Three Nagging Chapel Issues

Upper School ChapelThere are many weighty issues when it comes to chapel. How often should we have it? What about the Eucharist within the context of school chapel? How Christian should chapel be, or how inclusive should it be? Whenever school chaplains get together and discuss the role of chapel, these and other intense matters can provoke great discussion and, at times, division. However, beneath the weighty issues there are the nagging ones, and sometimes as much worry and discussion can ensue over these as the ones that carry seemingly more theological and liturgical substance.

These nagging issues could have to do with the question, “How do we get the students to sing?” (Typically a middle and/or upper school matter, I’ve discovered!) Or, “How do we get the faculty members to attend chapel as expected?” (Again, that tends to be an issue the farther up the grade level.) There is the inevitable question of whether chapel can, on occasion, run overtime—a focal point of concern and a touchy issue for faculty regardless of their grade level! These issues may seem more pragmatic than theological, but sometimes a closer look reveals that the practical issue can betray deeper implications, as may be the case with the three I would like to focus on below.

What is the place of announcements in chapel?

To some, this may seem to be a trivial issue, but I have seen instances where the role of announcements can stir up a good deal of discussion. Does the inclusion of announcements within the context of the chapel serve as an intrusion into the special ethos and tone that chapel seeks to cultivate? Is keeping announcements out of the chapel service in some way sending the message that matters of the school community—be they routine or of general concern—are “off limits” to this type of gathering? What is a school to do about the fact that chapel is often one of the few places where the school community gathers, and thus may be prone to being the default time when things are addressed or the word gets out about upcoming events?

Do we applaud in chapel?

Again, to some this may seem trivial, but I have seen many occasions where this seemingly small issue can become very big. As with announcements, does the inclusion of applause disrupt the mood of chapel, or belittle the sacred matters that chapel seeks to address? Can the lack of applause, particularly after a student performance, confuse people, given how we are so prone to showing our appreciation of student work in so many other contexts? Many chaplains, quite familiar with the growing use of applause in churches, naturally assume it is fine to express our appreciation in such open ways in a school chapel, only to discover that school chapels may turn out to be quite different contexts. Perhaps the school community is not as far along as some churches in this matter; perhaps it is because we are, in part, doing different things in a school chapel than we are on a Sunday morning.

How do students enter into chapel?

Does the solemnity of the chapel service require students to enter in silence—something that may seem either awkward or unnatural to young people—or should we encourage the lively and spirited tone of students that they inevitably display when they come into a physical space? What works best for the spirit of a chapel service and what best sets it off from, say, an assembly? Many schools have opted for allowing students to come in to chapel as they might any other gathering, only to have a symbolic moment (such as the lighting of candles or the introduction of a few moments of silence) where the mood intentionally shifts. How does the matter of student entrance into the chapel space have an impact of the tone that the school seeks to set in the chapel service?

I invite you to reflect and comment on any or all of these questions. Behind all of them, I believe, are two key issues that touch upon the theological, liturgical, and pedagogical role of chapel.

  • First, do we see it more important to create an environment in our chapel services that designate them as places apart, or does chapel in some way seek to bless and consecrate our routine human habits and behaviors? Or do we seek to do both? 
  • Second, do we have a special teaching opportunity with chapel services to help students understand that different contexts require from us different behaviors? Does distinguishing between chapel behavior and assembly behavior, for example, not only elevate the place of chapel in the life of the school but help young people to discern and then honor the unique contexts into which they might be entering in any number of contexts in life?

Once again, I invite your responses.