A talk given at Contemplation by the Chapel Director, Dr Brian McMahon (Somerville) on the 8th October 2017.
So, I thought I’d begin this new term with an apologia – a spirited defence – for the phenomenon of colleges having chapels in the modern era. In some ways, the choir have done my work for me – the college chapel functions as a hub for music. Somerville is privileged to host one of the finest mixed-voice choirs of the university; the college orchestra rehearses here every Monday evening, the Somerville Music Society uses the building for concerts. So on one level I need hardly justify the existence of this place any further – making music is an end in itself; it gives joy, it moves, it delights.
But I want to explore this evening whether the chapel plays a larger role in our lives than merely that of a venue for music and events – a function which could, in principle, be fulfilled by any acoustically pleasing building. Of Oxford’s 38 colleges the great majority have a chapel. Most were originally Christian foundations. Most employ a chaplain, whether full- or part-time. This is in addition to the variety of ministers, preachers, lectors and ecclesiastics of one faith or another funded by and through the University. Should Oxford be in the business of hosting and supporting these chaplains and their associated missions? What justification can be offered for the continued establishment of places such as this?
Well, the majority of Oxford colleges evolved to include some form of chaplaincy provision very early in their lives. The oldest medieval colleges were at first intended to prepare young men for the priesthood, so for them a house of prayer on site made perfect sense. Medieval colleges resembled nothing so much as seminaries or monasteries, and the link between the academic life of the college and the chapel was never in question.
So what has changed in the course of the past 800 years? Why is any defence of the chapel called for now?
The census data compiled in 2011 by the Office for National Statistics indicated that the UK could still claim to call itself a Christian country. 59% of the population then described themselves as Christian, while non-believers were the second largest group surveyed. In 2016 however, The Guardian newspaper reported a new study indicating that people of no religion now constituted the largest group in our society, and the trend is very much in favour of agnosticism, atheism, non-deistic spiritualism and humanism.
Church attendance nationwide has fallen dramatically since the mid-point of the twentieth century. As you heard in the excerpt from Lawrence Brockliss’ book, Oxford has not been immune from this trend. In 2014 Rowan Williams, a former Archbishop of Canterbury and now Master of Magdalene College Cambridge declared the UK a “post-Christian society”, arguing that whereas Judaeo-Christian ethical traditions continue to exercise a role in affecting the national mood, the established church is now in a period of sustained decline.
The bulk of Oxford’s colleges have an Anglican chapel. Somerville is, of course, distinctive in always having been non-denominational. Indeed, were it not for differences of opinion over the importance of religious affiliation in a student’s life between the founding members of this college and of Lady Margaret Hall it is unlikely that Somerville would ever have been set up. Religion plays a key role in our history as an institution, with our founders’ conviction that women of academic merit should be granted a place here regardless of whether they were Anglican or non-conformist a proud feature of Somerville’s early credo. This chapel came later, founded in the 1930s as ‘A House of Prayer for all Peoples.’ It is distinctive and unique, but its role should still be scrutinised. Just as your fees support the establishment of the college gym, the college library, the college kitchens, so too your membership of Somerville sustains the presence of a chapel in our grounds. So what good does it do?
Two years ago I was invited by the fellows of Wadham College to give evidence to a committee they had set up to consider the future of their own chaplaincy provision. A number of my colleagues who look after chapels in other colleges had remarked that in recent years our role has more to do with welfare and less – overtly, at least – with facilitating worship. In keeping with the national trend, not only has attendance at chapel dwindled in most of Oxford’s colleges, but those who do attend profess a greater variety of beliefs than was once the case. In the early 20th century Somerville was distinctive because some 30-40% of our students were non-conformists, but they were still by and large Christian – this was taken as read. In recent years the make up of the college community has changed, so that chapel-goers may belong to any faith or none, and I have been constantly amazed while doing this job by the range of reasons people give for attending these Sunday occasions.
The question being asked at Wadham was whether the Chapel there should continue to function as a place of worship within college grounds. The building is gorgeous, and there was no suggestion that it should be demolished, but its function could be changed. After all, Mansfield College – originally a religious foundation – has now converted its chapel into a dining hall, and other colleges have occasionally suggested doing likewise. Could not these buildings be put to better use? Could not a chaplain be replaced by a full time welfare officer who would absorb the practical, worldly elements of that role? Would not that be more welcoming to students of all faiths and none?
In defence of the college chapel I would say this: first, non-theism is not a default state, any more than is Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism or any faith besides. Since there is no standard or default belief, it is fitting that colleges should seek to welcome those who do wish to worship alongside those who do not, and should provide them with suitable facilities where possible. But I would go further. College chapels should not be exclusive, and the non-consecrated nature of this space allows us to avoid this risk, so long as we are sensitive of it. I am thrilled that this chapel should be used for Christian worship, but just as thrilled that it should host speakers who question the tenets of that faith and propose alternatives.
In order to understand the function of the college chapel we must first examine the function of the college. Colleges exist as domestic and community spaces within the wider university. And what is the university? Why, a network of scholars and students seeking to make progress in unravelling and understanding the larger questions posed by this nebulous and enigmatic universe we all inhabit. Those questions to which religion proposes answers are fundamental to any discipline you are reading here as students. Not only art and literature but medical ethics, mathematics, the proper application of computer systems and how to behave in politics all depend on your personal answers to the fundamental questions: who are we? Why are we here? Does life have meaning? Is there anyone else out there?
Religion, faith, belief and philosophy all engage with these essential questions very directly. You may find their proposals unsatisfactory – good! A college should be a place in which we disagree, respectfully. A pluralistic society is not one in which all ideas are of equal merit, but one in which all ideas deserve a hearing, and require scrutiny. It is no wiser for an unbeliever to dismiss religious conviction out of hand than for a person of faith to refuse to consider the arguments for atheism. We are all here to bend our intellects to the bigger questions of life, and the chapel provides a hub around which to base our enquiries.
A tutor in theology at Oriel once told me that his experience of teaching undergraduates was that those who arrived with religious belief typically lost it at some stage during the course, while those who were non-religious when they matriculated, at one time or another began to entertain belief. This, he contended, was not evidence of their small-mindedness, but rather the reverse. Some of us hold firm convictions on the subject of religion; others describe ourselves as ‘questioning’. Anyone who says they have it all figured out, I suggest, is speaking pre-emptively. Even if you are right – as you may be – you cannot know that you are right until you have shared and interrogated your views in the company of smart people who disagree with you.
This is too large and too vital an endeavour to be conducted alone. It is also impossible to solve the biggest questions in three or four years of study. But without the college chapel to remind us of them, we would be the poorer.
So that, in essence, is my proposition to you this evening. It has been eleven years since I matriculated at Somerville, and I have come to love this building more and more with every year that passes. I love it as a space for music and drama; for quiet reflection and corporate prayer; for fashion shows and jazz nights; for sitting and taking stock. I came and sat in this chapel in 2010 on the night my godmother died. It was a comfort for me, and I was grateful to find it open – as it ever is.
Over the years I have attended many a wedding, christening, funeral and memorial in this place. When the College loses a loved member or alumna it is fitting that we meet here to grieve. Each year the leavers’ service provides a welcome opportunity to celebrate and take stock. Later this term we will gather here for Remembrance Sunday – a secular and interfaith event which touches us all – and then again for a carol concert to celebrate the turning of the year. The Commemoration Service, held each Trinity Term in remembrance of those Somervillians who have left this life is a wonderful occasion, and we remain – to my knowledge – the only college to mark their passing in this particular way. Sometimes the intangible bonds are the strongest, and I am always pleased when alumni contact me about celebrating milestones in their lives here in the chapel – whether those celebrations are religious in tone or secular.
The college chapel is not an engine of conversion, nor does it claim a missionary agenda. Rather, it is a stimulus and a venue for conversation. For me, the heart of what we do here centres on these Sunday evenings when we dispute and debate and – most importantly – listen to people with whom we disagree and develop an insight into what makes them tick. Could we do all this without a chapel? Yes, I dare say we might, but think how easy it would be to marginalise these intangible considerations. After all, who has the time in their busy lives to set aside an hour a week and contemplate the meaning of life?
As many of you know, this chapel would not have been built but for the steely determination of a former Somervillian named Emily Kemp. Because of Somerville’s proudly non-conformist traditions, the fellows of the 1930s were worried about the damage a religious institution might do to community cohesion. To those fellows, I would say, that time has proved this chapel harmless at worst, and a positive innovation at best. Returning for a moment to the passage from Brockliss’ history which you heard read, the description of that liberally inclined theologian at St John’s, Timothy Gorringe, reminded me a little of Emily Kemp. She, too, was well-travelled and believed that Western Christianity could learn a lot from eastern religions – and, crucially, vice-versa. This is the business of the university; to achieve something universal. To cross-pollinate by applying ideas developed in one discipline to problems which have stymied progress in another. We should always be wary of unthinking orthodoxy – of closing our minds to what others have to teach us. Gorringe and Kemp believed that the West did not have all the answers, and time has proved them right. I put it to you that none of us here this evening have all the answers, but that collectively we know more than we do individually. And so my invitation to you is not to consider this chapel a peripheral concern, but rather to explore how the talks we host here and the conversations which they generate might resonate with your own work as scholars and with your own lives.
And if the work of the chapel can be improved – whether by hosting a particular speaker or examining a particularly thorny philosophical contention – let me know your thoughts. Unlike a parish church, the college chapel is our mutual concern. We all get out of it the product of what we put into it, so please do not be backwards in coming forwards with your ideas and criticisms and inspirations. In defence of the college chapel, it is a resource – use it or lose it – and what a shame it would be indeed were we to lose it!
In closing, I’d just like to share with you a few lines from Somerville College 1878-1921, by Muriel St. Clare Byrne and Catherine Hope Mansfield:
The College turns out the orthodox and the unconventional, the athlete and the bluestocking, the poetess and the social butterfly. You may hold what faith you will and have it accounted unto you as true, but your convictions will at least have borne the test of contact with a good many other working philosophies held with equal success all around you. All that can be said is that there are many points of view, and that few of them go unchallenged.
We owe it to ourselves and to each other to keep on meeting here and mounting those challenges.