If you go on Amazon, you will see that it is possible to purchase a copy of a book written by Herbert A James entitled, ‘School Ideas – Sermons Preached in the Chapel of Rossall School’. Our School archives contain a number of original copies of this informative volume of homilies which was written by one of my most illustrious predecessors. Herbert James was a formidable Welshman with an impressive beard and imposing countenance. He was an intellectual heavyweight who combined a forensically analytical mindset with a kindly and compassionate approach to pupils and members of Common Room. He was a classicist and a clergyman possessing both a bachelor in divinity and a doctorate. Herbert was an impressively high achiever. He was President of the Oxford Union and taught at Harrow School before progressing to the headships of Rossall, Cheltenham College and Rugby School. He returned to Oxford in 1909, upon being appointed President of St John’s College.
A book of Victorian sermons is not something which might ordinarily quicken the pulse rate. One envisages musty yellowing pages of dismally turgid prose. One imagines long and gloomy winter evenings in the Chapel – frozen children huddled uncomfortably on unyielding wooden pews. However, James’ sermons are surprisingly worldly and they contain a good deal of practical advice. His writing is relatable and pitched appropriately for a teenage audience. By modern standards, the sermons are undeniably long but they are entertaining enough to merit your perseverance.
The first six headmasters of Rossall School were all ordained priests. The seventh head was ordained shortly after leaving Rossall. Indeed from 1844 until 1957, Rossall School was led exclusively by male clergymen and they had all gone to Oxford or Cambridge. This seems like a regrettably narrow pool of talent but we should remember that the School was established with the express purpose, ‘of providing at a moderate cost, for the sons of Clergymen and others, a classical, mathematical and general education of the highest class, whilst doing all things necessary, incidental, or conducive to the attainment of the above objects.’ Therefore it is not surprising that Oxbridge clergymen ruled the roost.
Of course, times have changed. We are no longer a single-sex monocultural community. As we enter the hundred and eightieth year since our foundation, we have become a wonderfully diverse and enviably inclusive community. Entrance to Rossall is no longer dependent upon gender and nor do we consider faith to be a determining factor. This is not a school purely for Christian boys; it is a school for everyone. Almost every major faith is reflected here within our community but there are a good number of Rossallians who do not have a faith and you may choose to class yourself as a humanist, agnostic or atheist. You might simply be uncertain or identify culturally as a Christian without necessarily believing the fundamental tenets of faith such as creation, the incarnation or the resurrection. That too, is fine. Faith is something that is deeply personal and our beliefs tend not to be static. It is the case that they evolve throughout our lives. Labels are unhelpful and I see no reason why we should feel moved to identify with any of the above.
I am sometimes asked why we have assemblies. After all, we could just send notices around via email. Awards do not need to be presented in person and hymn singing can seem like a bit of a faff at times. Occasionally, I am asked why we include a prayer in our assemblies. Is it not enough that we attend Chapel on alternate Fridays? So let me try to explain why I believe that meeting together in this building is such an important part of our collective life as a community.
First of all, we live in an age which tends to be dismissive of traditions. We tend to critique the past and find all manner of shortcomings. We quite rightly identify misogyny, imperialism, nationalism and many other isms as prevalent ills within the cultural landscape of the past. We are less adept at celebrating the enormous sacrifice that past generations have made. Courage, compassion, conviviality and creativity are not always celebrated. The ethos and values of a community such as ours tend to be bound up with lived traditions that are passed on from one generation to another. Meeting in this building reminds us that we are part of something that is bigger than ourselves. We are members of a vibrant community that stretches back into the distant past and which we hope will continue for many generations to come.
Gathering here together reminds us that we are surrounded by friends and that we are loved and valued on account of our own uniqueness. Members of staff who may admonish you on account of the fact that you are whispering or incorrectly attired care for you enormously. After all, they have chosen to dedicate a good part of their lives to supporting you. Chapel is also a great leveller. Before God we are all equal and, in this space, we come together as one community.
Life can be challenging and when we meet together in this place, we are reminded that we are not alone. There is a real value to facing the tribulations of life together. Sadness, joy, despair and excitement are emotions that are best shared. From our earliest origins, humans have sought the company of others. Together we feel safe and confident. Together we possess a power that individually we may well lack. Perhaps that power is best represented through the stirring sound of a chapel flooded with the sound of our voices. The singing of hymns is a collective act of worship but it is also an opportunity to join together and be part of something that is reflective of our fantastically vibrant and dynamic community.
The inclusion of a prayer within the context of an assembly is really important. We are a Church of England foundation and we have a responsibility to maintain, at least in part, the vision of our founders. However, I believe that praying serves as an important function for those of no faith as those who consider themselves to be really committed Christians. Praying is an act of intercession; it is the action of intervening on behalf of another. When the Chaplain asks for God’s blessing upon us or we join together to say the words of the Lord’s Prayer, then something profoundly beautiful occurs. As a community we pause to reflect upon those who are vulnerable; be it those without food or shelter or those caught up in the maelstrom of war. Those amongst us who are feeling anxious or lost may well derive comfort from the knowledge that those around us love and support us to such an extent that they willingly pray for us – that is no small thing.
I know that when life is tough, the knowledge that someone else is thinking of you is often deeply reassuring yet I would suggest that the knowledge that someone else is praying for you may feel awkward or even embarrassing. ‘Why are they praying for me?….. I am not even a Christian’. I would suggest that the act of prayer is an act of care – a gift that is given as readily to those of no faith as to those of steadfast belief. Whether or not you believe that God is listening or that such prayers will be answered is not for me to determine. However, I do think that we should celebrate the fact that we are members of a community which contains those who choose to actively pray for us both individually and collectively.
Of course, gathering together as a community provides us with the opportunity to explore issues that impact upon all of us. When it comes to themes such as Black Lives Matter, Pride Week, Holocaust Memorial Day, internationalism and the environment, the most powerful voices within this building are your own. This is a place within which we celebrate our differences and learn from the lived experiences of others. It is also a place where we celebrate accomplishments. We might marvel at the talent of one of our brilliant musicians or we might applaud an act of personal kindness. In doing so, we share a good deal more than the moment itself with one another.
It is important that we continue to gather together as one community. During Covid, I would sometimes come into the Chapel and long for a time when it would, once again, be filled with the joyous sound of a school community gathering together. Perhaps in the moment, I was not conscious of the fact that I was praying. Nonetheless, I do think that someone was most definitely listening.
Headmaster of Rossall School