University often represents an opportunity for fresh starts and new beginnings. With so many societies to join, the challenges of living on your own, and meeting endless amounts of new people, sometimes your previous religious background gets shelved. What if it were the other way around? That’s exactly what happened to Tom Piper, a Southampton graduate and friend, who grew closer to Christianity the further he got into his university journey.
I stepped into Burgess Road Library on a grey Wednesday and encountered the staleness and stagnation that is to be expected in the world of book-borrowing, which there is ever-decreasing funding for . Tom came down to greet me as I put down a Michael Palin railway travel guide, and gave me a brief behind-the-scenes tour. The offices Tom and his fellow ministry trainees were sharing seemed no different than what one would expect, with the addition of bibles laid casually, but carefully I’m sure, across various desks. There is, as ever, more than meets the eye with the staff of this plucky book-borrowing centre doubling up as the staff of Christ Church, an independent Christian establishment in Southampton
‘I still had questions about life‘, Tom told me, a heavy topic indeed for a midweek winter hump-day. ‘You get to uni and you don’t know what you’re going to do, who you’re going to be in the world. I had experience of Church [as a child], it was boring‘. At first, Tom’s questions were not answered by religion either, yet as things “settled down” in his second and third year, it was through Tom’s history degree that his interest, and his faith, was re-lit. ‘Christianity seemed like a bunch of rules; sex and sexuality. Why is God obsessed with this stuff? I was surprised about the strength of evidence Christianity had; Jesus really was a solid historical figure.‘
By his final year, Tom was intrigued again. Yet, I wondered how Christ Church exactly dealt with his objections. ‘Someone took their time to rationally explain things to me, to deal with my objections. Christ Church allow people to ask the questions about Christianity. It really threw me.‘
Fast forward a few weeks to the first ‘Sunday 6 o’clock’ of this new decade, and the place is completely transformed. Hardback rigidity has been replaced with harmonious hymnal rhythms sung from the soul. Pastors Peter and John engage a, notably young, full house with spiritual psalms. The only books in sight are those containing the Old and New Testaments, with noisy discussion now actively encouraged rather than hush hushed. As with every Sunday evening, Monday night, and whenever else they get the chance to host a night of religious reasoning, Christ Church has altered the landscape of how religion fits into the University student’s life.
Clearly, Tom’s journey has seen his faith restored, and a sense of belonging has developed for him within Christ Church. However, that’s not necessarily the case for rest of the nation.
Only 6% of adults are defined as practicing Christians. People who define themselves as non-religious are the fastest growing group in the UK, according to a 2017 survey. When looking at UK university students, almost half of those asked don’t define themselves as belonging to any religion, let alone Christianity.
“Churches have lost confidence in their message”
I was afforded time with Orlando Saer, the senior pastor at Christ Church’s Southampton roots. Orlando attributed the bleak religious reality to the wider fragmentation of society. With ‘political polarisation, populism…, [and]despair at government‘ all on the rise, this has affected religion too. ‘Churches have lost confidence in their message, minimising the distance between what they teach and what society believes, thinking that it will be easier to attract people […] into their churches‘. Yet, Christ Church may well thrive out of these contracting societal cracks.
‘Churches like us are well placed to offer inclusion to those who might not feel that anymore‘, Orlando told me. Christ Church not only offers an alternative to the lost and loneliest; youths like Tom are increasingly feeling at home in the humble library on Burgess Road. The median age of Christ Church is closer to 24, something that is most unusual according to Orlando.
What Christ Church really have done, as Tom experienced, is attempted to ask and answer the big questions of today. January saw a series of discussion evenings hosted by Christ Church, questioning the evidence of God’s existence and Christianity’s relationship with science, amongst other philosophical faucets of fascination.
“People have all sorts of backgrounds and baggage […] with all sorts of things going on”
This level of religious relevance is something that many young people lose when voyaging to university. Yet Christ Church, as their core values remind us, stick firmly to what the bible has to say on a moral platform. ‘We want to recognise social reality. People have all sorts of backgrounds and baggage when they come through our doors. When they start to take Jesus seriously, inevitably [they want to]regulate things they have been lax within their lifestyle. Regulate and moderate‘. This may create a complex relationship with the university atmosphere, something that often adheres to its stereotypical reputation of sex before marriage and heavy drinking among other sins.
However, this has not prevented students representing a third of Christ Church’s participants. With nights like Student Connect, a night of curries and bible discussion, and specific student pastors catering for the younger demands, it is easy to understand the unique demographic.
Christ Church Southampton truly feels different to the standard religious institutions I have been exposed to. This may well be as a result of the shared occupations with Burgess Road Library and Cantell School, removing any archaic inferences that Church of England locations are often exposed to. It also may well be due to the warm and welcoming feel of the people who work there. Or, as Orlando puts it, it may well be simply down to what Christ Church has to offer the transitional Southampton student;
Visit their website here.