Kings College Chapel (Cambridge)
This is my final piece in this series. For a little while in the next few weeks its interior will be shown, candle lit, to the world as once again the Cambridge university college performs its Christmas party piece of Nine Lessons and Carols - broadcast under some likely name such as "Carols from Kings". I presume it gets a new title because Christian lessons are out of favour generally, although you would expect a university college to a great source of lessons of one sort or another.
College chapel life is a strange beast. Cambridge university runs three 8 week terms a year with each day having three teaching sessions: morning, afternoon and evening. All students and staff must be full-time resident in their college during term so chapel services are part of life along with lab work, candle lit sit down dinners, sport and evening seminars. Everything is optional (including lessons) but everything is included.
The university itself is established to promote, inter alia, religion, and curiously staff inductions for teaching positions take place in college chapels with oaths sworn over copies of the rules and regulations of the college (I am not making this up). Many colleges were established in the 13th Century, a lot "transferred" here from elsewhere in the country in the 16th Century as various church leaders realised their local tertiary institutions would be better co-located at either of the big collegiate organisations at Cambridge or Oxford. The idea of separating education and religion had not yet having occurred to anyone.
A goodly number of additional colleges were founded using money left over from the Great Church Nationalisation and Rationalisation scheme (also known as the dissolution of the monasteries) invented by Cardinal Wolesy and implemented by Thomas Cromwell and King Henry VIII. Cardinal's College Cambridge was one of them and no expense was spared. So lovely was it Cardinal Wolsey lost his head over the whole enterprise and bequeathed it (somewhat involuntarily) to the King and it was logically renamed King's College Cambridge. It was continued to be funded with an absurdly large amount of money.
The chapel building is amazing beyond description. The architect who did the lovely roof extension at Peterborough Cathedral completed the entire ceiling here with even better bits. The glass to stone ratio on the walls is a tad mind-boggling. All of the stained glass itself, the work of the best early 16th century artisans whose output is otherwise largely lost, survived the chapel being turned into a stable for the brief period when England had no king after whom a chapel could be named. Presumably the soldiers who slept there with their horses could see who would freeze first with the glass knocked out.
So the question is: how does one best appreciate this church. There are several of ways I would recommend. Firstly get yourself enrolled as a student of the college (expensive in the UK these days and quite difficult to qualify) Secondly become a college staff member (qualification, again, is tricky but at least they pay you rather than you paying them). Thirdly come and see a concert. Lastly come to a morning church service.
I shall ignore the first two options because if they are for you, I presume you are already are executing your own 10-20 year plan and nothing I say here will help you much (although marriage may be a part of a strategy you didn't think of).
Concerts are on here all of the time. Many are free and some are expensive. Those in summer are generally quite popular but it is a surprisingly large building. It is divided into two halves by the huge wooden wall that cuts the chapel into two halves (put there to minimise medieval drafts) and on top of which the pipe organ and organist sits. For organ concerts (as well as evensong) the place to be is the eastern end where the choir sits. For instrumental concerts the western end is the place as they put the seats and stage in front of the wall. The acoustics are punishing to the inexperienced musician with not only a very long echo (about 10 seconds) but also the echo is razor sharp – a duff note will be with you for far longer than you would like either as a performer or listener. There is a joy in sitting in the "wrong" end during a summer concert with so much of the space empty but listening to some of the best musicians surrounded by hundreds of square metres of some of the best stained glass ever made.
All of this is flim-flammery though. The college employs two full time religious types to take services and this they do. The evening service is like a concert with tourists. The choir is probably as good as it is reputed to be, which is the best in the world. However it is not a great religious experience. It doesn't do the building or the people who attend it the justice they both deserve. Don't let me stop you going however (I go when I can and once you zone into the music it can be quite easy to pace your own thoughts).
The best time to go is in the morning for the said morning services. You will be there with two or three other people and everybody who is there is there for a reason (who knows what it will be). They don't advertise the services widely (as most people only think about the choir) but the porters at the main gate will be able to tell you (and let you into the college in the morning) to walk across the sunlight, misty courtyard. It is here murmuring the modern words of the ancient dawn service sitting in a small group that the world reaches a transcendence of community, place and call and response.