My greatest spiritual moment this year came in Eton College Chapel. I was there for Evensong with a friend who’s an English master at the school. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the congregation belted out Verdi’s ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ — in English. Part of the pleasure came from the shock of hearing 1,300 upper-middle-class schoolboys imitating Hebrew slaves singing a lament about their Babylonian captivity in 500 BC. But it was also the sheer joy of the music in Henry VI’s chapel, a triumph of the Perpendicular Gothic. In quieter moments during the service, I examined the 15th century wall paintings, which are splendid, Flemish-style pictures of miracles of the Virgin Mary.
Not every school chapel is like Eton’s, or the chapel at my school, Westminster, which happened to be Westminster Abbey (non-swanks…) But, still, even in an increasingly secular age, the school chapel and regular church services are a crucial part of a British education. The simple reason is that, despite the decline in church attendance, this country remains a largely Christian one, with an established church and the Queen at the head of it.
In an educational system that increasingly consists of endless exams and tightly defined curricula, the spiritual element is in danger of vanishing. The morning ritual of the church service fills that gap. Worship of any sort is a boost to the soul, even if you end up an atheist or, like me, an agnostic. In a way, it’s a childhood version of Pascal’s Wager. This argues that it’s worth believing in God: if he doesn’t exist, you’ll only have missed out on a few pleasures; if he does, you will enjoy an eternity of reward. A similar thing happens with the spiritually-educated child, particularly with one like me who’s been christened and confirmed in the Christian church. Your brain ends up equipped with all the mental furniture required to accommodate God if you decide to invite him in.
However, given the lukewarm nature of religion in most British public schools, God is unlikely to dominate the privately-educated brain. There are exceptions. A Old Etonian pal of mine describes bumping into a schoolfriend he’d lost touch with, a decade after leaving the place. My friend had heard that he’d had a breakdown in the interim.
‘How are you?’ he asked. ‘I was in a bleak place,’ the other man said, ‘until I let the Lord Jesus into my life.’ My friend made his excuses and left.
How bleak, though, to leave school and not have the spiritual — and intellectual — content that regular chapel attendance brings. Thirty years after leaving Westminster, I still have in my head a jukebox of hymns and psalms that I can sing off by heart. ‘Jerusalem’, ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’ and ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ are hardwired into my brain. At prep school and at Westminster I learned them by pure repetition without ever thinking about what they actually meant. Now, when I sing at church services, I examine the words and their meanings very carefully, and I marvel. In a Welsh church the other day, I sang ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’ and was deeply moved by the closing couplet, which I must have sung, blithely and ignorantly, a hundred times before.
And, soul by soul and silently, her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
Only now, on looking it up, do I see that the final line comes from Proverbs 3:17: ‘Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.’
That’s the other aspect of the school chapel: the intellectual side. With the collapse of scripture, or RE, or whatever you call it, in British schools, it’s the school chapel that teaches you the literary, historical, artistic and architectural sides of Christianity. Judeo-Christian thought and classical thought are the two most important forces in British artistic, intellectual and literary history. If you listen to Biblical readings in your school chapel (and I really regret not listening enough) you end up with a proper understanding of the Bible, the most important work of literature of all. If you don’t know your Christian history, you don’t know British history. You don’t know Renaissance art and architecture. You are wilfully cutting off a deep well of vital knowledge.
A few years ago, the late, great Brian Sewell wrote in the alumni magazine for the Courtauld Institute, his alma mater, how badly educated modern art historians are. ‘They have to know the literature of the period, the theology, the philosophy, the medicine,’ he wrote. ‘There’s no point in standing in the great palace at Würzburg looking at Tiepolo unless we also think of the music of the day.’ And there’s no point in studying Western European history unless you know the history of the Christian Church, along with the structure and content of Christian church services.
Again and again as I have tutored or given lectures to bright children, from private or state schools, I have been astonished by their ignorance of Christianity. On a recent art history tour of London with teenagers about to do their GCSEs, I suggested to their teacher that we would begin with Norman churches and, by inference, 1066. ‘I’m afraid they won’t have heard of 1066,’ he said of his keen 15- and 16-year-old pupils. ‘They’re not encouraged to learn facts or dates — and they’re not rewarded for them in exams.’ I was staggered, and very angry, as was their teacher.
‘A few weeks ago, I mentioned the Virgin Mary in class and the children all laughed,’ he said, ‘I thought it was just the usual embarrassment about sex. It turned out that they hadn’t heard of the Virgin Mary.’
That, if anything, is a single reason to keep school chapels going.
Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English (Viking).