Chapel, Christ's Hospital, Sussex

The Chapel of Christ's Hospital, Horsham, West Sussex, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Eruresto Nyell
Church: The Chapel of Christ's Hospital
Location: Horsham, West Sussex, England
Date of visit: Saturday, 28 April 2012, 12:00pm

The building

The chapel, with inward-facing pews and a gallery, is one of the few buildings in the school capable of holding the entire school at once. Its capacity ranges from a comfortable 850-900, but has been known to squash in 1000 once or twice. A listed building, it has the third largest unsupported oak ceiling in Europe (the first and second being in the schools dining room and "Big School" respectively). Along both sides are a series of cartoons by the 20th century Anglo-Welsh artist Frank Brangwyn portraying the spread of the gospel. The stonework at the south end (the chapel is rotated 90 in relation to most churches due to the layout of the school) portrays Christ the King and the apostles, and was funded by donations from former pupils, or "Old Blues". The chapel is also one of the few places in the country to have a stained glass representation of Henry VIII.

The church

Christ's Hospital was founded in 1552 partly in response to a sermon preached by the Bishop of London before King Edward VI drawing the young King's attention to the plight of orphaned and homeless children in the City of London. It is almost unique for a British independent school in that it educates a proportion of its students free, and most at a reduced rate. The entire school worships in the chapel twice per week: once as a whole group on Sunday, and divided into lower and upper years on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. In addition, the chaplaincy runs a variety of activities, among which are compline, quiet time, and the Christian Union. Traditionally the stance of the chapel has been on the liberal side of the spectrum, particularly in compulsory worship when all pupils are expected to attend, regardless of religious persuasion.

The neighborhood

The chapel is geographically at the heart of the school, as one side of the schools main quadrangle. The school itself is over half a mile wide and about a third of a mile deep, but most of that depth is playing fields. The majority of the schools buildings are along "the Avenue", which runs along the length of the school and hosts 16 of the schools boarding houses, as well as opening onto other quadrangles and areas. The school has its own railway station, which used to be twice its current size the old line from Guildford to Shoreham has been disused since the 1960s and now is a popular bridleway.

The cast

The Revd Stephen Golding, senior chaplain, led and preached. The choir was made up of former (and one or two current) pupils who had volunteered and was under the baton of Andrew Cleary, music director. The organ was played by the schools organist, Peter Dutton.

What was the name of the service?

Chapel Service (I probably ought to explain that it was part of a whole-day school reunion called Old Blues Day and not a regular service)

How full was the building?

One choir stall was filled with about 50 people. About 100 to 150 other people attended in the congregation.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

There was a welcome in Big School to the main day, but other than the sacristan (a current pupil), there was no welcome to the chapel itself.

Was your pew comfortable?

Perfectly adequate for my needs.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The choir rehearsal ran almost into the service itself, and the congregation came in around the same time as the start of the rehearsal. There was a mixture of a buzz as people saw and chatted to old friends, and a hush as they entered the chapel where they had spent so much time at school (whether willingly or no).

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning, and welcome to the Chapel."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Christs Hospital Hymnbook.

What musical instruments were played?

The chapels organ, a five-manual opus of the Liverpool firm of Rushworth and Dreaper. On full blast, which it was in this service, it is phenomenally loud. It is the only five-manual Rushworth and Dreaper in existence and the largest organ in the country outside of a cathedral. There was also the volunteer choir.

Did anything distract you?

The school's Tudor uniform – belted long blue coat (hence the name Old Blues), knee-breeches, yellow socks, and a white band at the neck – has been worn since 1552. The students voted in 2011 to retain the traditional uniform. It is a quaint and nostalgic link to the past, but a distraction nonetheless.

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

Very traditional, but not exactly Anglo-Catholic. It was a simple service of hymns, anthem, sermonette and prayers. The three hymns and the anthem were all school favourites – indeed, two of the hymns and the anthem had been composed for the school, and the other was "How shall I sing that Majesty?" with a descant written by a former director of music.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

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

8 – Chaplain Golding spoke in a way appropriate to the situation that is to say, a group of nostalgic former pupils, only some of whom were of faith but without descending into platitudes with no real meaning.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon rotated around John 1:1-14 (John summarizes the nature of God, the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, and the mission of God the Son on earth). He focussed on the phrase "full of grace and truth." "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us" just as Bishop Ridley's words inspired the young King Edward VI to found Christs Hospital. The bishop's words became flesh in the school. The chaplain then turned to parable of the Prodigal Son, and related it to Old Blues leaving and coming home to the school. May the school community be "full of grace and truth."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The communal hymn singing, which is such a part of life at Christs Hospital.

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

I would be hard pressed to think of anything! It was all wonderful to some extent.

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

There was no time - we all filed out to get to the main quadrangle in time for Band Parade (another big tradition of the school – the entire pupil body marches into lunch six days a week).

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

People had either booked themselves into a two-course lunch or brought a picnic. I had done the latter, although we ate inside due to the terrible weather!

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

8 – It would hardly be possible unless I became either a teacher or a chaplain, but that aside, somewhere high in the 8-9s. The chapel walls are soaked in hundreds of years of prayer. It is practically sacred ground to me.

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

Most definitely!

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

Worshipping in the place where I came to faith.

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