We believe that a solid spiritual foundation is essential if we want to prepare our students for a lifetime of personal fulfillment and contribution to society. The oldest tradition at St. John’s School, the chapel program ministers to students’ individual and collective well-being by setting aside a special time and place for communal contemplation of religious faiths, virtues, spirituality, and community.
While the School is aware that the primary responsibility for children’s spiritual development rests with their families and allied religious organizations, we also believe that an institutional indifference to spiritual concerns would undermine the School’s efforts to develop in our students “a perspective larger than self-interest” and an ethos of “service to others.” Aware that “piecemeal values do not long survive outside a comprehensive value system” (SJS Guiding Principles), the School focuses attention on the spiritual needs of our students because we believe that a solid spiritual foundation is essential if we want to prepare our students “for a lifetime of personal fulfillment and contribution to society” (SJS Mission).
The Place of Faith and Virtue in our Chapel Programs
In accordance with the School’s Mission, Guiding Principles, and Articles of Incorporation, our chapels operate within the Judeo-Christian tradition and adopt an inclusive Christian orientation and liturgy, sensitive in developmentally appropriate ways to students from other faith traditions while seeking to remain faithful to the Judeo-Christian Episcopalian roots from which the School sprang.
Our chapel programs are not focused exclusively on religious concerns, and often explore ethical or spiritual matters unaligned with a specific faith tradition. For instance, an Upper School chapel might focus on the spiritual dimension of artistic creation. Many of our chapel programs, however, do focus on religious concerns. Regularly, they incorporate Christian hymns, prayers, readings, symbols, liturgy, and ritual. On occasion, they incorporate materials from Jewish traditions. Whether learning about Easter or Yom Kippur, Buddha or Krishna, our students are learning how to engage meaningfully with belief systems other than their own and be respectful of and knowledgeable about those who hold different beliefs. While students are required to attend chapel, they are not required to participate in songs, prayers, or other elements of the liturgy. All we require is that students remain respectful throughout chapel, and what we hope is that our students will seek greater understanding of beliefs, faiths, and perspectives presented.
The School’s chapel program is grounded in a single faith tradition in part because our chapel program cannot validate all faiths and should not celebrate an unavoidably low common denominator among all belief systems. In this, as in other areas of school life, our aim is to achieve a sensible balance. On the one hand, our chapel does not try to be all things to all people. Yet, on the other hand, the School’s chapel program cannot, should not, and does not try to duplicate the worship experiences many of us have on Saturdays or Sundays for two reasons: attendance at school chapels is mandatory, not voluntary; and the community that gathers in our chapels is not a community of believers, but a community of students whose religious diversity is sought and valued.
Regularly, our students are offered opportunities for spiritual education and development in which a specific set of beliefs is presented in a forthright, yet sensitive way. Beliefs and symbols are offered for what they are – powerful expressions of a specific faith tradition that many find sustaining – and, in presenting them in a forthright way, our chapels reflect an appropriate reverence for each faith tradition.
Most often, thanks to the incredible generosity of our good neighbors at The Church of St. John the Divine, our chapel programs are held in the main sanctuary of the church. However, on occasion, we hold chapel in our Lowe Theater because it better supports the audio-visual or space needs of certain presentations.
Other Virtues of Chapel
Our chapels serve other important educational purposes as well. As the primary occasion when all students within a division gather, our chapels help us to build community and to attend to our community’s needs. In addition, our chapels provide students with valuable opportunities to showcase musical talents, exercise leadership, and develop speaking skills.
Beyond Chapel: Religion at St. John’s School
Chapel is not the only or even the primary way the School asks students to explore the religious dimension of human experience. Knowing how important it is to develop students’ understanding of various faith traditions at an appropriate time in their education and maturation, the School incorporates significant education about various faith traditions in to our curriculum at developmentally appropriate times and ways. Teachers in the history department realize that one cannot examine the interconnection among civilizations and cultures without studying the religions and belief systems which buttress them. This is done in both the Middle and Upper School history courses. In the Upper School, juniors and seniors have the opportunity to enroll in elective courses focusing broadly on religion in America today, historical religious foundations, ethics, justice, and equity.
We prefer to make the academic classroom the primary site for education about religious traditions for several reasons: First, classroom instruction permits dialogue, monitored by teachers who can ensure that such dialogue remains respectful, and we consider dialogue essential to meaningful education about religious traditions. Second, unlike chapel programs, classroom instruction can be sustained and systematic. Finally, on a symbolic level, by incorporating instruction about various religious traditions into our core academic curriculum, we signal to students its importance.
Outside our chapels and our classrooms, the School supports a healthy religious pluralism. In our music program, students routinely perform sacred music from varied religious traditions. Our community service efforts often involve students in projects sponsored by faith-based organizations. We permit groups of students, with the appropriate guidance from sponsoring teachers, to become involved non-proselytizing faith-based activities open to the entire St. John’s community.
We hope that our shared understanding of religion’s place within the School will help us to view our religious diversity as a strength and our common spiritual aspirations as a foundation for understanding and respect.