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What’s happening in the chapel: An introduction to college chapels

Alice Main explains the various services on the College Chapel calendar.

When coming up with an idea for a column, I found myself thinking of my college chapel. I am a chapel warden at Lincoln College chapel which is very important to me, so I thought it might be nice to share some of the things we get up to and explain some of the more confusing things that go on in college chapels. Before we begin, it might be good to start with a little note about some of the language that can be used to describe what happens in chapels, as things can get a bit confusing. Denomination is a term used to describe which branch of Christianity a chapel is part of, and these different branches may influence the different services offered or styles of worship (Lincoln chapel is Church of England, for reference). Incidentally, you may also hear terms like ‘high church’ or ‘low church’ being used to describe churches- this sounds very odd, but it’s just a way of indicating how much ritual is involved in a church service. I would probably describe Lincoln as a mixture of ‘high’ and ‘low’, which will make slightly more sense when I begin to walk you through a mini calendar of the services in our chapel.

Morning Prayer

Seeing as this is the first service of the day, Morning Prayer seems like a good place to start. If you aren’t a morning person, I’m not sure this would be the service for you as you do need to be up a bit early. I find that combining it with a college breakfast in the company of the other wardens (much nicer than soggy cereal by yourself!), gives me the incentive to get up on time. Our Morning Prayers are fairly simple and last no longer than 20 minutes so you could describe this as our most ‘low church’ service. One thing that I think makes Lincoln slightly unique is that our Morning Prayers are sung, which in most circumstances is a lovely way to start the day. However, when you are full of freshers flu and mid essay crisis it might be a better idea to go back to sleep for a bit (take it from me, week 4 of Michaelmas was something I would rather not revisit). If you like simple and quick worship, then Morning Prayer is for you- just remember to wear a jumper, because chapels are very cold in the mornings!

Weekday Eucharist 

For those who haven’t encountered the term Eucharist before, please don’t run away; this column isn’t about to become a theology lesson! Eucharist is another term for Holy Communion, where worshippers are offered the blood and body of Jesus in the form of bread and wine. One of our jobs as chapel wardens is to assist the chaplain during Eucharist, which is mainly carrying things to and from the alter and ringing a little bell in the important bits of the Eucharistic prayer. I find this all slightly nerve wracking due to the fact that the water and wine are kept in very delicate (and I assume very expensive) glass bottles, and the chapel floor is marble which of course is a recipe for disaster if you arent paying attention to what you are doing. Weekday communion services usually take place at lunchtimes or in the evening, so they are a good option if you would like to take communion during the week. I would tend to go to an evening service because I can combine it with a formal dinner (also our chapel is gorgeous at night!). However, these tend to be quieter services, so if you prefer something slightly more social then a Sunday service or evensong might be nicer for you.

Sunday service

The stereotypical church service! This is nearly identical to the weekday Eucharist, but there  will probably be slightly more people (so you may not be picked on to do a reading!) The highlight for some is probably the ‘breakfast’ afterwards, which in Lincoln consists of various pastries and pieces of fruit with a lot of coffee and tea. If you have had a bit of a rough week I would recommend this, as its a good opportunity to have a nice chat with friends. However, you do have to be wary of ‘Serious Theological Discussion’ which can be slightly intense but please don’t be put off by it as we usually get back to just general chatting. 


The big one. If you want to get the full Oxford Chapel Experience, go to an Evensong at least once. At Lincoln, this service consists of readings, organ recitals, the choir singing and often a visiting preacher to do the sermon. I would advise turning up slightly early to get a good seat and staying for drinks afterwards, which is a good way of either asking the visiting preacher any questions you may have or meeting up with friends before formal (my main bit of advice would be to get to the drinks before the choir do!) One of my more memorable evensongs (technically lessons and carols, please forgive me.) is when I got stuck in the anti-chapel with a small child, my tutor and a large bottle of red wine that had smashed all over the floor. It’s safe to say that it’s never dull in Lincoln chapel!

Whilst this isn’t an exhaustive list of all the things that go on in college chapels (I haven’t even mentioned the book clubs or other events run by the chaplains!), it will hopefully be useful if you are slightly confused about what goes on. As this column series continues, I will go through some of the people you may meet in a college chapel and take you on a little tour of some of the notable chapels in Oxford. I look forward to having you along with me and I hope we have fun!

Image Credit: Matthew Foster

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