Seven Perspectives on College Chapels

Sam Fitzgerald 13 November 2019
Image Credit: Picryl

Chapels, along with the wider collegiate system, are a peculiarity particular to Cambridge, Oxford and a few colleges at Durham.

Most were originally central to their college, but should they be jettisoned as the country becomes both less Christian and less religious as a whole? Some colleges in the ‘other one’ have taken just that approach, turning their chapels into a dining hall or a library. But what do students make of college chapels? I interviewed seven students from across the university to find out.

Thomas: “I like the tradition; I think it’s a nice thing.”

Thomas is a second-year historian at Johns, and describes himself as “probably nowadays agnostic.” He attended a Church of England primary school, but stopped being religious around age eight, and says that having studied Biblical texts as part of the History Tripos, he realises that “The characterisation of Christianity that I have, what was given to me as a six to eleven-year-old, is just not suited.” Thomas goes to occasional Evensongs and the Remembrance Day service; “it’s nice to be able to do that as opposed to going to church where you don’t know anyone – I wouldn’t do it.” He also comments on the welfare provision of the chapel. “The fact it’s religious is important, or has some sort of philosophical, moral bent to it as opposed to a clinical, medical approach.” He stresses that “there is a big difference between chapel and faith,” commenting on the role of chapel in marking important college events such as matriculation and graduation. “It’s utterly fundamental to the operation of the college.”

Annika: “It’s our chapel, it’s what students make of it.”

Annika is a second-year HSPS student at Selwyn. She grew up in a Christian family going to Church but says that, compared to her “very open” church at home, “I found that some of the student Churches I went to didn’t feel like inclusive spaces” for the LGBT community. She has instead found that inclusive space in Selwyn chapel. “Everyone there is really lovely, super open, super nice. Hugh [the chaplain] especially is very clear on the fact that it’s an inclusive space for everyone.” She stresses that “chapel can be what[ever] students need. For some people I know that it’s just literally a quiet scheduled time in their timetable when they’re not doing work and they’re not stressed, and they can just be and listen to the music. And then for other people it can be a space to ask questions about faith. For me it can be a space for building a relationship with God.” She adds, “I’d miss it and I think the student community benefits from it.”

Imane: “It reminds me that there’s more to life than our daily endeavours.”

Imane, a third-year linguistics student at Selwyn, was brought up a Muslim, but says that having grown up in Italy “I have probably gone to more churches than mosques in my life.” It is in fact since coming to Cambridge that she has had “more of an ongoing discussion with Muslims” and “discovered all the diversity of Muslim thought.” It may have something to do with her familiarity with church architecture at home, but she tells me “I chose Selwyn because of the chapel; I swear to you! When I saw the buildings the first thing that struck me was the chapel.” That closeness to the chapel has remained. “When I feel like it, I go to evensong, just to sit there. And I remember at the freshers’ service when the chaplain gave his talk, I was deeply touched by its universal message. My reading [of the speech] was deeply spiritual, because I think about life’s spiritually.” She argues seeing the chapel each day “gives you a constant reminder of the hereafter. It reminds you that there’s more to life than daily life itself, which is particularly important to remember in frantic Cambridge. We’re easily overwhelmed by things.”

Tom: “Now that I sing in chapels, I feel a certain attachment to churches through the music.”

Tom is a third-year Music student at Queens. He describes himself as having been “a bit anti-church between 13 years old and coming to Cambridge,” but now finds himself at home in not one but two college chapels, having switched choir to Selwyn last year. He says “I’m involved in Selwyn chapel more than I am with Queens’ chapel because I sing there, but Queens’ chapel has a special place in my heart because it’s where I properly discovered choral music.” Music is key to the chapel experience for Tom, who says “I never go to services that aren’t sung, and that relates to how I think music is spiritual.” He also underlines the open, inclusive nature of chapels, which is often contrary to appearances. Having previously felt excluded from churches because of “anti-gay” rhetoric, he says “It was nice to feel welcomed into a space where I previously hadn’t felt welcome.” He says this welcome really is universal, despite appearances.

Max: “For believers it’s a place of solitude and a place where you can come and pray.”

Max is a third-year Music student at Pembroke. He grew up in a Christian family and developed a stronger faith in his teens. However, since coming to Cambridge, “one thing that has changed is the broadness of what it looks like to have a relationship with Jesus. The churches I previously attended were both fairly charismatic Evangelical Churches, as is Holy Trinity. I love the style of worship, and I think growing up I thought that [‘high church’] people were potentially missing out on the joy. But I think being here, I’ve seen how some just really engage with that style of worship.” Although Max has been more involved in the Christian Union than with chapel, he also values the collaboration between the two at Pembroke. “We do things like pray together once a term, and we have sometimes contributed to chapel services by giving readings… and we’ve used the chapel for the odd event.”

Alex: “I engage with it because I like the music […] and the atmosphere as well.”

Alex, a third-year medic at Selwyn, says he grew up in a fairly atheist environment, aside from “the occasional Easter talk” at school and the “stereotypical English village vicar who doesn’t talk about God much” at home. In this vein he has “zero interaction with other churches and chapels in Cambridge.” However, he does attend chapel services now and then. “I go to services occasionally on Sundays – evensongs – and then I go to most choral Complines […] for the music rather than the religious aspect.” He also comments on the role of the chaplain in college, who he says is “more of a pastoral care chaplain than a religious leader, to me anyway. I don’t use his services of pastoral care very much but I certainly support them being there.” Overall, Alex believes that chapels “contribute a lot to the way the college works and the experience. Even if you’re just going along for the music it has something that’s quite special really.”

Maya: “I think it’s something people would value at Homerton”

Maya, a third-year Theologian at Homerton, says that growing up she “didn’t have much religious affiliation,” but is disappointed that Homerton doesn’t have a chapel. Although the choir do sing at services in the Church across the road, “They don’t really advertise that kind of stuff – it’s mostly for the choirs.” Maya thinks “students from all kinds of backgrounds would be really interested in attending if they knew about it,” adding that “chapels in other colleges seem to be quite integral to a student’s experience.” She mentions the “gorgeous” architecture and “incredible” music, as well as the “ritual” and “routine” it would bring. She also says “a chaplain definitely is lacking”. She knows this because “I’ve been lucky enough to be supervised by a couple of chaplains and they’ve all been absolutely brilliant in terms of their approach to pastoral stuff and welfare.” Although she has enjoyed going to services at other college chapels, it’s not quite the same as having a chapel of one’s own. “For those who are new to Cambridge or are just settling into college life, it might be nice to have it on-site so it’s less daunting and you don’t have to go out of your way… when I first walked into a chapel in Cambridge it was quite overwhelming.”

Imane Bou-Saboun, Tom Chesworth, Alex Craggs, Thomas Hawthorn, Annika Hi, Max McLeish and Maya Yousif were interviewed between the 19th and 22nd of October.