Anthony Howe reflects on his work at Hampton Court

It is not every day that you find yourself pictured in this august publication, comparing your shade of red with a Cardinal and the Home Secretary. But then again it is not every day that you find a service in your church making the New York Times, let alone the BBC News at Ten. Perhaps I should have expected it. Hampton Court Palace is an extraordinary place, in all senses of the word. It is one of the biggest ‘houses’ in the world (I am told it is a few rooms bigger even than Versailles – William III had to get one over on Louis XIV); indeed so vast that experts can’t quite decide how many rooms it actually has. When does a closet become a room, and vice-versa? There are 1300 at the very least. The place is famously associated with Henry VIII and the progression of wives who briefly inhabited it; but there is much more to

Hampton Court than an overweight Tudor monarch with delusions of divinity. It is, to this day, a Royal Palace (although not currently occupied by a member of the Royal Family) run on Her Majesty’s behalf by Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that cares for the Tower of London and the Banqueting House in Whitehall, amongst others.

That is where I come in. As chaplain here, I am not just in charge of a very pretty room in a very pretty place. It is, indeed, stunningly beautiful – so much so that I sometimes have to pinch myself to believe that I am there. The Chapel here is a Chapel Royal: part of that enigmatic institution that, for the best part of a thousand years, has ministered to the spiritual needs of the monarch. Indeed, when we speak of the Chapel Royal, we are not so much doing so about buildings, but that body or college that exists to this day. It was only later that the buildings that had variously housed it also became known as Chapels Royal as well. Today there are five such buildings: one at Hampton Court, two at the Tower of London, and two at St James’s Palace, which is now the headquarters.

That is why chaplains like me sport the scarlet. I must admit that it took some getting used to, and it is certainly not easy to blend in (except with Cardinals and Home Secretaries); but again I suppose that is the essence of this place – nothing is ordinary.

Given this, you would be forgiven for thinking that I had immensely grand job or even a sinecure! Certainly most chaplains here in the recent past have been approaching retirement. But a sinecure it is certainly not; and neither is it grand. Yes, there are those occasions, and we have a few titles in the congregation; but the vast majority of what I do is the work of a parish priest in a parish in which only 15 people live, but many more work. Her Majesty aside, I am there to minister to the spiritual needs of the staff of the palace and to the half-a-million-or-so tourists who come through the Chapel doors each year. It is a staggering number and a huge opportunity for proclaiming the Gospel.

In this, I have had nothing but encouragement from the palace authorities. You might expect those who manage tourists to want the Chapel to get the religion over and done with before they arrive; but the opposite is true. I have started lunchtime masses for staff and tourists, who often comment how much they value it. The turnover is enormous – but if they go away feeling the love of God, I feel that our job is well done. During the week, we keep the Chapel open during the services, so that visitors can see what is taking place, even if they don’t join in. Some come in and go out, some sit at the back quietly, and some stay and come up for Holy Communion. Children watch from the gallery upstairs. Some of them have never seen a mass before! Of course, nobody comes to Hampton Court expecting to go to church. When they find one, and one that is open and proclaiming the Catholic faith as the Church of England has traditionally received it, many are surprised and uplifted.

There is also the matter of the music. The tradition of choral music in the Chapel Royal is second to none. Everyone who was anyone, from Tallis to Purcell, was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. We still use the 300-year-old organ that Handel once played. Much of what is sung here (and indeed in other choral establishments) was written by the forebears of the current choir, much of it for this place. As a musician, I find that interesting since whilst the 1535 ceiling is stunning visually, it has the effect of producing the acoustic of a bus shelter. No long sonorous echoes would have accompanied Byrd’s Great Service or Shepherd’s Second Service. The boys would have had to have worked very hard, as they do today.

And perhaps that is the greatest asset. Nowhere else can someone go and hear so much music written so long ago, performed in its original context so often. The choir of men and boys is a precious asset, so much so that we have established a Choral Foundation to raise money that will pay for it in perpetuity. Contrary to expectations, cash does not issue forth in vast amounts from the Crown. Increasingly, we are expected to be self-sufficient – and that is no bad thing.

But there is more to this than just rarified music making. We have no choir school, and all the boys are recruited from the local area. Recruitment is increasingly growing as more and more want to join the choir. Competition is stiff. We have boys from all backgrounds, and a recent development is working with schools in deprived areas. Music is a precious resource and in cash-strapped schools it is often sacrificed. By encouraging youngsters to sing, the Chapel Royal is, in a small way, doing its bit to keep alive and grow the tradition outside its baroque walls.

And that is what I love about this place. Whilst it is extraordinary, in so many ways it is so ordinary. It is not a parish, but I find myself still doing much of what a parish priest does – without all the paperwork! Nine years in a UPA in West Yorkshire was remarkably good training. I would have never expected to find myself here, but God is full of surprises, and He has certainly led me to places of which I would never have thought.

Services in the Chapel Royal, which are based around the Book of Common Prayer, are open to all. Entrance to the palace is free if you want to attend, as long as you don’t wander off afterwards! You don’t have to be a member of the Royal Family, or have a title or a plummy accent to worship here. You just have to be you. ND

The Revd Anthony Howe is Chaplain and Deputy Priest in
Ordinary at Hampton Court Palace.