It has become a tradition to have our Head Prefects read the scriptures lessons at the first chapel services of the year. Thus, Lucy Goddard ’23 and Levi Spence ‘23 read the first five verses of Genesis 1 and John 1. Nothing perhaps signals better what chapel is about as an integral part of the educational program of King’s-Edgehill School. Usually, each little chapel service features one lesson either from the Hebrew Scriptures or from the Christian Scriptures of the New Testament. At the first chapel services we have two readings, one from each, and yet it is not too hard to see how these lessons complement one another and in ways that highlight things intellectual and spiritual.
Things intellectual and spiritual. That’s the point, the challenge, and the real place of chapel at the School. It is about character, about the whole person, about ourselves as part of a whole, about something bigger than ourselves. This challenges the culture of outrage and antagonism that views everything – the world and others – in oppositional terms.
“They were tired of being afraid,” a character in Louise Penny’s post-pandemic novel, The Madness of Crowds, observes about a large gathering of people intensely divided in their emotions and commitments. Ça va bien aller. All will be well, it is said, echoing Julian of Norwich’s wisdom that “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well”, words spoken to give comfort in a time of suffering. Her words, however, have been co-opted to a more sinister agenda. “All shall be well” but not for all. Only for the elite, for the few at the expense of the vulnerable. It is a question about the good, an ethical question.
Chapel is not about tradition for tradition’s sake. It is a strong reminder of the School’s history and tradition, to be sure, at the same time as providing a profound critique of the way in which institutions fall short of their ideals and principles and/or struggle to live up to them. That is the point of the prayer of confession, individually and corporately. The mottoes of King’s and Edgehill speak profoundly to the School’s character. Deo Legi Regi Gregi and Fideliter, “For God, for the Law, for the King, and for the People,” and “Faithfulness.”
These are words with substance and meaning that speak to an education that is about public service and commitment to what is more than self-interest and narcissism. They give substance and meaning to the ethos of “be more”. Chapel reminds us constantly that we are part of a reality that is greater than ourselves and which is not reducible to our minds in a kind of solipsism – as if reality is simply mind-dependent. Nor is it, on the other hand, simply mind-independent. Instead, there is the constant challenge to think our relation to the natural world, to creation in a biblical and as well an indigenous view, and to one another.
This provides a healthy corrective to the forms of over-investment in the self because it frees us from our self-obsessions. We may think we are “assured of certain certainties” (T.S. Eliot, The Preludes), but as Jeremiah reminds us “the heart is deceitful above all things” (17.9); we think we know ourselves when so often we are deceivers and deceived.
The School in its history and life, like many institutions of learning in North America, is religious. It is Christian in what came to be known as Anglicanism. Students and faculty come from all over the world and from many, many different cultures, ethnicities, languages and religions and, to be sure, atheistic and non-religious perspectives. The service, though nominally Anglican, is generic to the religious features of other Christian denominations as well as to Judaism and Islam and to many other world religions: readings from Scripture(s), prayers, and devotional hymns. A way of thinking that relates to ways of living. Yet chapel is not based upon the faith-commitment of students and faculty. How could it be? What could that possibly mean?
Chapel is not about affirming whatever personal faith commitments or identity claims people might have. It can’t. It can only be about the intention to speak out of the integrity of an intellectual and spiritual tradition that equally requires a respectful engagement with other religious and philosophical outlooks. That goes to the question of character, about what kind of persons we are.
The readings at the first chapel services illustrate this approach. The reading from John 1 is clearly a commentary on Genesis 1 but by way of the ‘logos traditions’ that arise from ancient Greek philosophy. “In the beginning was the Word” - the logos of God. This in turn has influenced Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity and then Islam. At the same time, the idea of the intelligibility of the created world and its inherent goodness as created for thought is signaled in the Genesis phrase that God said, “let there be light and there was light” and then – and this is key – “God saw that the light was good.”
With John that sense of beginning is about the principle upon which the being and the knowing of all things depend. “God is the beginning and end of all creatures, especially rational creatures,” as Aquinas observes. Beginning here is about the principle, an intellectual and spiritual principle which shapes the intellectual imaginary of Jewish thought, for instance, Philo of Alexandria in the first century BC, for Christian thought, and for Islam. “Originator [Badī] of the heavens and the earth. When He decrees a thing, He says only ‘Be!’ and it is,” as is said in the Qur’an (2. 117). It has its counterpart in the ethical teachings of other world religions and philosophies.
The religious themes of creation and redemption are the main categories of reflection in the chapel program. They open us out to a respectful way of honouring God’s creation as something sacred but without being divine, a way of recognizing that we are part of creation and in special ways that speak to how we speak and act with one another. We are opened out to questions not answers that help us to be more reflective and to be not afraid. It is a beginning in which we find our end and purpose.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English and ToK TeacherChair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy