Somerville College Chapel Re-opens

On Sunday 15th January, Somerville College Chapel had its first service since the completion of its sixth-month refurbishment. In a special service featuring readings from a variety of religious traditions, Rev. Marcus Braybrooke, President of the World Congress of Faiths, spoke on the role of a chapel in college life and the uniqueness of Somerville College Chapel as a ‘House of Prayer for all Peoples.’ The text of his address is given below.

Marcus also pointed out the similarities of the Chapel with the United Nations Meditation Room in New York, referring to the simple symbolism of the two interiors (in particular reference to the Chapel’s central focal point, the communion table), and the function of the Chapel and Meditation Room as places of quiet set aside for prayer, meditation and reflection for those of all religions, and those or none (more information about the UN Meditation Room can be found at

Somerville College Choir gave a blistering performance, including the introit linked below.

Anton Bruckner: Locus iste (WAB 23), Somerville College Choir, January 15th 2012

Rev. Marcus Braybrooke kindly supplied the following text of his address:

Address given by Rev. Marcus Braybrooke, President of the World Congress of Faiths 

I am very honoured by and grateful for the kind invitation to preach at this special service tonight. 

‘Where shall Wisdom be found? And where is the place of Understanding?’ (Job 28, 12).

This is the question Job asked himself as he pondered his own suffering and the apparent injustice in the world. In the very centre of the ancient Spanish University of Valencia another text is quoted which gives an answer to Job’s question Omnis Sapientia A Domino Deo Est –  ‘All Wisdom comes from the Lord’ -(Ecclesiasticus 1, 1). College chapels are a reminder that universities are not just about the search for knowledge and qualifications but also about the pursuit of Wisdom. And this is the message of some of the readings we have heard tonight.

In the Hindu scriptures there is the story of a young man called Svetaketu. Svetaketu went to school at the age of 12 and studied all the Vedas – the Hindu scriptures. When he returned home at the age of 24, he was proud, conceited, thinking himself well-schooled. ( I am not, of course, suggesting that anyone here is proud or conceited, although you are all well schooled)   Anyhow, when Svetaketu got home his father enquired “Svetaketu, since you are proud and conceited, dear boy, and consider yourself learned, did you ask for that instruction by which we hear what cannot be heard, perceive what cannot be perceived, know what cannot be known?”Svetaketu was flummoxed. ‘What instruction is that?’ Gradually, his father leads him to that ‘which is the root of all’ – the mysterious claim that ‘It is the self and Thou art that.’ Atman is Brahman. If we go deep enough into ourselves we discover a oneness with the Source of Life – with all that is.

Of course, people whose lives have been changed by that mystical discovery speak of this awareness in different ways Jesus told Nicodemus, a Jewish scholar who came to him by night, ‘Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Only rebirth in the Spirit gives true knowledge.

Over the centuries most religions have encouraged scholarship and established great centres of learning. One of the teachers of the great at the University of Paris was Albert Magnus or Albert the Great.  – one of his pupils was the Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas It was said of  Albert Magnus that he knew everything that there was to be known in the world. If that was possible in the thirteenth century, even the Brain of Britain could not claim this. It is now difficult even to read all the books on one’s specialised subject. The sheer amount of knowledge in every subject means that today our studies become ever more specialised. A friend said to a Scottish professor, who had devoted fifteen years to the study of a particular species of fish, ‘You must know all there is to know about that sort of fish.’ No, he protested, there was still much to find out. As Francis Bacon said, ‘All things disappear into mystery.’

Yet the fragmentation of knowledge has its dangers. We do not see the bigger picture and we may pursue a field of research without reflecting on the ethical implications of our work. Too easily with all the demands of exams and the search for a good job, the immediate task of finishing an essay or assignment or checking the footnotes for a thesis absorb our time and energy. I always try to keep my study door open because I read of a College where all the professors kept their door shut, except one African professor, who kept his open because ‘people are always more important than footnotes.’

So we need to remember that our particular disciplines contribute to a greater whole and that is one of the values of college life. The word University is related to the word universe – it suggests a wholeness and the relevance of our work to human need – to which our studies, however many degrees we get, are a tiny contribution.

Three key buildings in a College are the Library, the Dining Hall and the Chapel. The Library stands for the specialist knowledge and research required by our particular discipline. The Dining Hall should be a place of conversation – sometimes assisted by suitable lubrication. By living together in a college and eating together and talking together, our specialist concerns are challenged by and contribute to a wider picture of life. The third key building is the chapel, as was recognised by those who in the nineteen thirties took the initiative in providing a chapel for this college. However much knowledge and information we find on the web – or in the Bodleian – there is a Wisdom to which the Chapel is a pointer or, in the Buddhist phrase, ‘a fingertip.’ To this search for Wisdom, and to worship, poetry, music and discussion contribute as well as the word.

Western civilization to which we are heirs has, of course, been shaped by Christianity In their pursuit of wisdom, wise men and women here have been led by the star to the babe at Bethlehem – the Word Made Flesh. But the Light that shines in all its fullness in Christ, is the light that lightens every person who comes into the world. This means that we can learn from what those of other faiths have discovered of the Light, just as we share our discoveries with them. God is always greater than our highest thoughts and insights and together we learn more of that ‘Light which is the life of the world.

As we journey towards that light, our lives are transformed and enriched. Let me share two experiences of my student days. I was brought up in a Christian home and at Cambridge (dare I mention it?) I tried to be a good Christian. The problem was in that word ‘tried.’ I thought this was something I had to achieve and to the rugby playing hard drinking set I must have seemed unbearably pious. I was set free from the chains of religion as I listened to a sermon that proclaimed the all forgiving, all-accepting love of God shown in the willingness of Jesus to die for me on the cross. I was loved as I was and I knew than that nothing in heaven or earth could separate me from that love.

But after University, I spent a year as a student at Madras Christian College, learning a little about the religions of India and their witness to the Light  but it was another experience more practical experience which has had a lasting effect on me Some of the students used to help at a clinic for people suffering from Leprosy. The first time I went in the mid-day sun beloved of mad dogs and Englishmen – my prejudices about touching someone with that disease were dispelled by the smiling faces of the children. God’s image is to be seen in every person. But equally moving was to go to the clinic with another Christian who was from Sri Lanka and a student who was a Muslim. The doctor was a devout Hindu. We were joined together in service of the poor.

This, I believe, is the calling of all people of faith, to work for peace, to feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to speak for prisoners of conscience to protect the environment. Increasingly this is happening, but there is still much to do to overcome centuries of prejudice and ignorance.

I hope the chapel stands here not just to ask you where is Wisdom to be found but to ask you why you are studying what you are studying. Reflect on the challenge of Gandhi’s ‘Talisman.’ ‘Think of the poorest person you have ever seen’ and then ask yourself, ‘will what I am doing be of use to him or her?’

Listen to these words of an Asian Christian theologian. ‘The moment of truth for humanity seems to have arrived. We seem destined for destruction at our own hands. But behold, miracle of miracles, out of the cracks a light shines. As we advance timidly towards that light, we discover many, many others moving towards it from different directions… We the poor and the rich, the oppressed and the oppressors, the theists and the atheists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus must get to that light for it is the light of love and life, the light of hope and the future … We have no alternative but to move on with God to that vision of a world of compassion and communion of love

Is that the vision which inspires you and will shape your life?

The World Congress of Faiths, 1937

Chapel Leaflet 1937

In July 1937 the pioneering interfaith organisation The World Congress of Faiths held a residential conference for delegates representing the world’s religions at Balliol College and Somerville College. Somerville College Chapel’s donor, E.G. Kemp, was a member of this organisation and was eager that the delegates should use the new College Chapel. In a letter to Helen Darbishire, then Principal of Somerville, she exclaimed: ‘How pleased they [the delegates] will be to find a Chapel [where] they can meditate and pray – a better setting than in London.’ Kemp was referring to the first conference of the World Congress of Faiths held at University College, London, in the preceeding year.

Kemp printed the leaflet (above) independently of the College authorities to promote the use of the Chapel for prayer and meditation by the congress delegates, and to explain the symbolic meaning of the stained glass window by George Bell. The leaflet soon proved to be controversial, and Darbishire contacted Kemp  asking her to refrain from distributing it. Darbishire gave her reason for this as the factual inaccuracy of the sentence ‘Somerville College was founded in 1879 as a place of Religion, of Learning, and Education.’ She explained in a strongly worded letter to Kemp that the phrase ‘place of Religion, of Learning, and Education’ was not part of the original foundation, but a later clause included in the College statutes of 1926.

The attendees of the 1937 conference included a number of notable national and international religious figures, for example: Yusuf Ali (translator of the Qur’an into English), Dame Edith Lyttleton (novelist and activist), The Begum Sultan Mir Amiruddin (Indian social and educational activist), Muang Aye Muang (of the World Buddhist Mission, Burma), and Aylmer Maude – Tolstoy’s biographer, friend and translator.

The proceedings of the conference describe that in addition to the formal papers and discussions, devotional services were conducted for members of other religions by Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist delegates. Yusuf Ali noted of these, that: ‘There may be differences of opinion as to whether people can enter into the devotional spirit of a religion to which they do not subscribe, but there can be no doubt that, given the right atmosphere, we are enabled to enter into the basic ideas underlying every earnest man’s [humankind’s] prayer and longing to reach the spiritual.’