St Hilda’s College will abolish its chapel from next year, replacing the space with a multi-faith room. The announcement makes St Hilda’s the third undergraduate college in Oxford not to have a dedicated anglican chapel.
The announcement follows months of debate around the presence and need for a chapel at the college. According to a JCR motion debated in Michaelmas, a number of fellows at St Hilda’s moved to reallocate any religious spaces within the college.The issue has been raised as part of extensive development plans due to be completed in 2020. As part of preparations for St Hilda’s 125th anniversary, the Milham Ford building, which had originally housed the chapel, was demolished. A temporary chapel was established in an adjacent building, on the expectation that a new permanent chapel or interfaith room would be installed in the new development.
In response, the JCR resolved unanimously to vote in favour of the inclusion of a new space in which members of the college community may carry out an expression of their faith in the new building. The motion made no reference to the room necessarily being a chapel, and expressed an interest in the college dedicating an interfaith room, inside of which members of any faith are welcome to pray or spend time in contemplation. The new space will cater to a number of faiths by including ablution facilities, where those praying may wash themselves, and space to store religious objects.
Reverend Canon Brian Mountford, chaplain for St Hilda’s, told Cherwell: “The decision was taken by the Governing Body, of which I am not a member, entirely independently of me. There was a chapel in the now demolished Milham Ford building, enhanced in 2000 in memory of an alumna, and it had been understood that there would be a like for like replacement in the new building, carrying on the tradition of the last 126 years of St Hilda’s history. Every college has thought about the need for prayer space, for Muslim students in particular, and come up with various provisions – including none. Faiths other than Christianity and Islam do not seem to be pressing for dedicated space in college.
“St Hilda’s could easily provide a prayer space separate from the chapel. Equally, a Christian chapel would welcome people of all faiths and none to pray, meditate, or be mindful in. When it comes to decoration and iconography, a multi faith room inevitably tends to be lowest common denominator and therefore usually bland. Soulless you might say. But, much as we enjoy the colour and numinous atmosphere of, say, Exeter College Chapel, Christians can worship or pray in any space. Besides, after the Reformation, in anti-Roman fervour, the colourful pictures on the walls of English churches were whitewashed out.
“I think it is easy for people not involved with organised religion to suppose that religion is by nature dogmatic and narrow minded. The faith I represent is not like that and that’s why I use the word ‘inclusive’ with confidence. And Christians have to be included as much as everyone else! I have found that while research suggests 72% of your age group have ‘no religion’, when it comes to thinking about the nature of belief and asking those ultimate questions about the purpose of life and what matters most, there is a lot of interest in theological debate. That’s why ‘The Chaplain’s Chat’ is so popular, and it’s a discussion which involves a wide cross-section of students in this secular, polyglot university. Worldwide, we are not moving towards a more secular society, but to a more religious one. This is a fact it’s hard to take on board in our particular corner of Western liberalism.”
Decisions regarding the new chapel’s presence were made by a “chapel steering group.” The group consisted of members from the three common rooms which make up the College. St Hilda’s confirmed to Cherwell in November that plans to install a chapel in the new building were proceeding as planned, but it appears that further debates have resulted in a change of direction