides emergency grants to needy people, with a special focus on people trying to reintegrate into society from institutional care. It provides small but vital sums of money to assist them in securing the essentials of life. Christian Aid Week is also providing an opportunity to support the eradication of poverty and disease throughout the world.
Samuel Cooper’s portrait of Oliver Cromwell in the hall at Sidney Sussex shows him “warts and all” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
One Irish school-friend who lives only a few miles from Cambridge, came to hear me preach in Christ’s College Chapel last year, but he refuses to visit me at Sidney Sussex … because Oliver Cromwell’s head is buried in the chapel and a portrait of Cromwell by Samuel Cooper hangs in the hall.
But a stairway in Sidney also proudly displays a portrait of John Garnett, a former fellow who became Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin (1752-1758) and Bishop of Clogher (1758-1782). Many Cambridge colleges have strong Irish connections – the Minister for Finance, Mr Brian Lenihan, was a student at Sidney Sussex, Bishop Michael Jackson of Clogher studied at Saint John’s College, and Archbishop John Neill of Dublin was a student at Jesus College and Ridley Hall.
Spirituality in the city
The Chapel of King’s College stands on the site of God’s House, the foundation that eventually became Christ’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Most Cambridge colleges reflect their ecclesiastical roots in their buildings, especially in the chapels. The majority of the 31 colleges began as religious foundations, with statutes requiring them to have a chapel. With the exception of Saint Edmund’s Hall, which is Roman Catholic, and Robinson, Fitzwilliam and Churchill, where the chapels are interdenominational, the other Cambridge college chapels are part of the life and tradition of the Church of England.
Emmanuel College, where the buildings can reflect the atmosphere of monastic cloisters (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The statutes of Christ’s College insist that every fellow undertakes to uphold it as a place of education, religion, learning, and research. Trinity College, which is within view of Sidney Sussex, has a community of 1,600 students and staff, with a Dean of Chapel, two chaplains, and one fellow in holy orders.
Bishop William Bedell of Kilmore (right) with Archbishop William Sancroft of Canterbury (left) in a window in the chapel of Emmanuel College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Emmanuel College is next to Christ’s College, on Saint Andrew’s Street. The chapel is well-known for its altarpiece, Jacopo Amigoni’s The Return of the Prodigal, and for a window and plaque recalling John Harvard, who gave his name to the first American university. But there is also a window commemorating William Bedell (1571-1642), who was an undergraduate and then a fellow at Emmanuel before becoming Provost of Trinity College Dublin and later Bishop of Kilmore of Ardagh. The legacy of this saintly bishop includes his translation of the Old Testament into Irish.
But what part is played by college chapels and chaplains in the life of the university and in the life of the city?
A wedding at Sidney Sussex … chapels are miniatures of the Church of England and its parishes, with constant requests for baptisms, weddings, and funerals (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The Cambridge college chapels wrestle with issues of secularisation, atheism, and modernity. Yet college chaplains find the diversity in chapel worship can be a great strength, and Peter Waddell says chaplains have wonderful opportunities for ministry. He says 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 Christopher Woods. “The opportunities for ministry here are unheard-of. It’s work I love, work you can get your teeth into.”
Punting on the backs … Cambridge college chapels and chaplains play a full part in the life of the university and of the city (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
A recent survey shows that over 1,000 students take part in worship in college chapels each week, and 3,000 people attend a weekly act of worship. There are about 90 weddings each year in the college chapels, and the Advent carol services attract about 6,500 people.
These numbers alone show clearly how the mission of these chapels reaches out into a world beyond the life of the colleges and of the university
Bicycles are a way of life in Cambridge, where college chapels are part of the full cycle of life (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the May editions of the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Diocese of Cashel and Ossory)