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Church Times: Cambridge chapels flourish, as the young engage with tradition

December 12, 2011

Where students can reconnect

Cambridge chapels flourish, as the young engage with tradition, says Duncan Dormor

Students at a service in St John’s College, Cambridge.

If we don’t pay for it, does it really matter? I am writing about church attendance, and, indeed, growth in attendance among university stu­dents, as the result of the work of chaplains in higher education.
For many of those inside the Church of England, the parish re­mains the real deal; chaplaincy, in all its forms, is a sideshow. Yet chap­laincy often connects literally and profoundly with “where people are”. Part of the reason for its marginal status is that much of it does not connect directly to worshipping communities whose numbers can be counted.

A recent survey (under­taken with the assistance of the Archbishops’ Council research and statistics department) across the 22 colleges in the University of Cam­bridge served by Anglican clergy, however, produced some startling results. It found that, each week, more than 1600 students — 9.5 per cent of the total student body — attend worship in a college chapel, and that, over the course of a year, 38 per cent attend at least one service — a figure that rises to more than 85 per cent in five of the colleges. Given that many stu­dents also attend local churches, this paints a deeply encouraging picture of the standing of Christianity in this leading research university.

Additionally, it is not just stu­dents who attend; rather, college chapels serve a much wider com­munity, and the numbers begin to add up. The total weekly attendance in these 22 modest buildings is more than 4300. Given that adult attendance in the average diocese is less than 21,000, it is no surprise that most of the chapels enjoy larger congregations than most parish churches, despite the fact that those college com­munities, including aca­demic and support staff, range from just 500 to 1500 people.

Furthermore, although this is the first full survey, there are clear signs of increased attendance over the past decade. In one of the larger chapels, the numbers attending have in­creased by 56 per cent since 2002, and many chaplains have been taken aback by the high numbers of stu­dents attending choral services, especially when billed as specials or one-offs.

I believe that it is highly likely that this development is connected to one of the great recent success stories — that of the cathedrals, which have seen their congregations grow by 37 per cent since 2000. Until now, how­ever, the chapel figures have gone unrecorded by the Church of Eng­land because Cambridge colleges, like most other chaplaincy settings, sit outside the system for measuring attendance, which is based on the parochial system.

“Out of sight, out of mind” means not only that good news is often suppressed, but that we con­tinue to have a partial view of the state of play, and make assumptions about what is likely to work. For example, we might assume that to attract young people our worship must be accessible and should mimic the forms of popular culture.

The reality, as always, is that to help to evoke a depth of commit­ment requires ministry that is grounded in people’s experiences and that en­gages with their struggles, their aspira­tions, and their desires to be of significance and to serve the common good. So college chaplains and deans provide a range of special services that fit the rhythms of student experience — be it late-night candle­lit services, the marking of matricu­la­tion or graduation, or the very well-attended Advent carol services.

There are a number of reasons why Anglican choral worship is proving so popular in Cambridge. One obvious cause is that colleges have been increasingly prepared to invest in choral music through the establishment of posts for musicians; support of new commissions and recordings; and investment in the musical training of young people. In all of this, they have been strongly supported by their alumni.

One reason why choral worship works for students is because large numbers of them are involved as singers, organists, and conductors. Indeed, they devote a considerable amount of their time and energies to making music “to the glory of God” each week across the chapels — and not just in the larger or more well-known choral establishments such as King’s, St John’s, Clare, or Trinity colleges.

Again, the numbers tell a story: there are 610 lay clerks employed by the C of E across all the English cath­edrals, yet the Cambridge colleges boast at least 500 students regularly involved in essentially the same activity. Going to chapel to “listen to the choir” is not, then, a strange thing to do; rather, it can be construed as a supportive act.

Choral compline or evensong provide an accessible and non-threatening space within which young people can think about their lives and become accustomed to the idea of worship — to the possibility that worship might actually make sense.

IN SOME ways, the Anglican choral tradition may well be entering a golden age — not necessarily a fresh, but certainly a refreshed and refresh­ing expression of Christian worship, fit for purpose in the 21st century.

That may appear counterintui­tive, although recent research from the United States, which seeks to identify characteristic types of reli­gious engagement among the young, suggests that a significant proportion of those becoming involved in Chris­tian worship can be described as “Reclaimers”. Like many others, they seek religious experience rather than instruction or dogma, but, unlike some, they reject most of the elements of contemporary worship, seeking instead to reclaim estab­lished traditions, finding within them a refuge from the super­ficial-ity of much popular culture, and the onslaught of the commercial world.

This thesis finds strong support in the increased engagement with Anglican choral worship, where young people can reconnect with the depths of human experience, in a context that allows, indeed en­courages, them to think things through for themselves. Unsurpris­ingly, under such conditions, many find an intelligent, imaginatively engaged Christian faith compelling.

The Revd Duncan Dormor is the President and Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.


One Comment leave one →
  1. December 13, 2011 08:34

    This is really terrific! Thanks for posting.

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