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Thursday, June 30, 2022

What’s happening in the chapel: Who’s who?

Alice Main explains the role of those involved in a college chapel service - including the Chaplain's dog!

As a continuation of the theme of my previous article, I thought it would be a good idea to explain some of the people you may bump into in a college chapel. For context, I am a warden at Lincoln College chapel and I am using this column to explain what sort of things happen in an Oxford chapel. Chapels everywhere usually have a group of regulars that you will usually see every week, and Lincoln is no exception. In this article I will take you through the cast of characters you may see around a college chapel, as I know it can be a little intimidating to walk into a chapel and not know anyone. Hopefully this will be helpful – or at the very least, entertaining:


Out of anyone who you may see around a chapel, the chaplain would probably be the most recognisable. They are instantly recognisable from what they are wearing, which would usually be some type of clerical collar (the white ‘dog collar’ that either goes all the way round the neck or just at the front) and robes. Also the most obvious thing about the college chaplain is that they will usually be the ones leading the services (see my previous article for more of an explanation of the different kinds of services). A chaplain is essentially identical to a parish priest in every aspect except for the extra things they do as a member of the college. This can include welfare and academic research, and at Lincoln our chaplain is involved in plenty of events to help the freshers get settled in. Some chaplains (excitingly!) also have pets which they bring into college. One of my favourite memories of first year was watching the chaplain’s puppy attempt to join in with the post-Sunday service breakfast by knocking over nearly every plant pot in chapel quad!


You! (of course, only if you feel like it). Like any church, a college chapel will have a cast of regulars who will often go to at least one service a week (often evensong). It’s actually quite difficult to explain the role of the congregation without diving into a discussion about the church as a building or the church as a group of people, which I think is probably best left to the theologians! However, without the little community of people that gather in the chapel to take part in the services, there would be no chapel at all.


You are most likely to see large numbers of Fellows in a college chapel at either services that are theologically significant (like Christmas) or important to your respective college, such as Chapter Day at Lincoln. I initially thought about including them as part of the congregation, but there are some key differences that might be worth knowing. For example, the head of the college (names vary, but at Lincoln they are known as the Rector) usually has a special pew (the seats in a chapel) to sit in- make sure you work out where that is to avoid an embarrassing moment! Your college chapel may also have Fellows that study the building itself, if it is of particular historical or architectural significance- if you have any questions about the building itself they are probably the best people to ask.

The Choir 

Probably the noisiest people on this list (in a good way, of course!). The choir are responsible for all of the sung music during services, which will usually be the hymns, Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis and the Anthems. They are usually undergraduate or graduate students, but some colleges may have a choir made up of smaller children (these are known as choristers) who may come from the various schools that are attached to the colleges. Our College choir has also been known to sing Christmas carols during Michaelmas, so there is a chance you may also see (and hear!) them getting involved in the other musical events in your college. Some Choirs also go on tours and record albums, which might be a good Christmas present/trip out for a relative or friend wanting to know what an Oxford college choir is like!

Organ Scholars

Unsurprisingly, they are responsible for the organ and in the case of Lincoln, the choir. Depending on where the organ is in your college chapel, you might not actually see the organ scholar because some colleges have organ lofts (above the chapel) but in the case of Lincoln our organ is just in the Antichapel. Organ scholars are usually music students who have some experience of playing the organ prior to coming to Oxford. At Lincoln, we currently have two organ scholars, but some colleges do have more depending on the size of the chapel or the number of services put on per week. When not playing the organ you will probably find them with the choir at formal dinners, or trying to understand the slightly odd temperament of the Lincoln college organ.


Our job title may vary from college to college, but the role is usually the same. The role of a warden in a college chapel is mainly to help out the chaplain and to make sure the services run smoothly. Well, in theory. In reality, we have found ourselves acting as lost property, spillage cleaners (if you remember the red wine from my last article!) and chasing people around looking for readers. It is a very fun job, and if you are involved in a college chapel then I would really encourage you to get involved. You will see us when you first enter the chapel, handing out hymn books and showing people to their seats. When you leave the chapel, there will be wardens blowing out candles and sorting out the collection. We are present at nearly every chapel service, so please feel free to have a chat with us if you feel lost or confused about what’s happening!

Image Credit: Exeter College Chapel. Diliff, CC BY-SA 3.0

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