Every Sunday, hundreds of church bells ring loudly across Oxford, but for whom do the bells toll? According to many who are enrolled in the 38 colleges and six halls, religion is a minority pursuit among Oxford’s 20,000 students. Religious trends there appear to reflect the findings on Christianity in Britain in the latest figures from the Pew Research Centre. This report found that the proportion of the population identifying themselves as Christians is falling – and that the percentage of those unaffiliated, who claim no religion at all, is rising.
acquired by St Benet’s, despite there being only five monks at St Benet’s, instead of the 25 in the 1950s, Prof Jeanrond is confident that the Catholic Church has a strong presence in the city. “As well as some keen students, we have Lord Patten, the first Catholic chancellor at Oxford since the 16th century, and the spirits of other famous 19th- and 20thcentury Catholics who attended Oxford University live on – Graham Greene, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, GK Chesterton and JRR Tolkien.”
Charles Vaughan, president-elect of the Oxford Union in his final year of law, summed up the views of many of his fellow students: “Catholicism within student circles at Oxford is small, but the community is very close. Catholic students often go along to Mass together in groups, and they discuss theological matters. They are not overly vocal about their faith outside of the Catholic community, I should think because of the thoroughly agnostic sentiment of the contemporary student body.”
Although other students I spoke to also remarked on how the majority studying at Oxford are nominal Christians, identifying with churches for cultural, not religious reasons, some thought otherwise.
Brendan Brett, president of the Oxford branch of the Companions of the Order of Malta, which runs a soup kitchen for the homeless and visits the elderly, said: “The Catholic profile may be lower than it was but it is strong and more focused than it ever has been. We have 560 members who volunteer to carry out charitable work.”
Natalie Denny, a medical student who is chairwoman of the Newman Society, the Catholic student organisation, confirmed this: “There is a vibrant Catholic community here with at least 200 students coming to the Chaplaincy each Sunday – and that’s just in one church alone.” When I summarised this to theology professor Werner Jeanrond, the Master of St Benet’s Hall, the Benedictine permanent private hall in the university, he said:
All Souls College, Oxford, viewed from the spire of St Mary the Virgin
“No longer can the number of people on pews be the sole measure of the vibrancy of Christianity. An absence from church does not mean that Catholics are not informed by a complex Christianity.”
This impressive academic, whose long list of publications includes the book The Theology of Love, then challenged the conclusions of polls in quantifying whether people follow a religion.
“Going to Mass on Sunday morning should no longer be the sole criterion of religious belief. The death of certain institutional expressions of Christianity is not necessarily a sign of bad news – new forms are emerging. Christianity is far from dead in Oxford, instead it is in an exciting stage of transformation.”
Looking out of the window of his study at St Benet’s, he added: “I’ve never lived in a city with so many churches. There are at least 60 or 70. Oxford competes with Rome. But there is a major transformation of religious life here. Remember, the fabric of Christianity changes.”
Others I spoke to were sceptical. Charles Vaughan, for instance, said that many students describe themselves as “culturally” religious to some degree and, like so many around him, he himself, despite having being christened, does not practise any religion. This, he said, appeared to be standard among Oxford students today. Tellingly, he added: “Real belief in an interventionist supernatural being – particularly the Catholic conception of God – is viewed with deep scepticism, and sometimes contempt.”
There is an irony that Christianity may be fading in Oxford. After all, this metropolis of academia was given the epithet ‘‘the city of dreaming spires’’ by Matthew Arnold because of the city’s multitude of churches.
One aspect which emphasises the Pew Report are the churches for sale listed on the Church of England website. We all look on Zoopla and Rightmove when searching for property to buy, but there is another venue: a page entitled “Closed Churches Available for Disposal” on the website churchofengland.org. The current list of the approximately 20 CofE churches that close each year includes an attractive example near Chichester and another near the centre of Exeter.
The decline in Church of England attendance has made many places of worship redundant – about 1,500 between 1969 and 2002. Some became derelict, others were demolished but now many are sought after for residential conversion.