Marble statues of saints watch over the cityLouis Ashworth

Once upon a time I had approximately one and a half religious friends. Before Cambridge, I had lived almost my entire life in Brighton, a city which has proudly declared itself the most godless in the UK. When I started university here, the dizzying array of churches, college chapels and chirpy chaplains inviting us all for tea seemed just another aspect of the bizarre Cambridge traditions with which we were bombarded, and which it was best to go along with without taking too seriously. I watched cassocked flocks of choristers bob along to chapel on a Sunday, as if plucked from a picture-postcard, delightfully twee Cambridge of the past. I smiled politely but firmly at the particularly persistent street-preachers often hanging around outside Boots (a mainstay, in all fairness, of any city-centre). I focused my attention on other, more clearly outmoded aspects of Cambridge culture: I was not a believer, but faith, surely, was a private matter.

Is Cambridge preserving its Christian traditions artificially?

But the longer I lived in Cambridge, the more I begun to feel that there was something uncomfortable about the specifically Christian structure around which life at this university is subtly pitched. From the innumerable chimings and clashings of bells which mark out the hours of our days, to standing, head bowed, in formal hall while grace is read, to reading grace myself, I began to wonder if it was Cambridge, not Brighton, that was the odd one out. In an increasingly secular country, was Cambridge preserving its Christian traditions artificially? There’s a very particular cognitive dissonance produced by standing at the front of an early Tudor hall and asking a Christ I don’t believe in to feed my body with the spiritual nourishment of his Word. At least I had an inherited cultural picture of Cambridge with which to square this rather stiff adherence to a traditional Church of England lifestyle: what would those who had come to Cambridge with no notion of what to expect make of this? And how would someone from an Islamic, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist background view the marked presence of Christian ritual in daily college life?

I am reminded of Virginia Woolf’s vision, laid out in 1938’s ‘Three Guineas’, of the radical possibilities for a break with tradition that could be created in the new women’s Cambridge colleges: “Do not have chapels. Do not have museums and libraries with chained books and first editions under glass cases. Let the pictures and the books be new and always changing”. Eighty years on, I wonder if we are any closer to fulfilling Woolf’s brief for a fresh and thoughtful Cambridge. I wonder if we should all consider the new colleges built without chapels as a first and important step.

When I stand in the courtyard at dusk and hear the bells ringing for Sunday evensong, I know they do not ring for me

The central conceit of Phillip Pullman’s well-known fantasy series, ‘His Dark Materials’, is of many parallel worlds placed on top of each other, where we begin in Lyra’s Oxford; an Oxford very much like our own, with some key differences. I would like to propose a similar phenomenon at work in our own ancient university town: here too, it can feel as if worlds are piled on top of each other, different versions of Cambridge brought together in complicated array and vying for the upper hand behind a seemingly unchanging façade of honey-coloured brickwork. There’s the traditional Cambridge, a sort of retrospective fantasy of a pre-war idyll, complete with buttered scones and chaps being chaps, to which those postcard choristers belong. There’s the Cambridge of the ordinary undergraduate and our anxious library stints. There’s the Cambridge of those who really live here, getting on with their own lives and perhaps irritated by our loudly oblivious student pomposity, which positions itself at the centre of this little world. There’s the Cambridge of the rough-sleepers: people living in extraordinarily close proximity to us as students, and for whom our blindness is often inexcusable.


Mountain View

Negotiating silences

I have many friends in college choirs: they don’t see themselves as ambassadors for this traditional Cambridge. When they sing, their wide-eyed faces, the praising O of their open mouths, become ciphers onto which we can project ecstatic reverence, Middle England, provincial parochialism. But really they’re just students: brilliant, funny, young. Some believe in God, and others are less sure.

I don’t know how to resolve the gulfs between worlds in Cambridge: it’s often claimed you either find or lose your faith at university, and I seem to have done neither; perhaps I’m not the one to say. When I stand in the courtyard at dusk and hear the bells ringing for Sunday evensong, I know they do not ring for me, and I wonder if they should ring so persistently at all. Many university representatives of the church are striving tirelessly to make Christian Cambridge map better onto a changing world, from the creation of ‘radically inclusive’ church services to welcome LGBT+ Christians, to the wonderful kindness and warmth I know many chaplains here extend to all students, regardless of religious background. But the Christian structure of college life, the blurring of religious and pastoral duties, speaks with uncomfortable surety of an unchanging Cambridge. Another world.