Life, Liturgy and the Pursuit of Happiness: In Defence of the College Chapel

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.

Constance Coltman

A talk delivered by Rev Mia Smith (Hertford) on 21st October 2017 to commemorate the centenary of Constance Coltman (a Somervillian, and the first woman to be ordained in England)


I want to begin by asking the question Dr Selbie aksed Constance Coltman – “Can a woman’s voice be heard at the back of church”. You can hear me. Good. Then I shall proceed.

We are here today to celebrate the life and ministry of a remarkable woman, and to mark one hundred years since she was ordained, the first woman to be ordained into the ministry of the Congregational Church.

As I have read about her life, and pondered the auspicious anniversary, I have to confess to the rising of one particular emotion. And that emotion is not a comfortable one. I found myself becoming angry. One hundred years? But two thousand years ago Jesus ordained a woman, Mary Magdelene, as an apostle1 – one who is sent to tell – to go and tell others about the risen Christ, in fact, to go and tell the men.

Mary had lingered at the tomb when the men had gone. And the love she showed then was hugely rewarded. Jesus could have revealed himself first to a man. But John tells us he did not. He honoured a woman. A strange move in a patriarchy, perhaps, which makes it all the more remarkable. It must have taken huge courage for Mary to be obedient, to go and tell the disciples. She must have known that as a woman, her word would bear little weight. She must have feared being dismissed as deluded, or too emotional (any women here heard that one before?), expressing wishful thinking that Jesus was no longer dead. Yet she followed what her Lord had called her to do. Women ever since have faced ridicule and risk in following their calling to ministry. And today I acknowledge the debt that I and my fellow priests owe to women of courage like Coltman, who follow whatever the cost.

Yet the question remains – why are we not celebrating two thousand years of women’s ministry? In fact, why, in the 21st century, why do we live in a world where women are the targets of so-called honour killings, sexual slavery, genital cutting, violence against women, unequal pay, being discussed only in terms of our clothes or appearance, women being the property of their husbands, fathers, or brothers, being denied the right to vote, to drive, to divorce, even when their lives are threatened, and, as this week’s hashtag me too trend has indicated, facing a constant stream of belittling comments, sexual harassment and assault.

As a lifelong pacifist, a supporter of women’s suffrage and women’s reproductive rights, I suspect this is a question Coltman herself might be asking of us.

Here’s what she wrote in the Mansfield College Magazine in 1924: “Protestantism in its spiritual essence enshrines a conception of the dignity and sacredness of the individual soul, born from its direct and immediate relation to God, which involves the complete spiritual emancipation of womankind. The right of private judgement, the freedom to discover and to declare the mind of God, which the Reformers claimed, could not be confined to one sex alone. Woman has a value altogether independent of her sexual functions, which is derived not from her relationship to man, as wife or mother, but from her relation to God. She is His child, equally dear to His Father’s heart, equally capable of understanding and declaring His will. She shares with man the right and duty of passing on to others any vision or revelation that may be granted to her.  …… If the Free Churches stand fast by the ministry of women they will explicate and strengthen their own position; they may also reveal to others the mind of Christ as concerns the place and function of women in His Church”.  

Our poems both encapsulate the reality of Constance’s calling. A call to ordained ministry is a call to service and sacrifice, not to a position of power or self-satisfaction.

Ministry alongside the bereaved and hurting would have been familiar to Coltman, as she faced the pain of death and loss, the injustice of women’s voices not being heard, and the hardships of those who lose their livelihood. As a woman entering into that world of pain, Coltman would have brought something which a man might not. God’s comfort being brought, woman to woman, during the darkest of times. What a gift she must have been in her parish. As our poem The Parson’s Job indicates, the value of holding someone’s pain and anger is hugely valuable, and speaking hope into that place of pain would have been her dark privilege.

In our Bible reading, we see Jesus similarly approaching the grieving Mary, coming alongside her with comfort, with hope, and with purpose. Jesus, you see, is a feminist.

Dorothy L Sayers, Somerville Alumna, said this:

Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man – there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.”1

The women who followed him on earth blossomed in his presence. This is God’s purpose for all of us – whatever our gender – that we flourish. Today we have heard many examples of how Coltman flourished as a suffragist, ordained minister, and pacifist, and as a result, others could thrive too.

As we come to the end of our time together, please don’t go away simply feeling that you have celebrated a mere century of something God has intended all along. So I’d like to send you out with this challenge – Where do you feel challenged by Coltman’s legacy? How do you feel about the cause of feminism, about the active and costly pursuit of peace and reconciliation, about the struggle for equal rights? And what will you do about it?


1 SAYERS, Dorothy L. Unpopular Opinions, London, Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1946

St Albert the Great: Scientist and Theologian

A talk delivered at Contemplation by Fr David Goodill OP (Blackfriars) on 28th January 2018


St Albert the Great, born in the early thirteenth century, lived in a world of great social and intellectual change. Trade and commerce were expanding rapidly in Germany leading to the establishment of new urban classes, who challenged the existing feudal system. The Church, bound up with feudalism, was unable to respond to the needs of these new classes, leaving room for the establishment of religious sects, which rapidly expanded to pose a serious threat to the Church. It is in the context of this threat that St Dominic’s project of establishing an international order of preachers takes shape. In his own person St. Dominic combined the contemplative life with the active life, a pattern that would form a response to these changing times. It is this pattern that Albert, his follower, was to adopt in his own life and teachings. From the heart of contemplation the preacher is drawn in charity to the service of others. Through praise and worship of the creator the preacher is lead to participate in His plans for the sanctification of the creation. It is this perspective that informs the life and work of St. Albert, summed up in the following passage taken from his exposition of Aristotle’s metaphysics:

God does not put to rest our desire for knowledge precisely inasmuch as he is God or as a particular nature existing in its own right, but rather inasmuch as he is the highest cause of things, whose knowledge causes being, because this is how he is the principle and light of all that is known, just as an art is the principle and light of all artefacts.’

So when in December 1931, Pope Pius XI declared Albert a Saint and Doctor of the Church it is this vision that the Church was upholding. His subsequent installation by Pius XII as patron of all the natural sciences in 1941 was a bold move during a period when science was abused in the service of war. Albert is the model for the scientist who serves humanity and is motivated above all by a desire to know God through knowing his creation.

Just as in our own time science is perceived to be opposed to theology, in St. Albert’s day the rediscovery of Aristotle’s scientific texts threatened to undermine the predominantly Augustinian tradition of the western Church. The brilliance of St. Albert consisted in not only his integration of Aristotle into the Christian worldview, but his demonstration that the study of created things leads the mind to the creator. For us today, in a world that draws distinctions between faith, science and ethics St Albert stands as a model of someone who through a deep love of God is drawn to understand his creation.

We know little about Albert’s early life, although traditionally he is thought to have been born in Lauingen in the part of Swarbia belonging to Bavaria. Early evidence of his interest in nature can be seen when he describes how he would spend hours watching eagles fight with swans. It is probable that he studied in Padua under the direction of some private master, giving him knowledge of Aristotle’s scientific writings before he entered the Dominican Order. After becoming a Dominican Albert was rapid promoted as a lector to teach his brethren. As lector his main duty was teaching of the bible, followed by exposition of the sentences of Peter Lombard. In between these activities Albert found time to develop his scientific interests. During his early teaching career he composed De Natura Boni, a text which utilized the works of Aristotle already available in Latin, in addition to more standard classical and theological authorities.

Such was the esteem with which Albert was held regarding his wisdom and learning that he was sent to lecture on the sentences in Paris with a view to his becoming a master of theology. At this time Paris was considered to be the leading university. It was organised according to a largely Augustinian scheme, which subordinated all other sciences to theology, itself understood as the authoritative interpretation of scripture. At the time of Albert’s arrival into Paris this conception of theology and the ordering of the sciences was being challenged by the proliferation of alternative traditions of enquiry. Most of these would still fit into a broadly Platonic scheme, for example the Greek mystical theology of Pseudo-Dionysius, with its hierarchical ordering of the cosmos. However, the arrival of almost the entire corpus of Aristotle’s writings was viewed by the authorities as a challenge to this broadly Platonic scheme. Although Aristotle’s thought was often interpreted in a Neo-Platonic manner, the relative independence he gives to the secular sciences caused concern over the claims of theology to be the chief of the sciences.

Even from within the Dominican Order opposition to the development of the new sciences was strong. In the Dominican constitutions of 1228 it is written, “Let not the brethren study the books of the gentiles and the philosophers.” Later Gerard de Frachet was to produce terrible stories warning of those seduced by the ‘witch philosophy’. In these condemnations the Order was following the council of Sens, which in 1210 forbade under pain of excommunication any commenting on the books of Aristotle, though they could be cited. This prohibition was relaxed by Gregory IX, who commuted it to a temporary measure until three masters from the University of Paris could correct these books, a task that proved to be beyond their skill.

This sets the scene for the task facing Albert, for in opposition to this condemnation of Aristotle St Albert, in his commentary on Aristotle’s Physicorum, wrote the following:

Our object in these treaties on natural science is to meet as far as lies in our power, the wishes of the brethren of our Order, who now for several years have been begging us to compile such a book on the things of Nature, as would give them complete natural history, by means of which they could arrive at a sufficient understanding of Aristotle’s writings, Though we do not consider ourselves to be equal to such a work, we could not resist the wishes of the brethren.’

Albert’s appropriation of Aristotle is evident in his earliest Paris writings, the Summa de Creaturis, finished in 1244. In 1245 Albert became a Master of Theology, remaining as regent master until his return to Cologne in 1248, where he was to preside over the newly established studium generale. It is not certain when St Thomas Aquinas became Albert’s student, however, in 1246 we know that Thomas was Albert’s student in Paris copying his lectures on the Celestial Hierarchy of Dionysius.

In 1257 Albert returned to Cologne as lector by March 1258. In 1259 he was appointed by the Master of the Order, Humber of Romans, to be a member of a special commission at the General Chapter of Valenciennes, which was to develop a program for the organisation of studies throughout the order. Thomas Aquinas was also part of this commission, which consisted entirely of Parisian masters, showing the commitment of the order to the Parisian pattern of studies. This commission was to develop a program that would guide the development of studies in the order up to the present time. The measures adopted included a policy for providing a full programme of studies including the secular sciences as well as the science of theology. The commission also stressed the primary importance of study for the order; each province was to have its own studium, with the prior, students and lectors all subordinating other activities to that of study. All the brethren were to attend lectures, and Provincials were ordered to punish severely those students and lectors who neglected study.

Albert could now return to Cologne to supervise the implementation of these plans. His period as lector, however, was curtailed, for in 1260 on the 5th January Alexander IV appointed him bishop of Regensburg. After agonising over whether to accept the bishopric for two months, Albert decided that he could not defy the Pope’s request, so on 30th March 1260 he formally took possession of his see. He set about reforming the diocese both spiritually and materially. Albert travelled around his diocese on foot, earning him the nickname “Bishop Boots” and his reform of the clergy proceeded from his own example.

During this time Albert also continued his philosophical writings, completing a commentary on Euclid and his massive twenty-four volume treaties De Animalibus.

Although an outstanding example of poverty and prayer Albert must have felt uncomfortable in performing the more secular functions of a bishop. Perhaps this is why in the spring of 1261 he set off to Rome with the intention of resigning his sea.

The record of Albert’s last years is sketchy. According to the testimony of Ugo of Lucca he was still teaching in 1277, however, about this time his memory began to fail him. The story that he suddenly lost his memory whist giving a lecture is doubtful, however, during his final years his intellectual powers were waning. He died in the year 1280 in Cologne, already something of a legend in his own lifetime.

St Albert the Great won renown amongst his contempories for his wisdom, learning and prudence. If he was subsequently overshadowed by his pupil Thomas Aquinas, the last hundred years have brought a revival of interest in him. In an age that is rapidly changing due to developments in science and society St Albert provides a true model and patron for the sciences. An example of someone who was able to respond positively to the new science of his day and to bring it into a fruitful relationship with Christian revelation. Someone who entered into deep theological and philosophical reflection through love of God and of his neighbour.

‘What God wants to hear’? : Composition and Faith in the 21st Century

A talk delivered at Contemplation by Professor Guy Newbury (Pembroke) on 22nd October 2017


The voices of two clergymen speak clearly in the memory, unwelcome, to a musician, but impossible to ignore. The first, in one of Oxford’s choral foundations, in the face of a professional (and renowned) choir, tells the congregation that ‘if you are here for the music, you are here for the wrong reason’.

The second clergyman, in response to a genuine enquiry about the desirability to God of the music issuing forth from St Aldates Church, replies ‘you are asking the wrong question’.

The first of these pronouncements invites, initially at least, a near-indignant response. But for the music, why else might we choose to be ‘there’, in a major choral foundation, of all available places of worship in the city? Is it for the joy of the architecture, the spectacle, the incense, the liturgy? It might be for any of these; surely not for the sermon. Perhaps the priest meant to blame those who held as their main point of attraction to the service the desire to hear well-performed music, placing the musical element at the peak of the pyramid, when in his view the music was a mere concomitant. Perhaps he even felt that we (I feel obliged to say ‘we’) were wrong to experience the music as a vessel containing the religious spirit, sealed up inside as it were but able to spill over. It is possible he meant something more puritanical; though one could legitimately ask why a puritanical priest should end up in a musically exalted college chapel.

In the case of the second priest, why did he think it the wrong question? One might say that God ‘wants to hear’ the sounds of creation: the music of the spheres, the sound of wind in the trees, even the grand organ of the sea. But in human terms, it presumably matters to a person of faith to know what God wants of us. There is a well-known story that tells of God, unable to hear the well-rehearsed and resonant younger monks, proceeding to ask for the reinstatement of the cracked voices of the retired team: it was the quality of devotion, and not of the musical delivery that He was able to apprehend. But if sincerity alone counts, and if musical taste and expertise are of no use, why would one trouble to attain excellence in any area of human endeavour?

From the mediaeval period in western European countries, religious music was what composers wrote, and it was natural that it reflected developing techniques and musical trends; the composer placed his art at the service of liturgical need. In the hands of a Renaissance composer such as Ockeghem, the text was expressed through musical richness of invention, rather than direct verbal communication:

Music example: Ockeghem, Missa prolationium, Agnus Dei

The Reformation brought to the fore religious voices that emphasised congregational participation and audibility of words, contrapuntal complexity being shunned. If the complexity of the music, at least for some hearers, served a religious purpose in creating a devotional atmosphere, the Reformation leaders deplored complexity as a vain and sensuous ‘wordly’ element. Music was indeed a channel, but was not invited to obtrude itself.

Traces of this utilitarian approach can be found in churches not immediately touched by the Reformation. Suspicion of music is not confined to Calvinists, any more than it is confined to secular totalitarian leaders. It is said that when Fauré introduced his Requiem at a service in the Madeleine he was quizzed about the nature of the setting and told ‘We have no need of these novelties. The Madeleine’s repertoire is quite rich enough; just content yourself with that’. The curé quoted here may have opposed novelty simply for love of the known ways; or he may have been suspicious of the sensual impact of Fauré’s ‘lullaby of death’.

Are Christians ever right to deplore the sensuous element in music? Osbert Sitwell in his satirical novel Before the Bombardment gives us a description of an Anglican spinster in thrall to the anthem in a cathedral service where the atmosphere, clogged with incense and with the natural colours of objects and people re-tinted by the sunlight striking through the stained glass, is compared to a jungle, the whole experience to some obscurely powerful sub-Saharan rite. There is no doubt that the virginal and somewhat unworldly old lady – portrayed in a generally sympathetic light by Sitwell – is experiencing some kind of sensual fulfilment.

Not all clerics oppose the sensual element in music. Some see it as a way of welcoming little fishes in – a type of bait, sweetening the harsh and difficult message of true religious belief. Among those who disapprove, however, are not only Calvinists but even some musicians with self-imposed standards of musical religiosity. Stravinsky, despite his Russian Orthodox background, wrote a Mass for the Roman Catholic liturgy as an indignant response to the sensuous appeal of Mozart’s masses – ‘sweets of sin’ which made him want to write ‘a Mass of my own, a real one’. The special solemnity of Stravinsky’s religious works is clearly set apart from his dance and theatre music, even if it arguably has its own sensual impact. The musical inference here must be that the sonata-form language of the classical mass settings of Haydn and Mozart, in its consciously beguiling beauty, is indistinguishable from the same composers’ secular concert music and invites non-religious thoughts. That religious music should have an observably different language from secular forms is not an objection felt by some evangelical congregations whose music is of a vernacular type; though Calvin emphasised that liturgical music should be in a different style from secular or popular music, some Protestant churches are happy to fit popular songs and military music with religious words, and even within the Roman Catholic polyphonic tradition, centuries-old examples can be found of secular, even wordly music being used as the basis of the mass, even if it is ultimately subsumed into the polyphonic style (‘Western Wind when wilt though blow/The small rain down can rain/Christ if my love were in my arms and I in my bed again’).

I mentioned the welcoming in of little fishes. Pace Stravinsky, there are priests who encourage the liturgical use of (for example) Schubert’s Masses precisely because of the unleashing of sentiment that they invite; some late 19th –century liturgical music seems positively to flirt with earthy sentimentality – it is even to be found chez such a refined spirit as Fauré, as his Tantum ergo and a number of other motets show.

Music example, Fauré, Maria Mater gratiae

In a more extreme example of the blend of sensuality and faith, Messiaen, compared (by Stravinsky, of course) to a ‘crucifix made of sugar’, communicates a powerful feeling that has been seen as inhuman, expressing blinding theistic certainty despite the confectionery of added-sixth chords.

Context has a part to play in our reception. The greatest religious works often make the transition to the concert hall, and some settle there for good, while music that would never be thought first-rate in a recital or concert can be invaluable for its effectiveness in a religious setting. How many examples of that exist in the Anglican repertory!

A composer today has a special set of problems when writing liturgical music. It cannot be easy to approach with compositional sincerity a text which has been set so many times before, often with clichéd responses to word-painting and expression (one thinks of any number of English-language Magnificat settings). Then there is the difficulty of the musical idiom. Originality so often involves complexity, and even professional or near-professional choirs need extra rehearsal time for anything stretching beyond traditional tonality or modality; the practical constraints are greater than in the instance of writing instrumental music. Even when a composer succeeds brilliantly in reshaping triadic harmonies to form a fresh and resonant language, the result requires considerable adjustment by a choir accustomed to standard repertory. An example might be Jonathan Harvey’s ‘I Love the Lord’, where triads of G major and E flat minor are blended and transfused:

Music example: Harvey, I Love the Lord

the individual lines are eminently singable, but the intended effect calls for interpretative finesse on top of sufficient confidence with the notes. And rehearsal time is at a premium. Even such a fine and essentially approachable piece as ‘I Love the Lord’ remains the preserve of professional groups, and not many of those: it is more likely to be found in a concert programme by the BBC Singers than in a cathedral service.

Recent years have seen a remarkable rise in the popularity of easy-to-sing, easy-to-hear religious music, some of it well-written if derivative, some not very interesting at all. Choirs have seized on it with gratitude, and do not always show discrimination in their choices. One might be glad that composers are fulfilling an immediate need, as was the case from Lassus to J.S. Bach and to an ever-lessening extent since, but one could sometimes question the sincerity of the product. John Rutter stands among the better examples, but watered-down imitations of Rutter must surely pall for congregations – and choirs – with real musical interest.

We find ourselves returning to the question of sincerity, which may apply to the composer as well as the performer. The monks in the anecdote had beautiful voices, but failed to communicate the spirit. Does it matter to God that the choir likes easy-to-sing music if the music itself does not channel a true compositional intention? Of course a derivative composer may begin with sincerity, but once popularity and profit have intervened, it is a question whether it can be sustained for long…

I have touched on the difficulty I see in composing liturgical music today; without wishing to endorse the sceptical curé who questioned the need for Fauré’s Requiem, it can still be said that much of the ground has been well covered. To a composer seeking a truth to express, some individual texts may not find a sincere musical response.

Many years ago I wrote an anthem for Magdalen College choir – that is to say, a devotional rather than a liturgical piece. I have little recollection of my search for a text, only that when I found the poem the piece wrote itself; the language, imagery, and (not least!) the variety of poetic rhythm were all conducive. It was only when reading a monograph on the author of my chosen poem, Henry Vaughan, that I realised the extent the poem expressed a belief in the possibility of religious actuality – not a direct belief in any actuality. The beauty and incipient music of the poem had not been the only draw: the poem had held up a mirror to my unconscious religious feeling at the time.

Music example: Guy Newbury, Midnight

(As for the performability of the work, the then Informator Choristarum at Magdalen approached it judiciously, setting aside a short section of each rehearsal over the period of a term in order to ensure sound progress. Interestingly, the trebles responded to their part without prejudice. Some of the men complained about the intervals.) I remain happy enough with the piece, though it has rarely been revived.

My answer to the first of our quoted clergymen is that it depends what he meant. If he meant to deplore those who mistake a choral service for a concert, he may have a point; even then, can even the individual receptor truly know what he or she is receiving? But to deny the function of music in communicating religious feeling would be wrong, and for some receivers, music is one of the main channels by which it can be felt.

As for what God wants to hear, I suspect that when faced with our own arch-prejudice, we make Him up in our image. Fauré found his period of service at the Madeleine a real penance, according to his biographer Jean-Michel Nectoux: ‘the clergy’s innocently execrable musical taste’ was one of a number of elements that reinforced the composer’s ‘philosophical scepticism’. So it seems that while God can be revealed to the musically receptive through fine music, bad music can make a musician doubt His existence. As musicians, we view God as wanting the best our art can provide.

Silks from Kemp’s travels

Before Kemp died in 1939, she donated the chapel to Somerville. On her death, her collection of art was bequeathed to the Ashmolean museum. This included materials collected from her travels. Her book Wanderings in Chinese Turkestan (1914), describes being given gifts of silk by officials and buying silk in Yarkand – a town on the Silk Road in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China. Much of Kemp’s Ashmolean bequest is undocumented, but one of these silks has Kemp’s name tag in it (see below). I wonder if these articles are the ones she refers to in her writings.

Kemp’s journey through Chinese Turkestan began in 1912 in Leh (Ladakh, India). She climbed some of the highest mountain passes in the world and arrived in Yarkand during the festival of Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan. At Yarkand, Kemp describes attending prayers at the Great Mosque.

Lasser Pass,  Karakoram Range

This painting by Kemp of the ‘Lasser Pass’ in the Karakoram range was exhibited at the Alpine Club, London. The passes were later traversed by Theodore and Kermit, sons of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

Silks bequeathed by E.G. Kemp, donor of Somerville College Chapel in the Ashmolean’s Eastern Art Print Room.

Kemp's bequest.

Kemp's bequestKemp's bequest Kemp's bequestKemp's bequest

‘Buddhism as a religion’ translated by E.G. Kemp, 1910

Somerville’s records show that Kemp translated a book on Buddhism. Until now, I have not been able to find a listing of this book. However in the library of Estlin Carpenter (former Principal of Harris Manchester College and scholar of comparative religion) I found ‘Buddhism as a Religion: its histroical development and its present conditions’ by H. Hackmann (1910). Although not mentioned by name, the author refers to the translator – ‘a lady who herself is personally acquainted with the Far East, having travelled in China twice for a considerable time’ (p.ix). Kemp refers to this volume elsewhere in her writings as a good reference book for further information about Buddhism.

Buddhist shrine by E. G. Kemp

A Buddhist shrine painted by E. G. Kemp at Yen-Tang Shan, China

Somerville Choir Youtube channel soars in popularity


Somerville College Choir’s Youtube channel has had over 150,000 video views. Stefan Schwarz, who maintains and updates the channel, has selected these recent highlights: Tomás Luis de Victoria, O magnum mysterium; Gustav Holst, Turn back, O man; and, Kenneth Leighton, Paean.
Tomás Luis de Victoria, O magnum mysterium

Gustav Holst, Turn back, O man

Kenneth Leighton, Paean


Mindfulness at Somerville College Chapel

Venerable Dhammasami

On Sunday 21st of October, 2012, Venerable Dhammasami, Buddhist Chaplain to the University of Oxford, spoke in Somerville College Chapel on the benefits of mindfulness and meditative awareness. In the following weeks he kindly gave further instruction on mindfulness techniques to interested students. More information about Venerable Dhammasami and his tradition can be found here:

Mindfulness – a Christian perspective

Shaun Lambert, is Senior Minister of Stanmore Baptist Church, and part of the New Wine leader’s network. He is the author of A Book of Sparks, A Study in Christian MindFullness, published by Instant Apostle.

On Sunday 4th November, 2012, Shaun kindly gave this address in Somerville College Chapel.

Imagine that you are not in England on a cold autumn day, but that you are in Paris on a warm spring day. You are sitting in a street cafe, with someone you love beside you, perhaps your young children playing in the square in front of you. You have a cup of coffee, glass of beer or wine to savour slowly. It is a perfect doorway into the present moment, and present moment awareness which is mindfulness.

 But you can’t enter that doorway because you are in a limited place, a place limited by anxiety, fear and stress. Your mind is elsewhere ruminating negatively about something in the past or something in the future.

 Seven years ago I was in that place and unable to enter that beautiful doorway into the present moment, and the lives of those around me, because of stress.

 Martin Laird (O.S.A.) in his beautiful book Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation says that in order to enter that doorway into the present moment, we need to be able to answer this riddle: Am I my thoughts and feelings? Are you your thoughts and feelings?

 The central insight of mindfulness, and Buddhists, Christians and psychologists can all agree on this, is that we are bigger than our thoughts and feelings; they are discrete events in our minds. We can observe our thoughts and feelings and decentre from them. We might want to say from a Christian perspective that they are part of us, but they are not us.

 This is very important because if we are totally identified with our thoughts, and see them as a direct readout of reality then we become the victim of our thoughts and not the witness of them. We react automatically to our thoughts rather than responding compassionately.

 For example in Romans 12:2, Paul tells us, ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…’ Our thoughts and feelings are often shaped by our culture into narcissistic, competitive, fearful or consumerist patterns. This verse enables us to witness our thoughts, enables us to decentre from them.

 Paul follows this up in 2 Corinthians 10:5, where he says, ‘take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.’ This verse also enables us to disarm our thoughts, notice them, but let them go.

 Mindfulness is not about avoiding difficult reality, but about facing it head on.

 Mark’s Gospel also tells us that we don’t see clearly. At the beginning of the Gospel Jesus tells people to repent, the word metanoiete is about having a new mind.

 In Mark 4 there is a small kingdom parable which takes up the theme of the more famous ‘Seed and the Sower’ parable which it follows. It begins with the idea of bringing in a lamp, ‘Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed?’ (Mark 4:21)

 The lamp, like the seed, refers to the Word of God. Psalm 119:105 says ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.’ In the one reality we all experience there is a hidden spiritual dimension. One day says Jesus what is hidden will be revealed (v.22). As biblical scholar Joel Marcus says, Jesus lifts the curtain on the End, a universe filled with light, and then closes the curtain again.

Because of the hidden nature of this spiritual reality Jesus’ constant refrain is, ‘If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear’ (Mark 4:23). That is a clue to us that our perceiving of reality is not automatic, or necessarily right.

 Jesus underlines this in the next verse (v.24) which reads literally in the Greek, ‘See what you hear.’ The Greek word here is blepete which is used repeatedly throughout Mark’s Gospel as a word about watchfulness, and spiritual perception.

 It was contemplative practices seven years ago that enabled me to find the doorway to present moment awareness and to decentre from my afflictive thoughts and feelings. Soon after that day in Paris, whilst on sabbatical, a small book called The Jesus Prayer by Simon Barrington Ward, former Bishop of Coventry, leapt off the shelf at me.

This ancient, repetitive, contemplative prayer, said with the breath goes, ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ It enabled me to decentre from my anxious thoughts, and enter into the healing presence of God.

 At the same time I was studying counselling and psychotherapy at Roehampton University, and came upon mindfulness in psychology. Mindfulness as present moment awareness is a universal human capacity, and it can be arrived at through mindful awareness or meditative practices. Within modern psychology these practices have Buddhist roots, but are not religious or spiritual but entirely reality focused. They include attending to your breath, the mindful eating of a raisin, and mindful walking.

 But there are other practices that bring us into a state of mindfulness.  These include poetry. Daniel Siegel, interpersonal neurobiologist did some work with the Irish Catholic scholar/philosopher/poet John O’Donohue. Daniel Siegel says that ‘poets have found a way to use words to free our minds, to clear our vision, to create mindfulness in the moment.’

 One of the elements in this is the ambiguity of the words in poetry. The riddles and parables of Jesus have the same effect on their hearers.

 Nature poets and writers have the same mindful attentiveness and awareness. Miriam Darlington in her book Otter Country: in search of the wild otter, becomes the otter as she writes: ‘In a last sliver of reflected light, something on the water distracts me. It’s moving like an animal but made out of liquid. It ripples for a moment and leaves the hint of a wake. A long mud-brown slither slowly becomes more creature than branch. I see a smooth head; the contours of a brown face with ears, whiskers and the dark holes of two nostrils flowing purposefully downstream. The barely perceptible bump of its dive and a lingering tail-tip convince me.  An otter. So strange and subtle that I could almost have imagined it.’ (pp. 73-74)

 She also mindfully notices that otters like to make their holts (dens) under ash trees…

 Present moment awareness is part of Christian mindfulness, as is decentring from our thoughts. Jesus goes on to give us another important insight in the next verses, Mark 4: 24-25.

 ‘With the measure you use it will be measured to you – and even more. Whoever has will be given more, whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.’

 Here Jesus brings together the two main themes of chapter 4, the good soil of the attentive listener, and the insight and revelation that comes from attending to the Word.

 The more attentive you are as a listener (the measure you use), the more insight and revelation (it) you receive. Attentive listening to the Word is part of Christian mindfulness. But, as biblical scholar Joel Marcus points out, this is divine overcompensation. Like Emily Dickinson’s poem number 323:

As if I asked a common Alms,

And in my wondering hand

A Stranger pressed a kingdom

And I, bewildered stand –

We don’t control this; there are no techniques to control God and His kingdom. We can only put ourselves in the right place.

In Mark’s Gospel that is the place of silence, solitude and listening to God as mirrored for us by Jesus the contemplative.

 ‘Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.’ (Mark 1:35)

 We are to put ourselves in the ‘unlimited place where God is,’ to use Olivier Clement’s phrase. More than that, the outrageous claim of Christianity is that we can become the unlimited place where God is. Not that we can become God, but that we can become like His Son, Christ-like.  We can be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19). This is Christian MindFullness.

 Emily Dickinson’s poem continues:

As if I asked the Orient
Had it for me a Morn—
And it should lift its purple Dikes,
And shatter me with Dawn!

At the end of the Gospel of Mark the women go to contemplate the empty tomb, and meet an Angel, a messenger of God. The angel enables them to see reality through the eyes of God. Contemplation says, Enzo Bianchi, founder of the Bose Community, is seeing through the eyes of God.

The new dawn of the resurrection and the reality of the empty tomb shatter the women disciples. They leave filled with numinous awe, trembling and bewildered, full of ekstasis, from which we get our word ecstasy.

They are silent. The cross and the resurrection, says Mark, is the place of the fullest insight and revelation. It is the place where our limited humanity is drawn into the unlimited love of God. This is Christian mindFullness.