Merton College Chapel, Oxford, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Merton College Chapel
Location: Oxford, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 3 November 2019, 5:30pm

The building

The pattern for all college chapels – but accidentally. It is just the choir of a much larger church planned in the 13th century. Inside, it is all periods, but preserves the feeling of enormous space and the decorated tracery of the original. A huge 20th century organ adorns the ante-chapel, as does the tomb of English diplomat and scholar Thomas Bodley, with carved stone books. (Bodley founded the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest libraries in Europe.)

The church

Merton is a thriving Oxford College (the first, as it happens) with all the usual institutions. On this occasion celebrating the college dead, whose names were read out – luckily not all of them, or we'd still be there – the college welcomed strangers, even though it had no room to accommodate them all.

The neighborhood

Oxford is still a university. Probably the number of tourists now equals that of students, which makes life very crowded. Goodwill triumphs, on the whole. College services are traditionally open to anyone.

The cast

In the chapel itself, a large altar party celebrated the Requiem mass impeccably. A huge choir and orchestra occupied the ante-chapel, which also housed all who queued up to get in (standing).

What was the name of the service?

Requiem Eucharist.

How full was the building?

Packed. 150 standing in the ante-chapel. Maybe the same number seated in the chapel itself.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Some very friendly members of the college led me to a seat at the altar steps. Not privilege – just my usual luck.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Excited and expectant.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘I am the Resurrection and the Life, says the Lord.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Printed service booklet.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ plus full orchestra.

Did anything distract you?

With everything being so brilliant, a nagging worry about the bread and wine being enough.

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

A glimpse of what the Oxford Movement must have been like: sensational music, incense, perfectly time ritual, and a feeling that something really meaningful was going on. Everything went according to a beautifully rehearsed plan, though I sensed a certain panic about supplies lasting out. The Mozart Requiem was terrific! The organ wandered off at moments into Elgar and Sibelius.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

No sermon. The Requiem was the sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?


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


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

I was given a generous glass of very good wine.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee would have been wrong for the occasion.

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

10 — This was a one-off.

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

My heart burned within me.

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

'The trumpet shall sound...'

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