Diary: being a vicar in secular society
It may be school half term, but the Oxford University term is only three weeks in. My first encounter with this year’s freshers at Corpus Christi College was at the Welfare introductory meeting where I faced an Auditorium full of eighteen-year-olds looking down challengingly at me from seats tiered as steeply as the Coliseum. Times have changed. 40 years ago, at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, I met every fresher for an obligatory ten-minute interview in my room. At Corpus when I stood up to speak I sensed intuitively that I must begin by saying I recognise this is a multi-faith society, an international society, and with 70% of their age group in the UK claiming to have no religion, also a post-religious society. The sight of nodding heads made me more relaxed. Thus, I acknowledged the unwritten terms and conditions on which I act as Chaplain.
I also do chaplaincy work in St Hilda’s College where each term I hold ‘The Chaplain’s Chat’ – a public conversation between me and a distinguished guest. We’ve talked about religion in the media, Christianity and the meaning of life, what theology is and why it’s worth pursuing in an age of unbelief, and discussed Philip Pullman’s approach to religion and writing – with the author himself as my interlocutor. This term my guest will talk about what it’s like to be a Muslim woman in British society. Students turn out in good numbers for these occasions because they’re genuinely interested and know they’ll enjoy a no-holds-barred discussion afterwards. Students know as well as anyone the teasing angst of the ultimate questions: who am I? What’s life about? Does it mean anything? And it’s easy to confuse indifference towards religious institutions with antipathy towards the spiritual. Even indifference might be an unfair accusation: cultural ignorance nearer the mark.
But there’s antagonism towards religion in other quarters. In St Hilda’s College the room that was the chapel is about to be demolished as part of a major re-development. Some Fellows think it shouldn’t be replaced, and if we must it should be a Faith Room rather than a Christian chapel. Why should Christianity, and Anglicanism in particular, be privileged in this contemporary, secular society? If you were building a college from scratch, would you include a chapel at all?
The Church has to engage intellectually with such attitudes. It’s no good being proudly counter-cultural only to be pushed further and further towards the margins. Many of the objections are prejudicial anyway: objectors usually haven’t ever attended a chapel event and some blandly assume, in a Dawkins-like way, that what goes on there is a sinister attempt at brainwashing and the promotion of irrational belief in impossible things. Had we a historic chapel building and world class choir the argument wouldn’t so easily progress and, in any case, the aesthetic virtues of uplifting music would be seen as self-authenticating and as transcending the perceived small-mindedness of theology.
Since retiring from the University Church, I often preach in rural churches near where I live in Islip and find that congregations respond enthusiastically to sermons exploring basic theological ideas or explaining principles of Biblical criticism in relation to a text. This response is not merely from the intelligentsia – no one wants to be talked down to or treated like a primary school child. Actually, primary school children don’t like being talked down to either. One sermon even led to comment in the parish magazine. I’m not saying a more intellectual approach would fill these churches, but it would be a start.
Each week I write an e-pistle to everyone at Corpus. The Emeritus Professor of English recoils from the neologism – too like ‘e-commerce’ – but admits, were he alive today, St Paul would have emailed the Ephesians. Last week’s letter drew a reply from an Honorary Fellow lamenting the Church of England’s seeming lack of interest in critical theology. To my mind he’s right: critical theology is essentially creative rather than a tropical storm threatening to sink the fragile ark of Christianity.
For the past year I’ve also been Publisher at Large for the ‘Christian Alternative’ imprint of John Hunt Publishing. Many of the books I’m offered are by authors over sixty years old, but I really want to hear younger voices. In this week’s e-pistle I floated the idea of persuading ten people in the 18 – 24 age-bracket to write 4000 words each on what they think about religion. I said I’d be equally interested in arguments for and against, perspectives on being, for example, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, atheist and of ‘no religion’, or of being ‘spiritual but not religious’. I’d like to get to the edge of what I earlier described as antagonism and indifference and cultural dissonance. Generally, we find multi-authored books hard to sell and therefore resist them, but I think this would work. I’m pleased to report, seven students have already committed to contribute. It could be a twenty-first century ‘Essays and Reviews’, which set out the historic manifesto of modern Liberal Anglicanism and, despite its prosaic title, caused a stir in the 1860’s. But I’m not limiting this to Oxford and would be delighted to hear from anyone reading this.
I need to write my own chapter about the future of religion, how I see religion in Britain today, and how our indifference contrasts with rising fundamentalisms.
The Lord’s prayer gets to the essence of Christianity in a way that seems to me thoroughly modern. It says: there are universal and transcendent values that we must respect; we must try to realise these values in our society; let us be content with basic provision; help us to act lovingly.