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Op-Ed: Wearing faith on your sleeve

Cambridge, U.K. – 26/02/2011 – as published in Varsity

Strangely this term, as I dutifully participate in the various and very important seminars, lectures, library sessions necessary to the not-unpleasant-finalities of final year, I have started to notice many many more familiar unfamiliar faces flitting around the Sidgwick Site than I had previously thought existed. Of course, one is invariably unobservant. English students are often recluses, I tell myself, and with heads in books the only thing one really notices with any interest in the Faculty is a particularly avant-garde hair-do.

But, no, there is something happening…there is a new bunch of beaming students that I have never seen before. It’s a mystery but one that is revealed in a lightening bolt revelation one sleepy 9am. The new bunch of beaming students are not what is grabbing my eye, it is the bright blue hoodies catapulting their wearers to the front of my early morning still-asleep attention.  In matching turquoise outfits complete with a term calendar of events on their backs, a human sandwich board of doctrinal goodness, I have discovered previously camouflaged members of Cambridge’s Christian Unions.

My initial reaction is good for them. And then, my goodness I never realized there were so many Christians about! What a pleasant but surprising revelation…the world can have you duped on this point!

Slowly, however, as I took a desperate mid-afternoon late lunch at the Sidgwick Buttery, a gasp of sustenance between the relentlessness of deadline-making, my admiration, or at least friendly indifference, starts to sour.

In the corner of the buttery a daisy chain of turquoise hoodies, with the promising titles of questionable talks (such talks are always enticingly titled as questions), catches my eye.  They appear to be mumbling into their coffees, stirring up an aura of hocus pocus that I immediately recognize as an impromptu prayer group. The table I was aiming for, next to this cackle of Christians, I hold back from and let another group occupy. I can feel a rant coming on.

I guess my problem with Christians wearing their faith quite literally on their sleeve, an encouraging advertisement to those who cannot help but see, is that I fail to find any notion of credibility in such a uniform statement, such a mass operation. My stereotypical prejudices against evangelical Christians of this ilk suddenly and unhappily whirr into motion. Despite such apprehensions having been acquired first-hand following a period of personal and ultimately traumatic soul-searching, I do not revel in my feelings of disapproval. I am not an atheist. My objection is resolutely not about religious belief but rather social methods. I open up the topic for conversation, in a whisper, to my companion sitting opposite.

You see for me, I whisper, these holy hoodies do not float through the faculty replete with the angelical glow of guitar-strumming redemption, but flash in my mind as an uneasy and guilty warning. The alarm bells ring.  I wish they wouldn’t. I’d like to give it all a chance if it weren’t for my illogical fear of these luminescent jumpers. But the main reason my heart skips a beat and finally slams the door in the face of such an unfashionable statement is that I know that such a statement, rightly or wrongly, often scares people away.

My inconspicuously Catholic coffee date concurs. Why can’t this Christianity exist in doing good and not broadcasting it, as a part of a many-pronged recruiting campaign? Maybe I am sickeningly, culturally Church of England and need the gothic aesthetics of Evensong, Easter, and the empty, but beautifully embroidered, pews of the village Parish church, in order to inhale the safe sane whiff of God, but I cannot help feel that if people with a desire to spread the word of God got on with it, by silently acting on the word of God, it would be the non-believers putting real, not rhetorical questions, to their church-going friends.

Maybe “culture” is quite an important word in this debate.  Historically conditioned since the moment England split from the Catholic Church under Henry VIII, mainstream Protestantism has always eschewed outward shows of religion as social aberration, creating an image of religion in Britain which is an increasingly secular, but more importantly, private affair. The last time non-conformists really caused a stir was back during the Civil War under Oliver Cromwell: a war which saw the creation of Quakers, Baptists and Muggletonians (not still in existence I believe) among other groups in a schism from the Church of England.

I think we have to ask ourselves what would these hoodies look like in other countries? America? France? Spain? Africa? China? OK, so we are more tolerant than some countries nowadays, a cause of celebration, certainly.

Or maybe, such woolly liberalism is what is driving these campaigns – I am now referring to a trend that exists beyond the Faculty walls. With the rise of other faiths in our multicultural Britain, should Christian communities be working harder than ever to maintain England’s religious identity in the face of imported religions such as Islam? There is the worry among many that one day church bells will cease to ring and the call to prayer will be the standard sound associated with British faith. In Lebanon, such a situation already causes friction: a mosque is built; a church built next door – a storey higher. A set of matching society hoodies is really no big deal, then?

I still can’t seem to let go, however, to the notion that these hoodies do more harm than good for such Christian groups. Unlike the controversial debate over the wearing of religious symbols, political correctness gone crazy – a discreet cross is, for many, a Topshop buy – a flock of organized hoodies is just too much for me. Ironically these hoodies appear to be working, or at least are registering a morsel of attention. But the debate at hand is much more than just a matter of appearances as it calls to question the already uncomfortable nature of religions’ presence in Britain.