Freshers' Sermon – The Chaplain

‘As a piece of simple decorative and beautiful art it is perfect, and the windows very artistic.’ This is how Oscar Wilde described this Chapel, believe it or not, and you can’t really see the windows at the moment, but it is very good to welcome all new-comers to Chapel and welcome back those who are returning for another year. It’s always a very special date in the academic calendar to welcome new students, staff, fellows, choristers, parents and families who will be sharing life together in this college, of which this Chapel has been a part for generations. The history of this Chapel is nothing without the community it serves, for this building has been focus for people’s prayers, profound life events and worship. It’s story is composed of the many thousands of students, fellows, staff, choristers, parents and visitors of all kinds who have come here and found it a place to be still, or to celebrate or to mourn.

So, tonight I do not wish to give you words of advice for the coming year, or even preach to you about how you should behave or what is expected of you. I wish simply to explore together what it means to be in this place and what it might mean to you in the coming months and years. Because, as I was considering the place of the Chapel in the life of this college I came across those words from Jeremiah from the set lectionary readings for this evening: ‘Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord” and it struck me that they apply directly to the place in which we sit, which was designed, in part, to resemble a temple. To quote from Dr. Gillingham’s guide to the Chapel:

‘If you stand at the very back of the Chapel, you can see that its layout is like an ancient Temple, with its sixteen pillars, pilasters and ornate capitals. The space divides into three: by the door is the ‘antechamber’ (outer Temple court); the middle is the nave (inner court); and the altar end is the chancel (‘holy of holies’). The Chapel’s prototype is the Jewish Temple, whose founder was King David, and whose executor, King Solomon. Walk up to the middle window on the North (left) side to see both David and Solomon in the gold-leaf frieze under the window: Solomon is ahead of David, and he is holding a model of the Temple. Look up to the dome: there four of the most important kings of Jerusalem look down on you: you should be able to David and Solomon there as well, with Hezekiah and Josiah, later reformers of the Jerusalem Temple.
If you now walk back to the antechamber and look around the walls, you’ll see there a good deal of Jewish imagery – the cherubim over the Ark, the seven-branched candlestick, the scrolls of the law and the Ten Commandments – set amidst skins and curtains which make the whole space resemble ancient Israel’s Tent of Meeting.’

So William Burges, in his decoration on the 1860s wished us to imagine ourselves in the Jewish Temple here, and yet so much of the ornate decoration is overtly Christian. It has been described therefore as ‘A Temple Masking a Church’ and perhaps Burges was trying to show us that Jesus is the ‘new temple’, where God meets humanity and this Chapel represents that encounter of the divine with our human lives. So are we in a Church then? The answer is no. As a Chapel we are not under the authority of the Church of England or the Diocese of Oxford, we do not have to pay a parish share because we are not a parish church. If you wish to get married here, you do not have your banns read out as in a parish church, you have to apply for a special licence from the Archbishop of Canterbury, for this is, in legal and ecclesiastical terms, a private Chapel, albeit open to the public. For those of you here, it is your chapel, and whenever you return you will be welcomed back.

So what does this place mean to us? In a sense the Chapel is a meeting place like many others in college where communal events happen: the dining hall, the bar, seminar rooms, JCR, MCR, shared kitchens and so on; it is a place where we hear concerts, watch plays and hear talks; it is one of the places in which enhances that sense of community through gathering. Of course, the chapel is a place of worship, day in and day out, where regular services sing the praises of God and many special occasions are marked at wedding and baptism and funerals. At times of sadness the chapel becomes a focus for members of college, perhaps lost in isolation, sorrow or grief, as Philip Larkin wrote in his poem, Church Going:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.

But the serious moments are mixed with the light-hearted in the decoration of this Chapel and there is much humour in Burges’ work, reflecting the truth that all life passes through this place and moments of joy and laughter are marked just as moments of sadness. Our community here and this place help each build the identity of the other over time.

But I wish to emphasise another aspect of this building, which I hope you will use in your time here. It is a house of prayer and the spiritual centre of the College. Come here to meditate or to pray, to worship or to reflect, to have some time aside from the frantic busy-ness of term.

This is a place where you do not come to be judged or to judge. It is a space into which you can come just as you are and find acceptance and understanding. It is a room that has been set aside and consecrated, for the past 300 years, and another just like it for many centuries before that, to represent something of the timeless truth of God’s love for us, depicted as it is on the walls of this chapel and in the windows, in the story of Jesus Christ who gave himself for us and gave us an example of Christian living. To use this place takes time and the time we spend here, whether in silent contemplation, as a community, sharing words or listening to music, reflects the truth that, to believe in the faith that this building represents, counter-cultural though that may be in some ways today, is to be part of a body of people, the body of Christ of earth, who have gone before us, and millions more who will come after us. We are only here to dwell in this moment of space and time and encounter the ineffable, inexpressible reality of God. Each time we come here we are challenged and encouraged to look deeper into our faith and our doubts, to discover, once again, a glimpse of the mystery and the glory of God and to take that out into the world so that we may see that God’s redemption is there for all places.

Two weeks ago members of the choir were in the South of France at a specialist music summer school and we were given some coaching by a former singing colleague of mine, Francis, who helped the choir find a deeper level of communication and responsiveness in their singing and to find the essence of what each composer has written on the page of music. But Fran started the session by quoting T.S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ from his Four Quartets, in order to offer a sense of what the choral music might mean within the Chapel setting and I think it summarises what I want to express tonight so I will share it with you as we start this new academic year together:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.


Rev’d Dr Jonathan Arnold
7th October 2012

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