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Sunday, June 26, 2022

What’s happening in the chapel: The best chapels and churches in Oxford

Alice Main details her favourite chapels in Oxford, and explains how they can help all of us in such a busy city.

There are churches and chapels of some description on nearly every street in Oxford, so it can be difficult to know which ones you might like to visit. If you are going to worship, there is of course the question of denominations, along with the practicalities of the times of the services. If you are going for a look around, what sort of thing are you looking for? Do you like modern architecture, or – in my case – something with a bit more history? I thought it might be a good idea to share some of my recommendations with you, so you can go and explore for yourself. I have decided not to rank these (don’t worry, Lincoln will always be at the top) because there are many chapels I still haven’t visited! The churches on this list will be a mixture of university/college affiliated churches and churches that are open to the general public (although, as you will see, there is a good deal of overlap), and they should be fairly easy to access, either through asking around at colleges or just turning up and visiting!

Lincoln College Chapel

It would be a crime for me to write about the chapels and churches and not include my own college! It could be argued that Lincoln has two chapel buildings, with the library once being All Saints Church (one of the dreaming spires!), and if you have a look through the railings around the library you can still see some gravestones from the churchyard. The ‘modern’ chapel was consecrated in 1631 and for fans of stained glass, we have gorgeous windows, but I will leave it to you to work out what all of the scenes correspond to (personal favourite is a very odd looking whale). The chapel roof and floor have also been recently restored, so the chapel is looking at its best at the moment, but to get the full experience of the gilding on the ceiling I would recommend coming to an evensong and seeing the candlelight reflecting off all the gold and stained glass.

University Church of St Mary the Virgin

Popular with school trips and coach tours, University church is arguably the best whistle stop tour of the history of Christianity and the University in Oxford. Everyone from John Wesley to John Henry Newman have preached at University Church and it still maintains the tradition of notable visiting preachers. University church was also the site of the trial of the Oxford Martyrs, with a memorial erected to them near the memorial to John Radcliffe, but to discover more about the history of the church and the role it plays in the university it is best to have a quick visit. Whilst you are there, you can go up the 13th century tower and have excellent views of the city (excellent photo opportunity), then have a cup of tea or some lunch in The Vaults. University Church is a lovely place to sit and reflect after a long day in the Bodleian, or during a sightseeing trip!

Oxford Oratory Church of St Aloysius Gonzaga

This is probably better known as the Catholic Oratory, and it has a fascinating history that I neither have the skill or the wordcount to go into, but the reason why it’s on my list is the beautiful art and icons. Before I came to Oxford, I had never been inside a Catholic church, so I was rather taken aback by the grandeur and the different chapels. Luckily, there was someone friendly in the gift shop who happily explained some of the important elements to me. I would really recommend going for a look around and in particular trying to spot the saints on the sanctuary (which is behind the altar). I remember finding St John Chrysostom after wandering in from a tutorial at John’s, which struck me as my tutorial was focused rather heavily on him. But, if saints aren’t your cup of tea, I would also recommend having a look at some of the lovely patterns on the ceilings, or just sitting at a pew and taking in the atmosphere.

Wadham College chapel

Ok, I admit it, I did sneak in here after a tutorial. It is worth a visit, with gorgeous stained glass (you may have noticed a theme, I love a bit of stained glass). I’m sure it’s lovely during a service, but I haven’t yet persuaded a Wadhamite to accompany me so I can visit in a more auspicious manner, rather than sticking my head round the door and creeping in and out.

St Mary the Virgin, Iffley

This admittedly is neither in central Oxford, nor is it in any way affiliated with the university. However, it is a beautiful Romanesque church and it would be a shame to leave it off this list, as it is one of my favourites. The journey would be manageable by bike or bus on the main road, but you can also walk to Iffley along the canal, and there is a pub and a small shop in the village if you fancy a snack. There is something lovely about walking from the main road, with all the noise of the traffic and into a peaceful churchyard. The physical distance from Oxford itself, probably plays a part in this, as it feels like a little holiday to be away from libraries, lectures and classes, just for a short few hours. The inside of the chapel is incredibly calming, with simple, modern decoration. I would recommend a visit to this church after a long walk, then followed by a nice warm meal, with no thought given to impending deadlines or essays.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list of my favourite chapels and churches, but these are a few that I would like to share with you. I do hope you visit them (everyone is welcome at Lincoln College Chapel), not just to worship or appreciate the architecture, but to find some stillness in what can be such a hectic town.

Image Credit: David Iliff, CC BY-SA 3.0

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