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.’


On the trail with E.G. Kemp

In 1940, the Ashmolean Museum received a sizeable bequest from the founder of Somerville College Chapel, E.G.Kemp. This included, among other things, a sum of money equalling £8,000;  three oil paintings, perhaps most notably The Holy Family by Ambrosius Benson (c.1550); and a collection of her own watercolours completed while she travelled in Asia.

In order to give an indication of her experiences and interests, I reproduce a very small sample of Kemp’s own pictures below, accompanied with extracts from her travel books.

Copper Image, Suifu, China.

‘A Roman Catholic priest is deeply interested in the local divinity, which is certainly
an interesting specimen of art, if nothing more; but the priest is firmly persuaded that it is St. Thomas [the Apostle Thomas, or ‘doubting Thomas’], and takes all his friends to see it. The god is enshrined in a temple on a hillside overlooking the town. It is a most beautiful situation, but somewhat spoilt by the fact that it is entirely covered with graves. Hills are frequently utilised for this purpose, and contain thousands of graves. The gaudily painted figure is 18 feet high and 5 [and a half] feet broad, made of fine red copper. It stands on a large bronze turtle, from which, unfortunately, a good part has been stolen; the head alone is in excellent preservation. It was erected some hundreds of years ago by the Lolos or Ibien, an aboriginal tribe who then held possession of this part of the country. They believed that he was a saint who came over the seas on a turtle, and this certainly corresponds with the legend of St. Thomas going to India. It is a very truculent-looking saint, not lightly to be parted from his sword. The figure is well fenced off from view by large bars, though one has been removed, so that people can push through and get a closer look at him. While I was busy sketching, a priest came up to look, with his long hair fastened on the top of head by a carved wooden pin. The priests do not plait their hair, but simply twist it up into a sort of “bun.” A woman came up with offerings – fowl, sweets, etc. – which, after they had been offered to the god, she would take home and eat with the greater relish. This is certainly a way of killing two birds with one stone, as she was too poor to have eaten chicken on ordinary occasions. As we came down the hill we met the chief mourner of a funeral, wearing the coarsest sackcloth, which he could scarcely prevent from falling off, as it is incorrect on such occasions to gird it round the waist.’ The Face of China  p.196-197.


Mosque [Ashiho, China, May 1st, 1907], reproduced in The Face of Manchuria, Korea and Russian Turkestan, p.144‘Near the mission there is a pretty Mosque, built exactly like a Buddhist or Taoist temple, which provides schools for boys and girls. … My sketch [of the Mosque at
Ashiho] was done under considerable difficulties, for the boys had just come out of school, and would jostle up and down, and round about me on the mound of earth where I was sitting, raising such a dust that at last I was driven defeated from the field.’ The Face of Manchuria, Korea and Russian Turkestan, p.146.


Opium Refuge, reproduced in The Face of China, p. 80.

Opium Refuge, reproduced in The Face of China, p. 80.

‘Shansi [Shanxi] is one of the worst provinces of all as regards opium smoking, and the poppy is largely cultivated. In the accompanying sketch a group of patients is seen, who have come to a mission refuge to try and break off the habit. They are allowed to smoke
tobacco, but are mostly resting or sleeping on the khang; the brick bed seen in every inn and in most private houses. On the floor in front of it is seen a small ound aperture*, where the fire is red, which heats the whole khang.’ The Face of China, p.80.

*Unfortunately, my poor photography has cut this out; it is just in front of the man in white at the front right.

Camel Inn (1893), The Face of China, p. 74.

Camel Inn (1893), The Face of China, p. 74.

‘On the roads [near Pao-Ting-fu, China] we met long strings of camels carrying packs, the tail of one animal being attached to the nose of the one behind. They have inns
of their own, being cantankerous beasts, and are supposed to travel at nights because of being such an obstruction to traffic. Certainly if you lie awake you can generally hear the tinkle of their bells. They are the most attractive feature of the landscape in the north, whether seen in the streets of Peking, or on the sandy plains of Chili. My sketch was taken in the summer when the camels were changing their coats, so that the one in the front has a grey, dishevelled look, corresponding with Mark Twain’s description. He says that camels always look like “second-hand” goods; but it is clear that he cannot
know the fine stately beast of North China.’ The Face of China, p. 74-75

‘1879’ and the Chapel Organ

Somerville College Chapel Organ circa 1940

The completed organ (Harrison and Harrison) and oak case (Courtenay Theobald)

The College archive holds much useful information about the Chapel and its history. Letters received have been kept, as have records of letters sent. There are consequently a number of bulging files of letters, carbon copies, postcards and telegrams. Some of this material is mundane; some of it is quite fascinating. In keeping with the Chapel’s controversial history, many of the letters are marked ‘confidential’, and one has even been sealed and re-sealed with sealing wax to ensure absolute discretion! In this blog, I hope to gradually relay some of the stories that have emerged from reading this correspondence.

When the Chapel was opened in 1935 it did not have an organ. It was not until 1937 that an organ was fully installed and dedicated. The oak case was designed by the Chapel’s architect Courtenay Theobald; the organ itself was supplied by Harrison and Harrison of Durham.  Unlike the Chapel, which was donated and paid for entirely by E. G. Kemp, the cost of the organ was funded by a number of members of the College.

In a confidential letter to a former student, Miss Margaret E. Roberts, dated 4th July 1936, Helen Darbishire, the Principal at the time, wrote that she lent the College £2,000 to cover the cost of the organ, under the condition that she would receive £50 repayment per annum until her death.  This prompted Miss Roberts (who also has a memorial tablet dedicated to her in the Chapel) to begin a fund-raising initiative to try and lessen the burden of this loan. She was joined by the four other surviving Somervillians who had first attended the College in its opening year, after which they named themselves collectively ‘1879.’ A document in the archives lists the names of 231 old members who answered 1879’s requests for money; donations which the fundraisers felt were a way of showing ‘in some practical way our thankfulness for the gift of the College Chapel by a former student.’

Reading Emily Georgiana Kemp’s Books

The Author as Chinese 'Female Travelling Scholar'

E.G.Kemp's self-portrait, from the frontispiece of 'The Face of China'

The donor of Somerville College Chapel, Emily Georgiana Kemp, wrote a number of books over her lifetime. By reading these it is possible to learn much about her experiences, and their role in forming her unique vision for Somerville College Chapel.

Emily travelled extensively and documented her adventures with her own watercolours. These are reproduced as colour plates in the following travel books: The Face of China (1909), The Face of Manchuria, Korea and Russian Turkestan (1910), Wanderings in Chinese Turkestan (1914), and Chinese Mettle (1921). Each of these books follows the format of a travel journal or diary, often demonstrating Emily’s fascination in the various religions and places of worship she encountered. They also show her continued preoccupation with the welfare and education of women.

Emily wrote two books about the work of missionaries: a biography of her sister, Reminiscences of a Sister, S. Florence Edwards (1919), and a general account of the work of women Baptist missionaries, There followed Him, women (1927). In these she expresses her belief in the importance of women in Christianity, a theme expounded most overtly in her last book, Mary, with her son, Jesus (1930).

Emily, unlike her sisters, was never a missionary, but she loved exploring and encountering different people and places. She writes in Reminiscences of a Sister that her ‘imagination was fired with stories of adventure’ by accounts of missionary work she heard as a child at her parents’ home.  It is because of her love for travel, and the countries she visited, particularly China, that her memorial plaque in the Chapel reads ‘friend of China’ as opposed to ‘missionary’, and why her books are given over to documenting her travels rather than giving an account of evangelisation. An unfavourable review of her first book published in the Burlington Magazine in 1909, states:

‘Slightly attached to sundry evangelising bodies, she shows a moderate interest in the Christianising of the Chinese, and a much livelier interest in their country, manners and customs. On these she chatters shrewdly and agreeably, according to her own fancies.’

According to our College records, Emily also published a book on Buddhism in 1910 which she translated from German. Unfortunately, I have so far not found any corroboration of this, or the text itself.

Emily Georgiana Kemp

Portrait head of Miss Emily Georgiana Kemp by Alphonse Legros (1837-1911)

Portrait head of Miss Emily Georgiana Kemp by Alphonse Legros (1837-1911)

This sketch by Alphonse Legros is a portrait of Somerville College Chapel’s founder, Emily Georgiana Kemp (1860-1939). Emily left a significant bequest of Western and Eastern Art to the Ashmolean; she also donated the Chapel to Somerville during her own lifetime.

Emily was one of the first students to study at Somerville and upon leaving led an adventurous life, writing a number of travel books about her journeys in Asia. Over the next few weeks, more stories and images related to the donor of Somerville College Chapel will be posted.

Alphonse Legros (1837-1911) was Slade Professor of Art at
University College London, under whom Emily studied Fine Art between leaving Somerville and embarking on her first trip to China. This picture is dated 1892 by the artist – when Emily was a student at the Slade School.

A number of Legros’ works were left to the Ashmolean in Emily’s bequest, including the oil ‘Interior with an organist and procession’ and a sketch of her sister, Lydia Peto Kemp.