This guest post is by Professor David Thompson, Life Fellow of Fitzwilliam and Emeritus Professor of Modern Church History.
Fitzwilliam became a College by Royal Charter in 1966, though it had existed since 1869. In a piece delivered during the 50th anniversary service in Chapel on 8 July, Professor David Thompson reflects on the history of the Chapel.
I was invited to offer a short reflection this evening on the Jubilee of the College’s Charter, being reasonably confident that it will survive until the actual anniversary in September! At the time we were all delighted that the Charter received the royal seal a week ahead of our neighbour, Churchill, which had always been regarded as setting the pace for the ‘new colleges’ in mid-1960s Cambridge. And that was right because Fitzwilliam was not in that sense ‘a new college’; we already had almost a century of history and tradition behind us.
We are long way now from the original expectation in 1869 that all students should attend public worship regularly and report termly on their attendance. After services in St Michael’s Church and later in a side chapel of King’s, by the end of the nineteenth century there was a strong feeling among both Anglican and Nonconformist undergraduates that there should be permanent provision in Fitzwilliam House; and the Library was converted for this purpose in 1913. The fact that it was ‘full to overflowing’ with 25 shows that it was clearly inadequate for Sunday services. In fact, until Fitzwilliam moved to its present site in 1963, there was no place in the House large enough for even half the undergraduates to gather. The boom years of the 1950s (religiously speaking – there are just over seventy people in a photograph of the 1960 chapel congregation in John Cleaver’s History) saw a return to St Michael’s for three years, and then the regular use of Ridley Hall chapel on Sunday evenings.
It is therefore significant that when the first new college buildings were opened, provision was made for a ‘temporary chapel’, in the sure and certain hope that a permanent building would be eventually constructed. Initially this was an ex-RAF prefabricated building of asphalt-impregnated fibreboard set in a sea of mud just the other side of the archway into what became New Court. (I always thought of it as two portakabins joined together.) It was a striking contrast to Bodley’s brick Gothic of Queens’ new chapel (1889-91) from which I had come.
It was striking in other ways. On this site our three buildings or rooms have either been square or, like this, a circle and a square. This is more of a community space than a hierarchical one – and it has always encouraged worship ‘in the round’, as this space was designed to do. The striking feature of the traditions established in the late 1950s and early 1960s by a succession of three charismatic chaplains of different kinds was that of a community open to other Christians and to new ideas. It had already been the practice of Cambridge College chapels since 1948 to admit Christians of all denominations to communion, so there was no change there – except that scarcely anyone anywhere else in the country was doing it. Fitzwilliam also had a Roman Catholic member of the Chapel Committee from 1961, i.e. before the Second Vatican Council began; and as liturgical experiment was permitted in the Church of England, a new order of worship for Holy Communion was devised by members of the College and used regularly. The visit to the Taizé Community (which I remember for the overnight train journey from Paris to Maçon and a glass of red wine at 6.00 am) introduced us to Gelineau psalms and a new spirituality, very different from the Taizé services we still have today.
All this is a reminder that, like any church, the College Chapel is a gathering of people before it is a building. I like to think that this chapel tells us something about the kind of Christian, or even religious, presence we have always sought for the College. I say ‘we’ with some caution, because it has not been a vision shared by all. The Statute ‘Of divine worship and the Chaplain’ was contentious (or so I understand – Research Fellows were spared the labours of the new Fellowship in drafting them), and it was the openness of the provisions that was ultimately decisive, providing the first Cambridge statute that opened the office of chaplain to (Protestant) non-Anglicans. In the fullness of time both David Horrell and Simon Perry benefited from that. Furthermore the generosity of old members in supporting the endowment of the College Chaplaincy in the first decade of this century spared the Governing Body the agony of continuing discussion of the principle.
I will not comment on the contributions of particular chaplains, even though there is much I could say. We have been fortunate in all of them, in so many different ways. We were one of the first colleges to appoint a woman chaplain; and even before the introduction of co-residence here, we developed a relationship with New Hall (now Murray Edwards), leading to several marriages. In the end Murray Edwards never built the chapel originally intended; and now a Japanese benefaction has taken over the site reserved for it.
Finally, the chaplains of Fitzwilliam were some of the first in Cambridge to develop a ministry to the College Assistant Staff – something that became increasingly necessary as more and more of the population are detached from any regular contact with a Christian church or minister. Indeed it has gone further: this building has been used from time to time by Muslim members of the College for prayer, and the discreet symbolism of Richard MacCormac’s design makes it a very useful meditative space, even for the Women Fellows’ yoga. In short, there is a sense that the chapel has become the heart of the total college community: former students have married here, and had their children baptized here; there have been vigils at times of national crisis, and services after sudden student deaths; and former Fellows have had funerals and memorial services here. One thing we do not do is to admit new Fellows to their fellowships here, as many colleges do. As a characteristic representative of late twentieth-century attitudes, I still believe that to be right: indeed as the first Fellow to be admitted after the Charter (when I moved from a research fellowship to a teaching fellowship) Dr Grave asked me whether he should do so in Latin or English. ‘English’ I replied, and he did. But I must have given the wrong answer, since he admitted no-one else in English for the rest of his Mastership!
David Thompson is a Life Fellow of Fitzwilliam and Emeritus Professor of Modern Church History.
David Thompson was elected to a Research Fellowship in 1965, was the first holder of the Leathersellers Fellowship (1966-70) and then a teaching Fellow linked to his posts within the Faculty of Divinity from 1970. As well as being (successively) Praelector, Tutor, Director of Studies and Bursar, he served on the General Board (1988-92) and University Council (1994-2000). He was also a member of the Churches Committee of the Historic Buildings Council, a School Governor, Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church (1996-97) and a QAA assessor in Scotland and England. He became a Life Fellow on retirement in 2009, and was the College Archivist from October 2009 to October 2014.