Party for Jesus

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Steve Cleary

Sep 23, 1999, 3:00:00 AM9/23/99
The following appeared in the Guardian, on September 22nd 1999.


Once they were tambourine-bashing squares in ill-fitting trousers. Now
they're the epitome of student cool,
hard-partying missionaries organising events called 'An hour of pure sex
with the CU' and turning pub chats into
moral debates about masturbation and home-taping. As thousands of new
students arrive at university,
Jonathan Margolis meets the rebels with a cross

At the dreamy mini-Oxford which is Durham University, you need only
glance at a selection of college noticeboards to discover
which local pop band is currently the biggest thing on the music scene.
Headlining at almost every college summer ball at the end of last term
was a six-person student group called Coastal Dune.

Coastal Dune - singer Becky, two Nicks, a Steve, an Andy and a Jonathan
- have clearly achieved the ultimate in student stardom. Everyone talks
about them. All the record shops in town sell their CDs. Everybody who
has a party speculates excitedly as to whether Coastal Dune might come
along after their gig. An examination of Coastal Dune's lyrics, however,
reveals something not entirely rock'n'roll about the band - and hints at
something odd happening in British universities.

Here is the opening of one of Coastal Dune's best known numbers, In The
Presence: "I can't reach out my hands to pull you in/ I can't cross the
canyon between us," it begins. So far, so teenage love ballad. It
continues: "Jesus, by your name draw me in/ Jesus, by your cross I am
here." I Never Realised, another favourite, takes much the same line.
"Laying down my hold/ I've got to let it go," starts the chorus. "This
has got to die so that we may live/ Raise us up, God/ Raise us up, God/
Raise us up, God/ Raise us up, God." Coastal Dune's rampant Christianity
is in no way disguised. Every song carries an overt religious message.
And only a minority of the students at Durham seem to mind.

In the absence of any political action at all in Britain's universities,
apart from on the self-interested issue of tuition fees, Christianity is
hot - and evangelical Christians are in the ascendant. They have
abandoned the Godsquad jolliness and tambourine bashing of old and
embarked on pressing what is effectively a political agenda of the far,
fundamentalist right. Professionally managed and evidently well-funded,
they are overtly seeking to dominate university events and are
especially active at freshers' fairs, where among their opening offers
to first years is a free CD containing gospel tracts.

Across a broad range of universities, from Oxford and Cambridge to
Nottingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and
Southampton, the Christian Union (CU) is now the biggest university
society, with anything from 300 to 500 members; furthermore, because
each of those activists signs a pledge to become a missionary among
students, that figure belies the extent to which Christianity has
invaded campus culture. Even where numbers of student Christian
activists haven't significantly risen, as at some newer universities,
there has been a decrease in resistance to on-campus evangelism.

"There is certainly a decline in negative attitudes towards religion and
a greater acceptance of those who express religion," says Rev Lesley
Francis, professor of practical theology at the University of Wales,
Bangor. "To use a cliché, it is consistent with whatever is meant by
postmodern - the acceptability of diverse positions."

Christianity has even become a symptom of youthful rebellion, a novel
counter-culture for students whose parents in their university days were
into sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. "A few decades ago, most people came
with some kind of religious background from RE at school or they had
been confirmed or whatever," says Bob Horn, editor of NB, a
Leicester-based newsletter for student Christian leaders. "That
proportion has drastically dropped. Most students now have never had any
serious contact with Christianity, so it's a whole new experience."

In keeping with this Big New Thing, student dinner parties at Durham
have developed a tendency to turn into earnest dialogues about Jesus
while pub discussions have a habit of turning into anguished analyses
(usually prompted by a CU activist drinking the telltale pint of Diet
Coke) of whether masturbation could ever be justified, or whether taping
friends' CDs constitutes theft.

After one such angsty evening, one student went back to her room and
trashed her entire collection of self-recorded cassettes.
Another asked her roommate if she would help her pray for forgiveness
because she had considered masturbating. A male student ditched his
long-term girlfriend on the grounds that she was "distracting him from
his walk with God".

Heavy duty Christian evangelism is also making inroads into student
politics. At the Royal Academy of Music in London last year, there was
for the second time in a few years a rare congruence of, you might say,
church and state when Tom Parsons, the immediate past president of the
CU, was elected president of the students' union.

"It was very difficult a lot of the time," recalls Parsons, now a
full-time student worker at All Souls Church in London's West End. "I
felt that I couldn't support policies which encouraged, say, pre-marital
sex, because I, as a Christian, think it is wrong. But on the other hand
I had to make available information for people on safe sex, as well as
providing cheap alcohol for people to get drunk, something I myself
would not be into at all. But as always, as a Christian, you needed to
be subversive on a personal level. So we are always trying to say to
people, 'Look are you sure that what you believe is up to dealing with
reality?' I saw that as my role in the SU - to get alongside individuals
and, where I could, to challenge and subvert and gently get in the
claims of Christ and the gospel."

Bob Horn's newsletter publishes accounts of progress at other arguably
unlikely institutions. "Prayer groups," readers learn in a
recent edition, "have re-started for speech therapists at Manchester
Metropolitan University and for therapists and nurses at
Liverpool. Six physiotherapy students make up an enthusiastic group at
Manchester University. And a prayer group for occupational therapy
students at a London hospital has started. An evening called 'An hour of
pure sex with the CU' attracted over 50 non-Christians at St John's
College in York, while Christians at Norwich Art College have been
praying for students, as well as organising Christian critiques of a
selection of artists."

This missionary onslaught in higher education is leaving new students
from even mildly liberal or left wing backgrounds thoroughly
disconcerted and alienated. Lucy Evans, a 20-year-old Durham English
student, says that even in her second year, she is still shocked by the
ubiquity of student Christianity.

"Person after person in my hall immediately announced themselves as
Christians," she says of her first moments at university. "I
can understand religion, and I'm even used to church on a Sunday, but
this was ultra in-your-face. It very soon became obvious that it was not
only very evangelical, but very orthodox and fundamental, with elements
of racism, sexism and homophobia. A lot of people submitted and started
to go along to Christian meetings. I'd say in my social group, the
majority are heavily committed Christians. No sex. No drugs. No
anything, as far as I can tell. The evangelism is really intense and is
manifestly designed to take advantage of people when they are at their
most vulnerable. I've been told - and this by people I am quite friendly
with - 'You'll go to hell if you haven't made your commitment. Surely
you want to come to heaven with us?'"

The pressure, as Evans and others describe it, is such that, bizarrely,
it is falling for the blandishments of Christianity - the stability, the
ready-made friends and social life - which is today's version of
temptation in the student world, rather than sex, drink and drugs. But
the most destabilising thing, according to her and other students she
introduced me to, is that today's campus Christians don't look like the
traditional awkward, lonely Godsquadders. They appear, like Coastal
Dune's members, to be positively trendy. "You have to imagine," she
says, "talking to a really cool-looking man at a party or in the pub,
and after about two minutes he's talking about his relationship with
Jesus. You just get out, fast."

The notion of Christians "working undercover" has also struck
Cambridge-based vicar Peter Owen Jones. He characterises the new
university Christianity as "vibrant and wild". "There has been a real
and genuine turning point in the sense that the CU previously consisted
of people with trousers that finished three inches above their ankles,
and tended to have short back and sides or beards that they didn't cut.
Now they are taking on a cooler, more laid-back image," Owen Jones says.

What troubles Owen Jones, however, is not that Christianity is becoming
fashionable amongst educated people - he, after all, gave up a career as
an advertising copywriter to join the church - but that the new breed of
young campus Christians is so deeply conservative. Merely making a song
and dance about not sleeping with people before marriage, he argues,
hardly challenges such problems as society's rampant consumerism.

"My opinion is that the CUs increasingly represent the WASP element," he
explains. "They tend to be very prescriptive and
obsessed by what is and what isn't acceptable. So while there is a rise
in student Christianity, there is no new or alternative view of faith
coming out of the Christian union. We are essentially seeing a very
conservative application of the bible. I don't see people say, 'I am not
going to work for ICI or that multinational because I cannot agree with
it.' I would be looking for real changes in attitude to the system in
which we work."

At Bangor, meanwhile, Francis is less than delighted by the calibre of
many of the new campus Christians. "The bits of Christianity that appear
to flourish among them are those that offer certainty. That is where
fundamentalism - and I show my prejudice here by using the word
unfortunately - appeals. It seems to me that the process of student life
is a process of enquiry, and bits of religion actually stifle enquiry.
Fundamentalism in any form does that."

Back in Durham, I gatecrash a party at the terraced house Evans shares
with what she says is a fairly typical cohort of students - one
Christian man who is a major CU activist, one non-Christian and two
women, both church-goers but neither active in the CU. I will get a
rounded picture, Evans says, of how things are from an evening with her
friends. I would estimate that just under half of the 80 or so students
who dipped in and out of the party were committed Christians. I met a
second year engineer who was off to Mozambique to spend his vacation on
missionary work. "I take it you will be teaching engineering?" I asked.
"Possibly," he replied, "but I'm really there to organise Bible study."
(One can only imagine the desperate need in one of Africa's poorest
countries for Bible classes, especially from technically-qualified

I met a sports studies student who has spent time on the internet trying
to coax gays away from their sexuality, a biology student
who described how he felt God's presence at a prayer meeting in the
students' union ballroom and countless articulate students,
who are perfectly bright but nevertheless believe they are in possession
of a complete, all-purpose, irrevocable truth, and that no other
religion could possibly have even a sniff of such truth. I have never
heard the word "truth" spoken so often.

All the Christians, often using the same phrases, spoke of suffering the
same symptoms on arrival at university, the routine
intelligent teenage preoccupations - emptiness of life, lack of
satisfaction from friendships, all underpinned by a seriousness
bordering on plain sombreness. Having found God, they all claimed to
have no cause for any feeling of dissatisfaction at modern
society. Not one admitted to any desire for sex before marriage or
anything more risqué than an occasional drink. Several times, both sexes
proclaimed their virginity.

"Rebellion, yes, been there, done that," said Liz, a music student from
Surrey. "I've done drugs and had sex. But it all changed when I became a
Christian. It says in the Bible that if you ask Jesus he'll give you the
strength to resist temptation. I rely on Jesus's strength. I don't want
to rebel any more." Liz is 18.

On the question of rebellion, it was hard not to note that few of the
Christian students seemed to come from a Christian family. ("You have to
say," reflects Owen Jones in Cambridge. "That this is classic teenage
rebellion - saying no, I am not going to smoke and drink and have sex
like my parents did, I am going to have an ethical base. I think there
are very good arguments to suggest that, yes, there is a counter culture
mentality operating under the surface of this trend. In a society when
anything goes, how do you rebel? By saying, 'Well, no, anything doesn't

The three anthropologists I happily bumped into at the party around
midnight were a welcome relief. "I was at a dinner party recently where
I was the only non-Christian," said one. "It's as if these people's
personal interests have completely overtaken global considerations. To
me, it seems selfish and unintelligent." Another thought Christianity
had become an all-purpose medium for people to deal with all the hard
issues in life at once. The third anthropologist explained: "If you'd
asked me before I came here, I'd have said I was a Christian. But if
these people are Christians, I don't think I can be."

The prospect of a flood of hardline religious zealots emerging from
Britain's universities is certainly one to ponder. If the new breed of
confident, competent and convinced Christians don't later backtrack -
and they don't seem likely to - it may not be long before political
leaders think it judicious, Clinton-style, to parrot religious-sounding
language as a matter of course to please not the rednecks but the
educated middle class.

Steve Cleary


Marcus Maxwell

Sep 24, 1999, 3:00:00 AM9/24/99
Steve Cleary <> wrote in message

The following appeared in the Guardian, on September 22nd 1999.

[Article snipped]

Yes, I read it yesterday. Apart from the typically sneering Guardian
style, I found it mildly encouraging. What I do wonder is whether CU
members were really so out of style in the past (my own experiences were
in the 70's when there was no visible difference between Christian
scruffs and other students).

Another thought was that Leslie Francis (whom I hold in high regard) is
quoted in a way which gives the impression of the worst sort of
illiberal liberal (whatever that may mean - see another thread), of the
kind who would rather have non-Christians than Christians of a type
other than himself. I'm not at all sure that he really thinks that way.

Marcus Maxwell
Heaton Mersey, Stockport
Inchoate web page at


Sep 25, 1999, 3:00:00 AM9/25/99
Angela Rayner wrote:
> Steve Cleary <> wrote in message
> The following appeared in the Guardian, on September 22nd 1999.
> > In the absence of any political action at all in Britain's universities,
> > apart from on the self-interested issue of tuition fees,
> I think that is a rather large generalisation to make!

> > Christianity has even become a symptom of youthful rebellion, a novel
> > counter-culture for students whose parents in their university days were
> > into sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.

I'm 10 years out of college, but my recollection is that Union
politics were (1) boring (2) unrealistic, and (3) a closed shop. CU
was far from perfect, but it was a little better than that. I'm also
inclined to doubdt that things have got any better, but am happy to be
> This is what I find worrying. I think maybe evangelical Christianity is
> more easily turned into a "culture" where one attends "cell church", "bible
> studies", "prayer meetings", "evangelistic handing out leaflet days" "alpha
> courses" etc. and strikes me as a way of life that excludes those who don't
> accept all of its facets.

Too true.

> > After one such angsty evening, one student went back to her room and
> > trashed her entire collection of self-recorded cassettes.

> If she was truly convicted *by God* that these tapes were not good to listen
> to, fair enough. However, I despise anybody that heaps condemnation upon
> anybody else and I sincerely hope this wasn't what happened.

Depends why. Breaking copyright? Frankly there are times when you have
to: I buy a CD, I make one copy for the tape in the car, because the
shop won't sell me pre-recorded tapes. Music that doesn't meet
people's expectations? Tough on their expectations.

I did this once and only once, to one tape which I believed it was
harming me to listen to. No names, no packdrill.

> > The prospect of a flood of hardline religious zealots emerging from
> > Britain's universities is certainly one to ponder. If the new breed of
> > confident, competent and convinced Christians don't later backtrack -
> > and they don't seem likely to

UCCF themselves used to report something like an 80% drop-out rate of
CU committee members after they left Uni. I can believe it, because
Surrey (where I was) used to put most students out on a placement year
in year 3 - and I remember the ones who went out as believers and came
back disillusioned.

James Mac
remove spamless to reply

Mark Goodge

Sep 27, 1999, 3:00:00 AM9/27/99
On Sun, 26 Sep 1999 20:25:56 GMT, "Phil Banting"
<> wrote:

>As regards the Grauniad article, it's only fair to remember that most
>students are young in their faith as well as in years. Universities do not
>turn out a finished product - we all go on living, learning and growing.
>Student life is a highly artificial environment and student "versions" of
>Christianity are bound to reflect this.

Not just Christianity, but everything, really. Young people, whether
students or not (although students do seem to suffer from it more than
average), tend to hold their beliefs with all the certainty and
evangelical fervour of the newly born-again - irrespective of whether
those beliefs are to do with Christianity, politics, music or

Visit Mark's World at

Mark Goodge

Oct 1, 1999, 3:00:00 AM10/1/99
On Thu, 30 Sep 1999 20:40:56 +0100, David Aldred
<> wrote:

>Phil Banting types:
>>> Well, I was curate at St Nic's Durham from 1977-80, so if you ever
>>> ventured there, we might have met.
>>> --
>>> Pete Broadbent
>>> Archdeacon of Northolt
>>Hey, an online reunion...
>>I was at Durham (Grey College) 1977-80. I remember Pete, but not any of you
>>others, I'm afraid - we probably never met.
>I think we might have done - the name has a faint Durham-ish tint to it
>in my memory...
>Durham uk.r.c meet, anyone?

Sounds like a good idea.

We climbed to the top of the tower on the cathedral when we visited
Durham on holiday this year. It was one of those "because it's there"
kind of moments. It's a nice city, as well.

Grace Pearl Lionheart

Oct 4, 1999, 3:00:00 AM10/4/99
you can come to my house for a cup of tea! i live in the viaduct (a.k.a.
rah-duct) area. oh me= anne leonard, just graduated from durham doing
psychology but staying on in the city to do an infant primary PGCE.

Heather Knowles wrote:
> Unable to resist replying, David Aldred <>
> writes
> >Heather Knowles types:
> <Durham meet>
> >>*sigh* does that mean me? Me, what has never bin to one and knows
> >>nuffin?
> >
> >I'd have said the same a year ago, but the Derby one happened despite
> >that!
> Oh, all *right*, I give in. What does anyone fancy doing in Durham apart
> from seeing the cathedral, and at what time of year? And will someone
> offer to co-host in case I'm too ill on the day?
> --
> lotsa luv, Heather xxxx





Oct 4, 1999, 3:00:00 AM10/4/99
Adrian Haigh-Hutchinson wrote:
> Well, if we're starting fishing for dates --- November 21st is a possible ??
> This would be for Adrian TSSF & Kathy HH -- travelling up by train to
> Durham. Will confirm last trains for return trip.
> Adrian TSSF

That is SATURDAY Nov 21st. Adrian forgets which month he is looking at
on the calender.

He probably means the 20th, I'll ask him tonight to check the right
month on the calender and then confirm that the date is free!!

Kathy HH

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