Kings College Chapel, Cambridge

King's College Chapel, Cambridge, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: King's College Chapel
Location: Cambridge, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 16 April 2017, 10:30am

The building

It is a building famous all over the world, and regarded as one of the most important examples of Tudor architecture. I've never been able to take the exterior quite as seriously as I perhaps should ever since hearing it described as resembling a "supine sow." Once inside, however, I find it impossible not to be awestruck by the magnificent fan vaulting (the largest in the world), and the stunning 16th century glass. The installation of the Reubens Adoration of the Magi as an altarpiece in 1968 was controversial, as it required a significant reordering of the sanctuary. I'm afraid I am of the opinion that the altarpiece and chapel are two masterpieces that, combined, add to less than the sum of their parts.

The church

The chapel has been an integral part of Kings College since its foundation in the mid 15th century. Oxbridge college chapels have to balance the two roles of ministering to the college community and to the wider public. I think it safe to say that Kings errs on the side of the latter. In particular, its Christmas service of Nine Lessons and Carols is listened to by millions of people throughout the world.

The neighborhood

Kings Parade is the epicentre of Cambridge. Kings College borders several other colleges, as well as the University Senate House (where graduations take place), and the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, as well as several shops aimed at separating tourists from their money.

The cast

The celebrant and preacher was the chaplain, the Revd Andrew Hammond. He was assisted by by the Revd Dr Stephen Cherry, dean, acting as deacon, and Prof. Robin Osborne, FBA, acting as subdeacon. Two other priests (an elderly man and a younger woman) were vested in albs and stoles but played no role other than to assist with the distribution of communion. There were also seven or so servers, including a thurifer, boat girl, crucifer, two acolytes, and torchbearers. An unnamed fellow of the college read a lesson. The choir was conducted by Stephen Cleobury, CBE, director of music.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Eucharist.

How full was the building?

The main body of the chapel was completely full. In addition, I estimated that there were between 30 and 60 people in overflow seating in the antechapel.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. As a graduate of the University of Cambridge, I was not bothered. Those in other seats were given little speeches that were roughly 25 per cent welcome and 75 per cent passive-aggressive warnings not to misbehave.

Was your pew comfortable?

The seats for graduates of the University who are not Kingsmen or women consist of individual seats behind the choir, and underneath those for members of the college. They do rather give the feeling of being entombed in dark wood, but they are reasonably comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

We had to queue outside, with some people arriving hours before the service. The general atmosphere was excited, with perhaps a slight air of annoyance. Once we were let in, there was rush to find seats, but this was largely done without any irreverence. This happened whilst the organist played three preludes by Bach, Vierne and Messiaen.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"This joyful Eastertide, away with sin and sorrow." These words were the opening of the introit anthem, which was not announced. It was followed immediately by the hymn "Jesus Christ is risen today." The first spoken words were "In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

In my stall there were copies of the New English Hymnal and a book of the psalms in the Coverdale translation. However, these were not used. A bespoke service leaflet included the words to all the hymns, the two readings (from the Authorized or King James Version), and the liturgy. This included bits of the Book of Common Prayer and was in the basic shape of the modern Western rite common to most Anglican and Roman Catholic eucharistic services rendered into cod-Cranmerian language, but the eucharistic prayer was unfamiliar to me. It did not come from either of the authorized books of the Church of England, nor was it from the English or Anglican Missal. A bit of Googling revealed that it was the Second Eucharistic Prayer from the Book of Alternative Services. It was no wonder that I hadnt heard this, as it hasn't actually been authorized for use since the introduction of Common Worship in 2000.

What musical instruments were played?

The chapel organ, a positive organ, two violins, a viola, a cello, and a double bass. The justly famous chapel organ is magnificent and massive: four manuals and 79 speaking stops. It contains pipework dating back to the 17th century, but its present form is largely the result of a rebuilding by Harrison and Harrison in 1934. The chapel organ was played for the three organ preludes, the voluntary, an improvisation during the service, and to accompany the hymns. This was the first time I'd heard the organ since a restoration in 2016, and to my non-expert ears it sounded very fine indeed. The chamber organ and string quintet accompanied the mass setting.

Did anything distract you?

Many, many things. I'm naturally distractible, and collegiate seating only encourages this. I was distracted by looking at the glorious glass windows, and by wondering what degrees were represented by the various gowns worn by the fellows. I must also say that I was distracted by the fact that some of the choral scholars were extremely good-looking. But these are glorious distractions, and I like to think that – like the speaker in Betjeman's Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican – I glimpsed in them a hint of the unknown God.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Cambridge College chapels tend to be on the higher side of middling. And Kings in particular has a long reputation as being somewhat Anglo-Catholic. The presence of a priest in religious orders as chaplain may be seen as a continuation of this tradition. However, the liturgy, whilst definitely high Anglican, stopped just short of the Anglo-Catholic. There were three sacred ministers, and incense, and even chants from the Graduale Romanum. The collect, sursum corda, and preface were chanted, but the epistle and gospel were said. There were none of the interpolations one would find in an Anglo-Catholic parish: no Orate fratres, no Ecce Agnus Dei, no prayers for the dead, no Marian language, and no reference to the eucharist as a sacrifice.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – Father Hammond was struggling against an acoustic that favours singing but not the spoken word. He did a reasonably good job of speaking clearly but it wasn't always possible to understand him. Presumably because of these acoustic problems, printed copies of the sermon were handed out. Reading it again, I can see that it was literate, humane, and generous in its orthodoxy. But it was also somewhat convoluted, and made the type of leaps that might be easy to follow in the context of an academic seminar, but more challenging at Sunday morning worship.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The Resurrection. This, he said, was the centre of the Christian faith. Despite this, none of the evangelists describe the event itself; and even when describing the events surrounding it, they often disagree, although they all agree it was an act of paramount importance. This is important not because it casts doubt on the Resurrection, but because it shows how human language struggles and ultimately fails to comprehend the actions of God. But this very struggle allows us to enter imaginatively into the reality of the Resurrection, as mystics and artists have throughout Christian history. This was followed by a discussion of the portraits of Mary Magdalene by the 15th century Venetian painter Giovanni Savoldo, one of which was reproduced on the cover of the order of service. Father Hammond noted that Savoldo blended the iconography of Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of Jesus, two of the first people to hear of the Resurrection. He claimed that there is a tradition, particularly amongst Eastern Orthodox Christians, of seeing in the two Marys a type of the universal Church, and so we share with them in the good news of the Resurrection.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music, and the light of an April morning pouring through the glass.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The use of an unauthorized liturgy was more bemusing than hellish. However, the "welcome," such as it was, made me feel more like a tourist than a worshipper.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Everyone in a great procession. There were people to take a retiring collection, and to hand out copies of the sermon, but there was no encouragement to stick around and every encouragement to leave.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

None was on offer.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

0 – The service was glorious aesthetically and stimulating intellectually, but even a misanthrope like myself would like something more in the way of a community feel.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, and it made me specifically glad for the aesthetic heritage of Anglicanism.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The music, and the art history lesson in the sermon.

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