You would be forgiven for thinking, when your post-bop hangover is disturbed on Sunday morning by the ringing of hundreds of church bells across Oxford, that we are living in a Christian city. You would be forgiven for thinking that Christianity was alive and kicking when hearing your college choir rehearse in the chapel, when walking past one of Oxford’s many beautiful churches on the way to lectures, or even when ignoring those incessant facebook invites to text-a-toastie.
But Christianity, in Oxford and the UK today, is a minority pursuit. A brief look at local authority data from the 2011 census revealed 48% of the Oxford city population consider themselves to be Christian and 33.1% to be of no religion (with Muslims making up the next-largest group at 6.8%). These figures are well below the national averages of 59.3% Christian and 25.1% non-religious.
Fair enough, Christians do constitute the largest group. But the vast majority of them are nominal Christians, identifying so for cultural reasons, not religious ones. In a 2011 YouGov poll conducted at the same time as the census, people were asked when was the last time they attended of worship for religious reasons (as opposed to family or tourist reasons). 63% of people in England and Wales hadn’t attended in the last year and only 9% of people had bothered attended a place of worship within the last week! Admittedly, this poll was commissioned by the British Humanist Association, but even so, the 1 in 10 churchgoing figure is in broad agreement with all the other polls I found online. Because the Fourth Commandment calls on Christians to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” churchgoing for prayer, scripture and sacraments is how our society defines a practising Christian.
I grew up in a place where everyone went to Church, and one particular kind of – Catholic – church at that. You could count the number of Protestants on one hand, and the number of anything else on no hands at all. I know what living Christianity looks like. And I know its problems. Where no one can come out as gay for fear for societal retribution, where shops don’t sell contraception, where saying you are an atheist brings shame on the family, and, in my case, risks estrangement.
As someone who is supposed to uphold an evidence-based way of life, it would be silly of me to say Christianity is completely dead in Oxford. But meaningful Christian faith is not part of the daily life of the vast majority of its citizens. Within our colleges, the Christian Union is a society, a hobby, like any other. Just as some eccentric individuals think getting up at 5am to row is the best start of the day, so do some students think going to Church on a Sunday is the best use of their time.
Christianity is just one of many religions in this city. I personally know Muslims, and Hindus, and Jews and Quakers. There is now even an atheist Church in the form of Oxford Sunday Assembly! The City of the Dreaming Spires was christened so because of its many churches. But Christianity is dying here, today in the 21st century. And perhaps it wouldn’t be too cheeky of me to venture that it’s a healthier Christianity for it. Better 10% of the city and our colleges are truly-believing Christians who actually get something out of going to Church, rather than 100% who go out of a sense of duty and sin.
by Joshua Peppiatt
I came up to Oxford two years ago unsure of myself and unsure of my faith. I was apprehensive: would there be any other Christians in this famous city of academia, home to Dawkins and Hitchens? Would my medical studies create doubts and weaken my convictions? Oxford of course has a famous history of Christianity. I was aware of our motto: Dominus Illuminatio Mea – The Lord is my light. I knew of the great Christians to have passed through our institution. But surely in 21st century Oxford, Christianity is dead?
Well, I soon found out how wrong I was. By the end of Freshers’ week I had met Christians in college who weren’t embarrassed about Jesus; in fact they loved speaking about him. Christianity wasn’t a hobby or something they did because of parental pressure, but was what they were most passionate about. They were part of the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU), a group of students from every college who want to give other students the chance to hear the message of Jesus.
I was immediately struck by the size and activity of the OICCU: there are hundreds of active members who give up a substantial part of their time in all that goes on. There are weekly Friday Lunchtime Talks addressing common objections to Christianity, last term attended by 150-200 people, many of whom aren’t Christians. A week of talks in 4th week of Hilary term each year sees thousands of students come to find out more about Jesus. Most importantly, each day students talk with their Christian friends about life’s big questions; I’ve been delighted to see two close friends in Oxford come to personally know Jesus this way.
You might also be surprised to know that there are many vibrant churches in Oxford full of all sorts of ages, races and backgrounds. I’ve taken great encouragement from being part of a local church, St. Ebbes, which not only is a place where I am cared for, but has challenged me to think seriously about whether Christianity makes sense and examine who the historical Jesus was.
You may be thinking this has no relevance to you. But what if I said Christianity is alive in Oxford today because Jesus is alive? I’d like to challenge you that Jesus, the historical man that lived and died, doesn’t leave you the option to ignoring him or dismissing him as just a good teacher. He makes outrageous claims, saying that he is not just the only way to know God, but also that he is God himself! C. S Lewis, the famous fellow of Magdalen, after looking into it himself, said: ‘We are faced then with a frightening alternative. This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what he said, or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that he was neither a lunatic nor a fiend; and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that he is God.’ What do you make of that?
Socrates said that ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ Use your time here to examine the claims of Christianity: that there is a God who you can know, and who loves you so much that he died for you. Where can you start? Talk to a Christian friend, ask them your questions. Come to the weekly Friday Lunchtime Talk or the Carol Service in the Sheldonian Theatre near the end of term. Christianity isn’t only alive in Oxford, it’s thriving, and it’s worth investigating too.