Finding God in Old Places: An Ex-Evangelical Perspective on Unity

At Cambridge, we have a silly little tradition called “Bridgemas”. Because our terms end in very early December, most students don’t get much of a taste of Advent in Cambridge. Some bright spark, feeling hard-done-by, came up with the idea of “Bridgemas”; Christmas, but on the 25th November, complete with carol services and Bridgemas dinner.

This year, I went to the official Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU for short) carol service at Great St Mary’s, the university church. It was packed. I sat there fuming. After eighteen years in a Free Evangelical Church which I’d left just before coming to university, I’d firmly, if not quite consciously, decided that any win for the conservative evangelical community was a win for bigotry. It didn’t help that I’d come to the service straight after our own SCM event, “Music Across the Church”, which had attracted perhaps a tenth, at most, of the people in Great St Mary’s that night. I felt frustrated by our lack of resources, our lack of people. It felt like sitting in enemy territory.

Then we all stood to sing the first hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, one of my favourite carols. Hearing the organ introduction and the sound of five hundred or so voices rising into the arched pillars of the ceiling, I felt a familiar thrill. It’s a kind of shivering, one which I think many Christians have experienced in their own way at some point. For me, I get this feeling a lot when standing on beaches looking out to sea, when I read Jesus telling Peter three times to “feed my lambs” (John 21:15). It comes at moments where I feel the closeness of God.

Though I would probably rather have sat through the carol service and felt nothing at all, I knew undeniably that God, my God, was there. Christ’s presence challenged me to think again about what church unity looks like, and whether it’s something I’ve prematurely given up on. I, like many members of our SCM group, have friends in Christian Union, some of whom I’ve known for years from the summer camps I went to growing up. We’ve discussed things like LGBTQ+ rights quite explicitly, and very respectfully, over coffee. For me personally, as a queer Christian, I’m often able to leave these talks feeling that we had some sense of togetherness beyond our disagreement – united, perhaps, by the desire to be more united.

To be clear, this isn’t an expectation – it’s important to be aware of and respect trauma and mental health that can leave marginalised Christians and allies feeling, understandably, unwilling to go back to spaces they’ve been hurt in. These coffee-shop discussions are about individuals talking to individuals. Zoom out, and the institutional clashes between the progressive and conservative factions of various denominations are much more difficult to reckon with. In Cambridge, the covertly conservative CICCU has access to far more funding than we do, and often seems far more united. I think that that was what made hearing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” so challenging, because it was bound up with an organisation which wants me, but only the parts of me that fit.

It often seems that the bigger a group (particularly a religious group) gets, the more division grows, or the more conformity is expected in order to present a strong front. As a progressive Christian community, we need unity, yes, to make institutional gains for equality and inclusivity. As individuals, however, we should hesitate to let go of the ties that bind us to those with whom we are united in Christ, even if it sometimes feels like we are divided in everything else. Maybe being united in our desire to be more united is a thing worth valuing: after all, Christ’s love is powerful enough to strike deep into our hearts anywhere, even in places we’ve left behind.

Written by Anika Goddard (she/her). Anika is the current co-president of Cambridge SCM, and is in the second year of her undergrad studying English. She loves birdwatching and wandering along the river Cam when she gets the chance.