College Chapel, King's College London, The Strand, London

College Chapel, King's College London, The Strand, London


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Mystery Worshipper: Og the King of Bashan
Church: College Chapel
Location: King's College London, The Strand, London
Date of visit: Tuesday, 7 November 2006, 5:30pm

The building

A Victorian fantasy on Romanesque Byzantine, built in 1864 by the noted Victorian gothic revivalist George Gilbert Scott. The chapel is on the first floor of the original 1830s building of King's College London, which itself hides behind a disheartening black concrete brutalist faade. Once you get past that, and go up the imposing classical staircase, you find the chapel. It's a fairly large rectangular hall, newly gleaming with gold and red on the pillars and brand new stained glass in the semicircular apse. The apse itself has a very English-looking ermine-clad Christos Pantokrator. There's also a big Victorian Willis organ on the west wall, gleaming with dusty Victorian gold decoration on the pipes. As if that wasn't enough decoration, there are ivory-coloured roundels with painted doctors of the Church and Anglican divines set into the rich red and green tiles in between the pillars of the side arcades. Sadly, the original vaulted ceiling has been lowered to provide room for laboratories above. The whole building does create a gentle sense of awe without being overpowering.

The church

King's College chaplaincy serves an academic community of over 25,000, scattered over five campuses throughout London. The college itself is nominally part of the wider federal University of London but is effectively a separate university in its own right.

The neighborhood

This is the very heart of London, overlooking the Thames and a ten-minute stroll from Trafalgar Square. The gothic spires of the Royal Courts of Justice are a few hundred yards down the road, and culture vultures can walk over to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, equally close. Presiding over the entrance to the college is the beautiful 18th century church of St-Mary-le-Strand, somewhat choked by traffic. And all this architectural fantasia is further tempered by the filth of the streets outside and the glimpses of poverty around Charing Cross.

The cast

The Rev. Tim Ditchfield, chaplain, and the Rev. Dr Richard Burridge, Dean of King's College.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Evensong

How full was the building?

In a chapel that could seat a couple of hundred, there were about 15 in the congregation and 20 in the choir. But the collegiate-style seating, with the congregation facing each other, made it more intimate.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. While I was sitting in a pew looking at the architecture, the chaplain came over to me with a friendly smile and an order of service.

Was your pew comfortable?

I've sat in worse, but it was a standard plain Victorian wooden bench.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Twenty minutes before the service it was somewhat chaotic. It seemed that there had been an escape of water through the ceiling, perhaps from one of the labs upstairs. The north (cantoris) choir stalls were somewhat drenched, and a small bevy of cleaners were mopping up furiously, all the time casting suspicious glances to the heavens. When the inundation had been cleared away, relative peace returned and the small congregation came in, chattering quietly to one another. The choir came in small groups to lay their music out, then disappeared again. The organist began to play a quietly chromatic improvisation which came to a climax as the choir and clergy processed in.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"O Lord, open thou our lips" (evensong was according to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer). After the preces, the chaplain welcomed us to the service and gently teased the dean for not being present at more Tuesday evensongs.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Book of Common Prayer and a specially printed service sheet with the readings in full. It also had many helpful directions as to when to sit and stand for those not familiar with the joy of evensong! The Bible was the English Standard version, the latest update of the RSV.

What musical instruments were played?

Just the organ – and a fine organ it was, too, being largely based around the original 19th century Willis instrument. It accompanied a superb mixed choir of about 20 voices. The majority were undergraduates by the look of things.

Did anything distract you?

During the Magnificat, which was making my heart sing with joy, an ominous drip drip drip of water started making its way from the ceiling down to the heads of the tenors. Consummate professionals that they were, they simply moved out of the way of the growing puddle.

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

Oxbridge-style collegiate evensong, with black scholars' gowns for the choir, and cassock, surplice and scarf (but no hoods!) for the dean and chaplain. It was simultaneously austere and sumptuous, as with the best evensongs. Much of the service was unaccompanied and based around elaborations of plainsong melodies. A rare unaccompanied Latin Nunc dimittis by the 19th century Englishman Charles Wood was a fine counterpart to a sublime Magnificat by that Renaissance man Orlande de Lassus. I felt the juxtaposition was highly appropriate in that architectural setting. And the anthem was Justorum animae by William Byrd, a Catholic at the heart of the English Reformation establishment.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

No sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The choral music was heavenly. But as we sang the hymn "Of the Father's heart begotten" (the original text of which dates from the 4th century) I looked up and saw three portraits above the arcade: the Renaissance doctor of the Church Richard Hooker, Pope Gregory the Great, and the post-Reformation defender of Anglican doctrine Lancelot Andrewes. It was heavenly to think that these seemed to sum up the way academic studies can transcend boundaries of nationality, denomination, and even time.

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

A member of the congregation behind me seemed to be under the impression that the polyphonic settings of the preces and responses were intended for congregational participation. Luckily, the sound of the choir largely drowned out his wavering growls.

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

After the organ postlude (an excellent Bach fugue) a very friendly theology student said hello and welcomed me to the chapel. We rapidly got to talking about matters Greek and theological. I was very sorry to have to leave!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No after-service refreshment.

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

8 – Sadly, I'm not in London as often as I'd like. But I'll certainly be popping back when I can to hear the splendid choir and to enjoy the friendly welcome!

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

Definitely. I felt it helped me connect with a tradition that spans not only the couple of centuries that the chapel itself has existed, but with a whole continuity of worship and learning that goes back millennia.

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

Drip... drip... drip... "One deep calleth another, because of the noise of the water pipes" (Psalm 42:9)!

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