Clifton College Chapel, Bristol

Guthrie Memorial Chapel, Clifton College, Bristol, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Guthrie Memorial Chapel
Location: Clifton College, Bristol, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 January 2011, 10:00am

The building

A grade II listed building in the Decorated Gothic Revival style, built in 1867 to architect Charles Hansom's original design. It was the gift of Mrs Guthrie, the widow of Canon Guthrie, formerly chairman of the council. Hansom was given permission to quarry sufficient stone from the college grounds for the purposes of the chapel building. Topped by a copper-clad lantern, the nave is octagonal with pews to the sides facing in, with canopied rear thrones (one of which is the headmaster's stall) either side of the door. Stained glass windows include King Arthur and Sir Galahad, dating from the Boer War. Pevsner praises it as "a unique design and one of outstanding merit."

The church

Clifton College is one of England's leading public schools. Originally for boys, about a third of the pupils are girls. The upper school has 720 pupils, the prep school 400 and the pre-prep 250. For 125 years, there was a Jewish House offering kosher food and a synagogue, but this closed in 2005 owing to lack of numbers. Now that parents visit more frequently, a school has to be within 90 minutes drive to make it viable. Pupils are encouraged to undertake volunteer placements in the local community. These include working with the disabled, in schools, hospitals, on the sports fields, in drama and music performance and with local charities.

The neighborhood

John Betjeman described Clifton as "the handsomest suburb in Europe." Immediately opposite the college is Clifton Zoo. The downs are not far away and, sadly, a nearby road was the scene of a murder investigation over Christmas.

The cast

The Revd Kim Taplin, chaplain, conducted the service. The preacher was Lionel Kopelowitz, MD, a retired general practitioner and an old Cliftonian who has served on the General Medical Council and British Medical Journal. He is vice president of the Council of Christians and Jews and former president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

What was the name of the service?

Upper School Service.

How full was the building?

Absolutely full - about 750 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

The chaplain shook my hand as I entered.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pupils sit in pews but visitors sit on plastic chairs in the chancel. These are comfortable enough but I would not want to sit on one for a longer time.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Lively chatter. As one who has taught in comprehensive schools for over 30 years, I am used to pre-assembly noise and am pleased to discover that this is not unique to the state sector.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Please be seated. Good morning and welcome to the first service of the year."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Pupils had the Clifton College hymns and service books. Visitors had a leaflet, which, I am glad to say, had the hymn tunes as well as the words.

What musical instruments were played?


Did anything distract you?

Only my immature fantasy of expecting to see the Hogwarts Sorting Hat suddenly descend.

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

Formal but relaxed and friendly.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

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

7 – Dr Kopelowitz was clearly very much at home at his own school. He kept to a script (since, he told me later, he had been asked to keep strictly to time as there was a prep school service scheduled later in the morning) but this did not inhibit him from making eye contact with the congregation.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

During the Bude evacuation (several bombs fell on the Clifton campus during World War II and the school was evacuated to the nearby town of Bude), the Jewish pupils mixed with the gentiles more than hitherto. This amounted to pioneering inter-faith dialogue. The Council of Christians and Jews was set up in the darkest days of the war and has an important role to play in fostering understanding and countering anti-Semitism. Pupils were encouraged to take an interest in its work and to prove themselves to be, in the words of the previous day's Torah portion, men (and women) of courage and vision.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Some pupils followed the posture of everybody else but did not join in the singing or praying. Remembering school assemblies where pupils have been forced to join in, I like the colleges acceptance of pupils' rights to freedom of belief. The service respected the presence of Jews by being Jesus-lite and selecting readings from the Hebrew scriptures. The two anthems by the 35-strong choir were sung well. The readings were from the King James Version. Both readers tackled their task with intelligence so we could understand without too much effort. The service lasted exactly 45 minutes. As someone who gets bored with long services, I thought this was excellent.

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

The top button of my shirt detached itself on my way to the chapel and I was anxiously trying to cover this by adjusting my tie. Staff, pupils and visitors were well-dressed so I felt somewhat conspicuous.

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

Some people whom I recognised came over and talked to me. Then the preacher engaged me in discussion about Christian-Jewish relations for quite some time.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Very good quality with nice biscuits. No sherry with the headmaster, though!

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

7 – However, I probably couldn't attend on a regular basis unless I had a child at the school. Given the fees, that isn't likely.

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


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

The teachers who, in gowns and hoods, seemed to relate to the pupils with courtesy and respect.

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