I am writing this the day after Storm Eunice hit the UK, wreaking havoc across the nation with record wind speeds of up to 122mph. This awesome display of nature’s strength gives us – in the words of the c.18th Scottish poet James Thomson – a “sense of powers exceeding far [our] own.”
Are Downe House pupils encouraged to ask searching questions about their own place within their School community and in the wider world? The School’s academic record speaks for itself, but are the girls encouraged to step beyond day-to-day, temporal and material concerns and ask questions of a spiritual and philosophical nature?
In my experience, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’. Our pupils have many opportunities to explore such matters in and out of the classroom, but it is our Chapel that is the spiritual heart of the Downe House community. It serves as a place for worship, as well as a space for quiet reflection, prayer and the performance of music.
Some of our pupils question whether Downe House’s Anglican tradition is the most relevant vehicle through which to explore spirituality in this modern era. After all, our community is richly diverse, comprising 30 different nationalities, and our pupils follow a plethora of faiths and none.
I took a sample of opinion from my own UV pupils. Many feel ambivalent about religion itself, but the majority appreciated the sense of unity and calm in Chapel. Here are just some of their thoughts:
“To tell you the truth, even though I am not Christian, I honestly do not mind going to Chapel at all. The weekly service is short, so I do not get bored and there is a certain sense of closeness when everyone sings together…”
“Waking up early and going to Chapel may not be everyone’s cup of tea; however, our Chaplain somehow makes the dreary mornings peaceful and alive. Although I am not personally religious, I think she brings spirituality in an unforceful way…”
“I am not a devout Christian or any other religion for that matter, but I do believe that coming together some mornings – even early mornings – brings a sense of community and spirit to Downe House. However sometimes I do think that it takes up my morning and I am too tired to concentrate on the very well prepared service…”
“I believe Chapel brings us together and lets everyone reflect on the past week they have just had. Downe House as a whole is a very spiritual School and we are a community that lets everyone be themselves.”
The most frequent objection about Chapel (voiced by six of the pupils in my sample of 18 girls) is that it should not be compulsory. One pupil said that it feels “disrespectful” to compel non-religious people and those who follow a different faith to attend Chapel services.
My sense, however, is that the welcoming and inclusive tone set by our wonderful Chaplain, Rev’d Anthea Platt, means that Chapel is, for the vast majority of our girls, appreciated as a place of peace and contemplation in their busy lives – irrespective of their personal faith.
Rev’d Platt presides in Chapel without a hint of stuffiness. Her services are brisk, fresh and positive and always include a smile, tremendous warmth and a good dose of humour. She has the knack of making everyone feel relaxed and welcome. Quite often she will include a silent meditation which is wonderfully calming and relaxing. The liturgy, readings, prayers and hymns – there are normally two hymns – are explicitly Christian, but Revd Platt is inclusive and respectful to those of other faiths who may wish to hold their own thoughts and prayers. Importantly, the morning services never run beyond 25 minutes.
I have witnessed Chapel services at other schools feeling turgid and dull – so Revd Platt’s achievement is significant. Despite the restrictions around Covid, online Chapel services were maintained during lockdown, providing an important sense of continuity and reassurance for many of our pupils. The Chaplaincy and the whole community ensure that festivals associated with other religions and cultures are acknowledged and celebrated through whole-school assemblies and within the boarding houses, too.
Several pupils in my sample commented on how they enjoy listening to the pupils, teachers and guests who sometimes speak during the services in Chapel: “They talk about interesting things that don’t necessarily relate to religion.” Recently, Miss McLachlan spoke movingly about National Holocaust Memorial Day and Mr Owen reflected on the poets of the First World War during Remembrance Week. Our Chapel Senior, Louisa, spoke eloquently and courageously about her discovery of the Christian faith and her subsequent decision to be confirmed.
So, Chapel provides a calm and beautiful setting for our pupils to hear individuals speaking from the heart about matters of personal importance to them: this gives tremendous impact to the short morning service, irrespective of the pupils’ faith.
Compared to other schools where I have taught, there is a strong appetite for ‘things spiritual’ at Downe. There is a very lively Christian Union group, called ‘Roots’, which meets on a weekly basis and is run by Ms Thabet. Around 30-40 of our pupils choose to be confirmed each year. The confirmation service is moving and very personal: as one recent confirmand told me: “When I was confirmed in the Chapel, I thought a lot about the surroundings that I was in and being brought together really made us feel like a community in the Chapel.”
As Revd. Platt says, Chapel is of course not the only place in the School where spirituality can be explored and witnessed. “Perhaps most obviously, spirituality can be discerned in the creative arts, music and drama,” she says. “I also witness it when I am on the sports fields watching games. It can be known in the beauty of a mathematical formula and of course in the kindness and courage that the girls show daily.”
“My ministry at Downe is not to do with converting anyone to any particular faith,” says Revd Platt. “Rather, it is about letting people know that they are loved; this in turn will help them to love others.”
Like some of the girls at Downe, I too felt occasional resentment when I had to attend Chapel as a pupil myself (it was compulsory every day at my school). However, when I recently returned to my alma mater and was offered a tour by a prefect, I found myself saying: “Please take me to the Chapel.”
The spirituality and calm provided by a School Chapel can be a tremendous comfort and support when storms hit us during those formative years.
“Storms make trees take deeper roots” – Dolly Parton
Mr Matthew Godfrey
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