Chapel: surely it’s the highlight of the week!
By Rev’d Dr Simon Steer, the School Chaplain

Every morning during the school week, students and staff do something that the Abingdon community has been doing for the best part of 800 years. It’s an activity summarised by a single word: ‘Chapel’. We come together to sing a hymn, hear Scripture read and reflected upon, and to have an opportunity to pray, to meditate or simply to be quiet.

Some people might wonder why we still do this. After all, we live in an increasingly secular society in which a majority of adults in the UK now identify as non-religious. There are also members of our school community who belong to faiths other than Christianity or who hold no faith. The diversity of the Abingdon community is something we value enormously and of which I am very conscious when leading chapel services. Indeed, our sixth formers alternate between regular chapel and ‘Alt-chapel’, the latter offering a range of secular and religious perspectives.

I suggest that there are three main reasons why chapel is still a worthwhile, even vital part of our school’s life. First, it symbolises and strengthens our sense of community. To come together in year groups once a week in the beautiful space of our chapel is to be reminded of what unites us. In his recent chapel talk, the Headmaster spoke of the sense of solidarity that we need as humans to provide a foundation on which we can build our diverse individualities. There are few things as unifying as 200 Abingdonians (or 800 at a carol service) belting out one of our favourite hymns. As a sacred space, chapel can heighten our sense that we are called to care for, support and encourage one another in all the joys and challenges of school life.

Second, chapel gives us an appreciation for the rich Christian heritage of Abingdon and of the wider culture of which we are a part. As we enter chapel, we see the school motto carved in stone: ‘Misericordias domini in aeternum cantabo’. This does not translate, as some wags have suggested, as ‘chapel is an eternal misery’ but rather ‘I will sing of the Lord’s mercy for ever’, a commitment that connects us through the centuries with the Benedictine monks of Abingdon Abbey. And when we listen to Bible readings, I believe that we are doing something both spiritually and intellectually beneficial.

Professor Alister McGrath of Oxford University, who has given talks at Abingdon, has written of the English Bible as a landmark in the history of the language and a major influence on English literature. Similarly, Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye, in his seminal work, The Great Code: the Bible and Literature, examines the influence of the Bible on western art and literature. From John Bunyan to Samuel Beckett, from John Milton to Toni Morrison, from Ian Rankin to J.K. Rowling, English literature breathes biblical air. Even Oxford atheist, Professor Richard Dawkins, insists that we should remain acquainted with the Bible’s phraseology, imagery and overall narrative in order to understand our cultural past. But the Bible is not just a rich cultural resource. In my own life and ministry, I have witnessed the Bible’s remarkable power to comfort, provoke, encourage, challenge and transform.

Third, chapel provides a regular opportunity for students and staff to consider some of the biggest questions of all: What is the purpose of my life? What sort of society should we be aiming to create? How can we live with hope in the face of suffering? What virtues should we seek to cultivate? Is there a spiritual dimension to life and what might that consist of? Is there a God and what difference would God’s existence make to my life? – (And why on earth does the Chaplain mention in pretty much every chapel talk that his favourite film is Chariots of Fire?)

Of course, chapel is not the only context at Abingdon where such questions are explored but it does provide a regular opportunity for each of us to consider what it means to live thoughtfully, purposefully and joyfully.

An OA visited the school recently and asked to see the chapel. I had the privilege of hearing his story. He told me that chapel hadn’t meant much to him when he was at school and he confessed to finding it a bit boring. (It must have been a different chaplain I thought). But then he told me that, several years after he had left school, he was facing a life crisis and something said or experienced in chapel came back to his mind, enabling him to move forward with hope. Who knew how significant a few minutes early on a Monday morning might be?

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