Limerick Diocesan Synod visit to Ripon College Oxford
Fr. Éamonn Fitzgibbon, Niall McLaughlin & Bishop Leahy
Niall introduced himself by saying, “As an architect I am interested in how buildings can convey meaning” and in a wide ranging and informative presentations on the 7th October, Niall touched on aspects of building community which has particular relevance for Limerick (which can be accessed here). He said: “For me as an architect, and this is purely an architectural comment, much of architectural thinking in the last one hundred years has been of the view that you can make buildings that will somehow transform society. I think that what you have to do is create societies that allow you to make buildings and that buildings are always framing or confirming things that have already been embodied by communities.”
Intrigued by his presentations and especially his discussion about the interaction of design, community, liturgy and faith which evolved into his design of the chapel at Ripon College in Oxfordshire, a group from Limerick decided to travel to Oxford to visit the chapel.
On a damp January weekend, the group visited Ripon College which is a training college for Anglican clergy situated about forty minutes from Oxford city. Driving through the rolling Oxfordshire countryside the college is almost hidden in the small village of Cuddeson. The original college was built in the 1850’s for the formation of Anglican clergy far from the “flesh pots” of Oxford. Situated on extensive grounds, the college faces across the Oxfordshire countryside and the site which greets the eye is a blend of an 1850’s building with a modern uniquely designed modern chapel.
The college community was expanded in the early 2000’s through the introduction of the members of an Anglican Augustinian order of nuns, the Community of St John Baptist, who were previously based at nearby Kidlington in accommodation that had become too large for their present numbers. In relocating, they have initiated a substantial building programme at the college including a new education block incorporating a community residence. The sisters conceived the chapel, however, as a facility that would be shared between themselves and the members of the college: a gift that would effectively cement the two communities into one and stand after they had finally left, symbolised by the new chapel bell which was forged by the joining of two individual community bells and inscribed with the motto “ut unum sint” (“that they may be one”).
The chapel presents itself on the eye as soon as you arrive at the college and sits in the centre of a[SA3] clearing of trees. Elliptical in shape from the outside it presents as a stone wattle and daub construction or interwoven branches due to the use of dog-toothed masonry blocks soaring upwards to the clerestory windows on the top tier of the building. While a modern design it fits into the overall site of the college situated in a grove of trees but it is when you entered into the building it is that you see the true gift of McLaughlin and his team in the design of the chapel which is more than just purely functional but rather artistic and liturgical.
Welcomed to the chapel by Sr Ann who was delighted that the group had managed to actually find the way to the college, she introduced us to the chapel from the point of view of the praying community who use it on a daily basis but also who were behind the design and commissioning of the chapel and what was their original vision for the chapel which McLaughlin expressed so well.
Entering into the chapel, soaring[SA5] timber pillars immediately call to mind the light filled gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages with their inspiring airy interiors but contrasted with that is the almost minimalist decorative and artistic embellishments.
Rather the light and space didn’t seem to call for any human intervention to embellish it. Rather the pillars and movement of light throughout the chapel would remind you of a walk through a forest clearing linking into the original design concept of McLaughlin. The majestic airiness of the chapel lends to an amazing acoustic which assists in the use of the building as an intimate liturgical space. Looking roof wards immediately you can see the linkages made with the chapel as an up turned boat with the pillars being the ribs of the keel and the play of light on the roof being like that of sunlight off ripples of water echoing McLaughlin’s attribution of inspiration to Heaney’s poem “From Lightening’s”.
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
'This man can't bear our life here and will drown, '
The abbot said, 'unless we help him.' So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
"I was really struck by the beauty, simplicity and the natural finish of the chapel and its surroundings" - Brid
The liturgical function of the building has been incorporated in such a way that the traditional choir stall design of Anglican college chapels is maintained but in a more intimate manner with a step down into an elliptical space with the altar table as one focal point and the lectern at the other. At the same time you can walk around the chapel as the pillars are detached from the wall and act as a demarcation of the sacred space within a sacred space so that you can liturgically process in an ambulatory or walkway around the chapel space much like a cloister walk in ancient monasteries. Off to one side of the chapel is the prayer room where the sisters gather each day for community prayer apart but not separate from the main chapel with its focus on the tabernacle recessed into one wall.
At the other end of the chapel, there is a single window and window seat, which allows you to gaze out across the Oxfordshire countryside almost like a break in the trees to see out or perhaps more for nature to see in – a single eye, window to the soul.
The prayer room of the sisters provided the space for the group to pause in a moment of ecumenical prayer with Sr Anne with the wonderful acoustics of the chapel being shown in the singing in two part harmonies of O’Riada’s Seinn Alleluia, followed by a Breaking of the Word together, intercessions for the synod and the community at Ripon brought together in the Lord’s Prayer. Finally in homage to the monastic inheritance of the chapel design with a singing of Mael Ísu Ua Brolcháin’s 11th century prayer “Deus meus adivia me”. Then it was time for the group to sadly slip anchor and drift away from the chapel “Out of the marvellous as we had known”.
Why is Limerick holding
a Diocesan Synod?
A Question of Faith travelled to Limerick to hear about the Diocesan Synod that will be held in Limerick in April 2016.
Click here to view the video.