Chapels Royal and the Ordinariates

Today being its Octave Day, my reference on the feast of the Epiphany to the Queen’s bestowal of gold, frankincense and myrrh upon her Chapel Royal at St. James’ Palace may lead some to wonder about that institution, which is an important survivor from the Middle Ages. Although in the United States Washington boasts the National Cathedral and the Church of the Presidents, and the White House has had religious services for the president at different times (according to the given chief executive’s denomination and tastes; Camp David has a chapel), these are private efforts. The Chapel Royal is a reminder of an age when Heads of State believed they owed their authority to God – and owed Him something in return.

The executive and judicial branches of government as we know them to-day evolved in different ways and at different times from the Royal Households of early Medieval Europe – themselves shaped similarly to those of all the great feudal households of that era. Justice was initially dealt by Emperors and Kings directly – and we still call a place where such stuff is done a “court;” judges are the successors of the men “learned in the law (Roman or Civil)” Monarchs initially hired to assist them, and eventually delegated their powers to. There was a chancery, the office from whence all correspondence was carried on; this was headed by a chancellor – in those early days a cleric, because they were the likeliest to be literate; even after literacy spread much further, they often remained clerics out of custom – St. Thomas More was the first layman to hold that role in England. The Chamberlain was Master of the Chamber, which held all of the King’s valuables, and acted as his treasury. All the King’s Horses and all the King’s Men were supervised by the Constable (Comes Stabuli, Count of the Stable). But for our purposes, the most important was the Chapel, headed by the Chaplain.

From the very beginning, the Chapel was more than simply the structure where the Monarch heard daily Mass – although as the number of castles and palaces multiplied, so did that of chapels – or the furnishings thereof. The spiritual needs of the Sovereign’s family and staff had to be met, and so there were court preachers and confessors. There must be musical accompaniment as well: choirs, orchestras – whatever liturgical fashion required. But in addition to providing the Monarch and his household the best spiritual guidance and artistic support he could find, he was also in charge of dispensing the King’s charity – and so many heads of Royal Chapels came to be called “Almoners” in the local language. He might also have some direction in the endowment of Royal Parishes, Abbeys, and so on – and in some cases, contributions to churches where the King was an honorary canon (the King of France had a number of these positions, inherited to-day by the president of that country; the Queen still holds a canonry at St. Davids Cathedral in Wales). Moreover, in Rome, the Holy Roman Emperors and the Kings of France, Spain, and England were all canons of one of the major basilicas. In the last case, this was St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls, whose abbot in return was the prelate of the Order of the Garter; that order’s coat of arms remains that of the Abbey (all of this in token of St. Paul’s legendary visit to England, which gave London’s cathedral its name). Of course, the head of the Royal Chapel would also have a great deal to do with the Royal Orders of knighthood as these developed in imitation of the Templars, Hospitallers, and Teutonic Knights. In later years, some Royal chaplains would also be connected to the given country’s military diocese. In some places, such as Italy and Austria, Royal chapels survived the overthrow of the Monarchy as government bodies.

In England, the Chapel Royal remains as an organisation with its own dean, as a musical body, and as several specific chapels among the Royal Peculiars (churches outside diocesan structures whose staffs are chosen by the Queen). Although James Pike, before he became Bishop of California, famously and fraudulently claimed his own chaplaincy at New York’s Columbia University was a Royal Peculiar due to the school’s original charter, there are several authentic Chapels Royal outside the United Kingdom: in Dublin, the Isle of Man, Gibraltar, and Canada. It is in that last country where the Chapels Royal and the Ordinariate collide.

Now Canada is a Commonwealth Realm, entirely independent from the United Kingdom since 1931; her only governmental connection with Britain is in having the same Queen, who is represented by a Governor-General in Ottawa, resident in Rideau Hall. In each provincial capital there is a Lieutenant Governor who represents Her Majesty at that level. Under Governor-General Georges Vanier (who with his wife is up for beatification) Rideau Hall boasted a Catholic chapel for daily Mass; so too did Bois de Coulonge, the residence of the LG of Quebec. On the night of February 21, 1966, Bois-de-Coulonge burned down; His Honour the Lieutenant Governor, Paul Comtois, died rescuing the Blessed Sacrament from the inferno. But while Quebec’s burned and Ottawa’s was later dismantled, neither was a Chapel Royal – although they were Viceregal! Similarly, although St. Bartholomew’s is the Anglican parish church for Rideau Hall and there are many Royal and Viceregal connexions with it, it too is not a Chapel Royal.

No, Canada’s three Chapels Royal have little to do with her current government; the oldest two emerged from intense loyalty to the Crown on the part of those most Canadian of all, the first nations – specifically, the Mohawk (the naming of the third, the Chapel Royal, Massey College, also came through a First Nation, though this time the Missisaugas). In 1702, Mohawk chiefs in upstate New York petitioned Queen Anne for missionaries and bibles; she sent them, alongside communion silver and Books of Common Prayer, and Queen Anne’s Chapel at Fort Hunter, New York was born. Sixty years later, the Mohawks sided with their King against the rebels, and in the end had to leave for Canada. The congregation split in two: Brantford (named a Chapel Royal by Edward VII in 1904), and Tyendinaga (similarly honoured by Elizabeth II exactly a century later). This latter is now home to the Christ the King Ordinariate Community, made up primarily of Mohawk.

In this place, where Pope and Queen are now prayed for at Mass – even as was done in all the Catholic Chapels Royal that ever existed – the symbols of reconciliation of past and present are everywhere. For the Mohawk themselves, the long split between Anglican and Catholic (St. Kateri Tekakwitha being the best known among the latter); for French and British, whose rival evangelisation efforts led to that split; for Loyalist and Rebel (whose descendants on both sides can be found throughout the border-transcending Ordinariate) – and all under the banner of Christ the King: truly a fitting role for an Ordinariate community. Moreover, it is also right that a part of one of the Church’s newest institutions – the Ordinariate – should be harboured in one of the oldest – a Chapel Royal. Thus we see the unity of the Church across time as well as space, culture, and ethnicity.  Of course, it were remiss of me not to mention that, perhaps unknown to both communities, Christ the King has a sister Catholic parish in another such British institution: the Chapel Royal, Falkland Palace, Scotland. That congregation has been ensconced therein since 1905, thanks to the work of another giant of the patrimony, John Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute. But that is another story for another day!

About Charles A. Coulombe

I am a Catholic Historical speaker and author.
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One Response to Chapels Royal and the Ordinariates

  1. Richard Grant says:

    With regard to the Tyendinaga Chapel Royal, it should be noted that the building is owned by the Mohawks and is used by a member of the Ordinariate to hold services with the permission of the local Chief and Council. The local Anglican Diocese of Ontario also uses it for services, although not weekly. There are actually two Anglican churches on the community and the Chapel Royal building is not used by the local Anglicans, since the Mohawk Anglican community uses the other one (Christ Church).


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