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||1367: College Chapel, King's College London, The Strand,
Mystery Worshipper: Og the King of Bashan.
The church: College Chapel, King's College London, The Strand, London
Denomination: Church of England.
Comment: We have received a comment on this report.
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
façade. 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 neighbourhood: 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.
The date & time: Tuesday, 7 November 2006, 5.30pm.
What was the name of the service?
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
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
"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
What books did the congregation use during the
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
Did anything distract you?
During the Magnificat, which was making my heart sing with joy,
an ominous 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
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
Exactly how long was the 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
No after-service refreshment.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (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
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
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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