I stood up and closed up my eyes, blissfully content as the voices of those around me soared in harmony towards the heavens. A piece of me was home at last.
As we entered the twenty-first century and globalization and information technology swept the world, many Western urban centers reported a quickening, and to some, concerning, decline in their religious populations. Britain was no different. In the last three decades, the proportion of the population which identifies as Christian has fallen from 55 percent to 43 percent. The proud home to the Church of England, famously established in the 1500s by a king desperate for a divorce, now sees 48.6 percent of its population as non-religious. Amidst this secularizing sea, one of the church’s primary concerns has been attracting and retaining youth. A little church in the center of London is doing exactly that, with incredibly successful results.
My generation in the West seems significantly less religious than any that has come before it. For every individual brought up in a non-religious household who becomes a churchgoer, 26 people raised as Christians become non-believers. I cannot speak for the non-Christian religions that are still rooted deeply in standard cultural practice, but identifying as Christian in front of my peers has carried with it quite loaded implications. Loaded with what? I myself am not quite sure.
It may have something to do with the entangling of Christianity, and evangelical Protestantism, with modern American politics. What is certain, however, is that much of the developed Western world has now come to represent the aggressively secular, not only embracing a rational-humanist outlook but, in many cases, ignoring the strong religiosity that accompanied its ascension to a position of global leadership.
All of this I discussed with the chaplain for the London School of Economics, a leader at the Anchorage. I had just finished my first-ever Anglican service. Hoping to hold myself accountable to my faith in this new city, I had searched for a church close to my hall and been given a pamphlet by a friendly student at the LSE Society Fair. The Anchorage is a church set up by the established Church of England, dedicated completely to students in the London universities. In the spirit of youth outreach, it was established with the mission of bringing both regularly practicing and simply curious students into a welcoming community.
Its service is quite traditional, heavily mirroring a Catholic Mass, though carrying subtle yet distinct Protestant undertones. In the middle of the service, however, it takes a quite unexpected turn. The dozen or so students present are asked to separate into groups, discuss the content of the sermon, and answer questions directly applicable to their lives. This is a practice usually reserved for Bible study or youth groups, and I was shocked the first time as I moved my seat into a circle of five. What’s more, as the students in my group began to discuss, I was absolutely astonished to hear critical academic analysis being applied to the biblical content and implications of the “fall from grace.”
The Anchorage is one of the many Anglican groups desperately looking for ways to reach young adults. Some evangelical forces of nature have emerged extremely successfully, attracting tens of thousands of people around the world by reforming traditional worship practices and making Christianity accessible and ‘trendy.’ The Anchorage opted for a subtler approach. In asking its student congregation to engage directly with the sermon and discuss the challenges of its application, it made religion immediately relevant. It presented Christianity in its many forms: the abstract, often delivered through the droning mouth of a distant man and absorbed on a hard seat in a chilly room; and the tangible, in all the difficulties it presents to the modern student and all the solace it provides in an increasingly anonymous world. I had never before experienced religion in such a way.
But for an hour and half, it helped me feel at peace.