Christopher Smith recalls the misery of the Freshers’ Fair

This may seem like a strange question to raise in a print magazine, but I wonder how much longer print publications are going to last. The Independent newspaper went ‘online only’ early last year, and now Glamour magazine (not a publication to which I have ever subscribed but described by the Times as ‘one of the most successful glossy magazines of recent years’) has stopped publishing a print edition. I looked up the new web version and quickly learned that Lidl are about to start selling a ‘hangover-free prosecco,’ and that ‘you can now buy Ikea furniture for your pet.’ For a split second I was interested in the second story, but given that Bella has never, ever slept in the cat-bed I bought her on the day I collected her, I moved on quite quickly.

Well, times change, and the modern world has a maxim that ‘nothing lasts forever.’ Christianity is on its way out in this country, isn’t it? Who cares about those old fairy stories any more? And for some, it would be better if Christianity were eradicated rather than simply tolerated. There was an irritating little incident that made the news last month from the Junior Common Room of Balliol College, Oxford—not meaning the room itself, but the undergraduate body of the college. Balliol has always been a slightly funny college, but the vice-president of the JCR Committee managed to surpass even my expectations by emailing the college’s Christian Union to tell them that they couldn’t have a stall at the Freshers’ Fair. That’s the ghastly event in all our universities at which those who run clubs and societies, from stamp collectors to rugger buggers, have since time immemorial set up stalls and given out leaflets and encouraged people to come along to meetings, rehearsals, training sessions and even worship.

One Freddy Potts was the messenger (recently a member of the winning team on University Challenge), and his line with the Christian Union was that they shouldn’t be allowed to have a stall. The committee, he told them in an email immediately leaked to a university newspaper, wanted the event to be a ‘secular space.’ Why would that be? Ah well, he said, since they couldn’t guarantee that ‘every major belief system’ would be represented, they would run the risk of ‘alienating’ new students. ‘This sort of alienation or micro-aggression is regularly dismissed as not important,’ but ‘historically, Christianity’s influence on many marginalised communities has been damaging in its methods of conversion and rules of practice, and is still used in many places as an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism.’

Yikes! Never mind that, following the Lord’s teaching, practising Christians are likely to be less violent and more generous than the general population, and that many a young person struggling to come to terms with who they are has been quietly helped on the journey of self-acceptance by a kind Christian community; in the world of Freddy Potts, Christians are only homophobic and neo-colonialist, whatever that means. In the end, finding itself under scrutiny, the JCR Committee decided to allow a single, multi-faith stall, but not to allow anyone to man it (if you’ll forgive the micro-aggression).

But, of course, banning a Christian group risks violating the principle of free speech, so the JCR itself (which is to say those members of the undergraduate body who could bear to go to a meeting) played the free speech card successfully and had the decision unanimously overturned for future years. And all this playing at politics, so beloved of Balliol students for many a generation, would be of no interest whatsoever to the world outside were it not for that nagging feeling that it is something of a sign of the times.

Feigning fear of Christianity is becoming another weapon in the secularists’ armoury. What on earth, for instance, possessed people on a train coming into London from Surrey during the morning rush-hour recently to prise open the doors between stations and climb out onto tracks with live rails in order to ‘escape’ from a ‘street’ preacher quoting from the Old Testament? Until five minutes ago, if you’d heard somebody on a train telling you that ‘death is not the end’ and preaching about Jesus not approving of sex outside marriage, you’d have just sunk a little lower into your seat and drawn the paper up in front of your face. Now it seems that such a person is as much to be feared as the man with a bomb in a bucket. Whose fault is that? Those who would kill and maim us with bombs on commuter trains, or the militant secularists who have been working to convince people that Christianity is something to be afraid of because of (err…) the Crusades and (umm…) the Inquisition? A bit of each, I imagine.

And so those who want to make Christian mission seem peculiar and frightening teach Christians that it is all the more important to do mission, even though they are making it harder. And we must keep doing it not only because Jesus told us to, but because we care about the society in which we live. Neil MacGregor, erstwhile Director of the British Museum, is about to begin a new Radio 4 series about sacred objects in the museum called Living with the Gods. ‘We [in contemporary Britain] are trying to do something that no society has really done,’ he says. ‘We are trying to live without an agreed narrative of our communal place in the cosmos and in time.’ Funnily enough, all those societies at the Freshers’ Fair are competing with the suffocating inertia of our times. How do you give meaning to people who are too afraid to commit themselves to anything?

Fr Christopher Smith is the Vicar of St Alban’s Holborn