In an interesting blog post interview, Maggi Dawn, the Chaplain at Robinson College, discusses this week's visits to Cambridge by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Rowan Williams and John Sentamu. She interviews three people: Duncan Dormor (Dean of St John's College), John Binns, Vicar of Great St Mary's (the University Church) and James Gardom (Dean of Pembroke College).
When Maggi asked if this was similar to a Mission, Duncan noted that it was more in the order of lectures on faith and society rather than a presentation of Christian teaching which invites any kind of conversion. Binns pointed out that Christianity concerns the shape of all society, and that the (or one) ultimate end of Christianity is "what kind of communities we create" and "how we shape social policy." Gardom had this to say:
As someone who is currently participating in the Cambridge Christian Union's ongoing annual Mission (www.life08.org), I was interested in their comments. While I am excited about this lecture series at the university, I wish to respectfully disagree with Gardom on University Missions.
Gardom suggests that public events which present Christian teachings and invite personal change may once have been viable, but that something has changed to make this approach less effective. Things are certainly different-- I have heard of lectures in St. John's thirty years ago where up to 60 students would gather at once to consider the claims of Christianity. That is not the case today, but I do believe that the University Mission is still a powerful community expression of faith and a viable invitation to divine transformation.
Especially at a university, especially at Cambridge, a Mission is structurally the best way to get information about Christian teaching to the greatest number of people. Contemporary missions provide:
- A simple solution to the logistical problem of expertise distribution. The annual student-run mission is organised, well, by students, with the moral support and prayer of the religious establishment. As students, we attempt to love like Christ in relational communities of faith and nonfaith, but there are some areas where love means telling the truth about God, and in some of these areas, our expertise varies. By inviting speakers, we are able provide Christian teaching at a level of scholarship and clarity which exceeds our own and which reaches all parts of the university. This is the same philosophy behind this week's lectures--inviting archbishops and not undergraduates to speak.
- A hub for a variety of initiatives designed to be appropriate for the needs and interests of individuals. Print and web marketing, word-of-mouth, film nights, discussions at the debating society, discussion dinners, coffeehouse evenings. In our time, Missions are not designed to move people to a decision within the lectures; they are designed to open discussion. Most of the talks in the CICCU mission set out philosophical and methodological grounds for enquiry into Christianity and faith, alongside an articulation of that faith; only one talk included a strong personal appeal.
- A training ground for Christian community action. Since the CICCU is student-organised, it provides hundreds of students each year with practical experience in organisation, but also in how to integrate organisational efficiency with Christlike love.
- An occasion for remarkable Christian unity. While it is true that some people disagree with the ideological core of the Christian Union, it is perhaps the largest-scale non-denominational Christian activity in Cambridge and provides an occasion for students to consider their own approach to unity. This year's mission was held in three Cambridge churches of different denominations.
Is this model "broken" and ineffective? While it is true that larger venues might have been selected, each lecture was given to what seemed to me a nearly-packed venue. This visible attendance is just one manifestation of the sum spiritual and informational effect.
What about these other claims, that Christians must also be interested in questions of social and community interest?
As a student at St. John's, I have been excited about Duncan and Grant's Chapel's series on Christianity and social engagement, even if my own participation at Eden Chapel and work on the World University Documentary have stretched me too thin to attend very often.
I am also excited about this week's lectures, but I would hesitate to call them more or less "broken" than the Mission model. The lectures deliver ideas which were not included in our Mission, on topics of great importance. But structurally, they are less efficient. The lecture series is not designed to be sustainable in the same way as a Mission. CICCU and other initiatives (including Chapel!) are better designed to cultivate relationships and incubate long-term discussion focused toward active faith.
Other long-term initiatives in Cambridge would be the Faraday Institute (science), the Jubilee Centre (public policy), the Veritas Forum (an exciting new program of seminars and discussions), and the Christian Graduate Society (which has a strong International Development contingent), and Christian Heritage, which probably reaches more people with a broader international spread than all of these combined.
Thanks for blogging the lectures, Maggi!