My time at university has been the period where my faith has developed the most. At university I have encountered people from a far more diverse range of denominations and backgrounds than I ever had at school. Studying theology has made me aware of a broader range of different theological positions, making me more open and willing to engage with people who have different views.
I grew up in a church going family, regularly attending Colinton Parish Church, where I attended the Sunday Club (Sunday School). When I turned 17 I confirmed my faith and officially joined the Church of Scotland, attending the hugely inspiring National Youth Assembly that year.
I can’t tell you how much it meant at that time to feel part of something bigger – a national community of likeminded people I could relate to. As Colinton is a village church on the outskirts of Edinburgh, it was difficult to meet people of a similar age. So when I started university, I was really looking forward to joining a group of fellow Christian students.
So why does being part of a community, especially a student one, matter?
Student groups are unique because they are spaces to share common interests. We can be honest and support each other when it comes to faith, but also grow as friends. Before going to university, my main worry was finding such a community. Happily, someone from the Student Christian Movement (SCM) had already told me to look out for the SCM group at Edinburgh during Freshers’ week. SCM’s focus on openness and social justice has given me a place to discuss my faith and put it into action. Last year I took part in a multi faith service and candlelit vigil to show solidarity in response to the refugee crisis.
Student communities are fantastic places to learn and find your voice. Within SCM I have been challenged to learn more about my denomination’s views on various issues, as I am one of only a few Church of Scotland representatives in the group! One of the main things that I end up explaining is the structure of the Church, as most people assume that it mirrors the Church of England. During the debates surrounding the ordination of people in same sex marriages in the Church of Scotland, there was a wide variety of statements expressed in the media. At SCM I was able to explain the Church of Scotland’s official position, clarifying what the General Assembly had decided.
Being part of a student community at Edinburgh has fostered my love of ecumenism and communion. From the beginning I wanted to find out more about other denominations within the church. Through New College (my university department) and the Communion Services organised there, I developed an increasing love and respect for the sacraments. Weekly services always mixed preaching from a wide range of different denominations, and I have grown to appreciate how diverse our church is, and how different traditions approach communion. These services were, and continue to be, a source of fellowship with other theology students and the department staff.
Communities beyond the student world have also provided moments of challenge. When I went on an ERASMUS exchange to Nijmegen in the Netherlands it was difficult finding a church service to attend. Eventually I went along to the Catholic Mass at the local Studentenkerk church, which was held in English. Despite the initial strangeness, the experience of going to a completely different style of service helped to make my faith less grounded in a particular denomination. As a result, ecumenism has developed into a central aspect of how I think about my faith and place in the church.
Now that I am back in Britain it is SCM that enables me to continue and develop my interest in ecumenism at a national, local and personal level. Nationally, events run by both SCM and the Church of Scotland have given me the energy that inspires my faith. At a local level I find stability in my local church and a place to discuss day to day issues. On a personal level, being at university has challenged me to think more deeply about my faith and how it relates to the world.
Faith doesn’t come with a step-by-step manual. All we can do is nurture each other along the way, and that happens through community – student communities like SCM, the local church, and wider body of Christ. I am grateful to have found all three as I continue my journey of faith at university.
Gemma is an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh and is about to begin her third year studying Theology.
Students going to university from Scotland can connect to welcoming local churches and student groups using the SCM Connect online directory. They will be sent a fresher’s pack, which includes SCM’s ‘Going to Uni’ booklet, a resource to help students explore their faith and get the most out of university life. Churches can also sign up to be listed on the directory for free.