Christianity In Cambridge

FABIENNE CROCKET examines the image of Christianity in Cambridge, and explains the link between religion and genitalia…

Christianity CICCU crocket fabienne hinduism islam mark lewis religion sex before marriage toastie

As I embark on the final year of theology degree, I realise that I have somehow managed to (almost) entirely avoid studying Christianity.

Why do I embrace learning about other religions, but somewhat snub Christianity, which is, after all, the official religion of my country of residence? Perhaps it’s just a case of finding what is most familiar to be the least exciting, but ultimately, I have to admit that I’ve just never bothered to examine my prejudices about Christianity.

Nor am I the only one to do this; recently, a friend was trying to pinpoint just what it was about Christianity that “irritated” him, before coming to the simple conclusion that “they’re just a bit smug, aren’t they?” This is the kind of vague generalisation that would get my politically correct knickers in a twist if it were aimed at Islam or Hinduism, but because it targeted Christianity I just smirked.

I decided it was time to get to the bottom of some prejudices that Cambridge students (and perhaps people in general) have about Christians; are they really “a bit smug”, is their aim to convert everyone, and just what is the point of not having sex before marriage?

There has been a real diversity of beliefs amongst the Christians that I’ve spoken to over the past couple of weeks. ‘Loving Jesus’ was of course a consistent theme, as were general statements about loving thy neighbour, but apart from that, nobody seemed to completely agree on anything.

The most striking disagreement I experienced was over how far a Christian should go to persuade non-Christians to ‘love Jesus’. The Cambridge Intercollegiate Christian Union (CICCU) makes its purpose fairly clear on its website: “CICCU exists to make Jesus known to students in Cambridge.” This is a statement that some Christians I encountered felt was a little ‘in your face’. I spoke to Mark Lewis, CICCU president, who made no qualms about the fact that the organisation’s aim is to encourage people to think about Jesus.

Of Text-a-Toastie, the initiative whereby a Christian delivers a toastie free of charge to your door in return for a few minutes of ‘God chat’, Mark agreed with me that it could be seen as “a little bit shameless”. He didn’t deny that conversion might be a long-term goal, but he stressed the importance of people coming to their own conclusions. This ideal of encouraging people to think for themselves seems to be shared by many Christians in Cambridge – even those who are not such big fans of CICCU’s methods.

I have often heard jokes suggesting that Christians marry young because their pre-marriage celibacy has left feeling rather randy. Indeed, lots of the people I spoke to admitted to there being a danger that young Christians might rush into marriage. Having said that, the reasons cited for saving sex until marriage were fairly consistent: it is a reflection of your relationship with God; it is a chance to be totally committed; it is the most intimate you can be with someone. Mark admitted that “it might look like an arbitrary structure”, but went on to say that he sees it as a “great model that God’s given us”. And, as a friend at college commented, it saves a lot of heartbreak.

What was noticeable, time and time again, was how open the Christians I spoke to were prepared to be. It seems to me that for many, this is as much about getting along with fellow students as it is about encouraging an engagement that might lead to conversion. And yet, despite the fact that I admire the honest and thoughtful way my questions were tackled, this language of ‘loving’ and ‘knowing’ Jesus still feels a bit alien to me.

So can disparate belief systems be reconciled? Rosanna, CICCU interfaith officer (and fellow theologian), told me: “it’s really important to me that the Bible says the only way to God is through Jesus. It’s radical but that’s what I believe. I believe that the message of Jesus is life changing and seriously worth looking into. But at the same time, it’s crucial that I want to respect what other people believe, and so does CICCU as a whole”.

I guess the same must be true in reverse. I do not believe in God but I understand that genuine mutual respect is absolutely necessary. Conclusions like this remind me of what a wise old friend once told me: “Having a religion is like having a penis. It’s fine to have one, it’s even fine to be proud of it, but it’s not fine to wave it around in public”. With that, I think we will all agree.