Wednesday, May 31, 2006

New College

New College was founded in 1379 by William of Wyckeham. I think the pictures speak volumes of the faith. The cloister and the grounds are some of the most beautiful I've seen in Oxford so far...part of the ancient city wall forms the north side of the gardens. Every three years, the Principal of New College, the Lord Mayor and the Dean of the Chapel have a ceremonial inspection of the city's defences, something they have been doing since 1379 as part of the agreement to found a college right on the city's then boundaries. The Chapel, like many of the other Chapels, is set in the collegiate style...all members of New College (men, of course) were not only studying their various subjects, but were preparing for priesthood in the Church. The 'collegiate' style of seating is really a 'monastic' style, that allows for antiphonal singing of the psalms and the Eucharist.

What I have found interesting is the spectacular-ness of some of the chapels, and the seemingly light concern for aesthetic considerations like cleanliness, clutter, and the quality and style of newer furnishings. At Mansfield College, earlier this afternoon, the Chapel (built in the 19th C. to look much older,) the original woodwork and carving is done in a darkly stained oak, ornately carved, and quite lovely. The jarrring contrast comes from the modern blond-wood chairs in the main chapel and the haphazardly stacked piles of unused chairs, tables and microphone stands in what once was a lovely ante-chapel. Is it evidence of the state of spirituality at these colleges? Is it just that no-one has taken a critical eye to these spaces to see what it is they say when the places look dilapidated and carelessly used? We've all been given a great responsibility, either here at Mansfield or New, or at home at Boston University to care for these spaces. I am actually rather pleased at how carefully we attend to how Marsh Chapel looks. Perhaps, in half a millenium, someone will walk into Marsh Chapel and muse about the same things. Hopefully, they will find a vibrant faith evidenced in the sense that someone is caring for the space...that it feels like someone cares what it looks like. Perhaps I am just too retentive about these things and miss the point, but I don't think so. I find myself wanting to care for the 14th c. New College Chapel in the same way I care for my make sure that it is washed up and puts its best face forward; for God, and for those who come to pray and worship.


A friend and colleage of mine, a graduate of Mansfield, rightly took me to task about my comments regarding the Mansfield chapel. In musing about these things, I did not take into account the achievements of the college in its rapid growth, nor did I see beyond the surroundings to the lively spiritual life that does occur there. If I've offended anyone, please accept my apologies.

1 comment:

Jim Olson said...

Jim here, posting an email from a friend who rightly takes me to task about my comments in this post.

"Thought the comments about Mansfield college chapel vis a vis Marsh were a bit unfair! Can't get in to comment on your blog so thought I'd e-mail you.

Financial resources are one thing you are not short of at Marsh, which is the University church, Mansfield is the smallest and newest of the Oxford
Colleges and has neither the staff, the student numbers or the finances to match you! It has expanded from a college built to accommodate and train a small number of ordinands to one that has an academic community of some 300 as well as becoming a full college of the university - no mean feat considering its resources.

Also Marsh was conceived and built essentially in one go, you are comparing it with places that have changed, altered and developed over longer periods
of time, for which there is often a different kind of aesthetic.

The chairs are the original ones put in when the place was built, and are actually quite expensive if you want to buy them second hand nowadays. The
'Ante chapel' has never functioned as such as far as I know.

[We] both have memories from our respective times there of a vibrant spirituality."

My friend is right, of course. Their experience of the place is much more accurate than my few minutes visiting on an off day. My apologies to my friends, and to any whom I might have offended.