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A Bubble of Faith: Is St Andrews a Religious Hotspot?

Last academic year, inspired by Pope Francis’ call to observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I decided to try and broaden my experience of Christianity in St Andrews and visit my friends at their various churches and other places of worship around town.

This is profoundly different from my experience back home for two reasons:

First, it is novel that I have friends who are religious at all. Second, it’s new to have so many places of worship existing within our small Fife town. Coming from the rural countryside of England (which tends to be more irreligious than the great cities), and having gone to a secular state school, I had very little experience with religion as a public matter.

The number of people I knew in my years at Sixth Form who professed any faith at all could probably be counted on two hands. But my experience at St Andrews could not be more different. As soon as I arrived in the town in the dark pandemic-ridden year of 2020, I was exposed to an environment filled with young people who had a clear and driving faith — the various forms of Christianity especially, but all across the religious spectrum.

That struck me as surprising. Aren’t universities meant to be the most secularised spaces of all?

But my time on the coast has only confirmed my initial impression of a thriving hub of religion. For just one example, the Scottish Episcopal Church, which had 19,784 global communicant members in 2019, has two separate churches in St Andrews alone, both of which offer daily events throughout the week.

There are easily dozens of religious congregations that regularly meet in the town. On the Christian side, there are more theologically traditional denominations like the Roman Catholic Church, the Free Church of Scotland, the Church of Scotland, the Baptists, the Episcopal Church of Scotland and the Russian Orthodox Church. There are also newer religious movements like the non-denominational Christians at Kingdom Vineyard and Cornerstone, alongside the Jehovah’s Witnesses. That’s before even mentioning the non-Christian religions of our town like the University of St Andrews Muslim Student’s Association (STAMSA), the Jewish society, and the Sikh society.

I sat down with the Catholic Chaplain here at the University, Father Michael John Galbraith — a priest with experience serving pastorally outside the Bubble (both in the Borders and in Midlothian) — to ask him if he thinks that religiosity is indeed different in St Andrews than elsewhere in Scotland.

Fr Michael John said that he does believe that the town “is more religious, but it’s peculiar to St Andrews.” The reasons, he said, are multifaceted. One of these factors might be St Andrews’ abundance of church communities and “so many opportunities to worship according to your own religion”, he said.

Whereas in many parts of Scotland and the UK at large, you might only have access to the local Anglican church (or a non-conformist chapel or Catholic church if you’re lucky) in St Andrews, there is almost a church for every disposition.

Another aspect that Fr Michael John believes contributes to this increased religiosity is the deeply social aspect of religious faith at a university. Students are condensed into a high-pressure environment with intense levels of social interaction, making them more likely to regularly attend religious services when they can also meet their friends over a cup of tea (or a pint) afterwards.

This point about the social environment shows through the wide variety of religiously inspired social events around town.

For example, the Catholic society held a different event almost every single day of Freshers’ Week, from quizzes to ceilidhs, culminating in a barbeque attended by a record-breaking one hundred and thirty-five people. And that’s just one, out of the dozens of religious societies. In fact, as I write this article, an advert for the International Café running a country dance and chilli Southern-themed social popped up in my instagram feed.

Likewise, during last year’s Islamic month of Ramadan — when Muslims observe a daylight fast — STAMSA held collective Iftar meals that were open to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Even though I’m not Muslim, when I was invited along by one of my Muslim friends, it was a great opportunity for me and other non-Muslims to better connect with the Islamic tradition.

With many of these societies, such as International Café, Just Love St Andrews and Toastie Bar operating as affiliates or close partners of the Christian Union here in town, I decided to speak to the current Christian Union president, fourth year Sam Steer to get his opinions on the state of religiosity.

Since Sam is someone who has experience with Christian communities outside the Bubble, back in Newcastle, I asked if his experience of St Andrews has also been one of heightened fervour. He replied that having grown up in a Christian family in the Northeast of England, he certainly had experience of a Christian community before university.

“[But] I’m a lot more involved now than I was then,” he said. “[It certainly] feels as though the concentration of Christians here is greater than back home.”

The social element in St Andrews might play a big part in that.

The Toastie Bar, which sells very cheap toasties — 50 pence a piece — to the hungry post-pub and 601 masses of St Andrews students till the early hours of the morning at the Baptist church on South Street, is a strong example of how that social function plays out. While not a religious event per se, at these Friday night events, Christian literature is often distributed, and Christian iconography is heavily present.

When asked what he thinks sets St Andrews apart from the general secular society of the UK, creating this denser and more socially rich religious environment, Sam Steer replied that it was once again a confluence of multiple reasons: be it “intellectual curiosity,” social invitations or academic interest.

Sam also argued that he believes because we are a university town, academic interest in religion is stronger, occasionally transforming into a deeper religious or spiritual relationship, when combined with the aforementioned positive social circumstances.

That bridges to one final point that Fr Michael John made about why the St Andrean environment is more predisposed to religious expression: the makeup of the town.

The student body of a university is made up of intelligent, young people who suddenly have considerably more free time than they have been accustomed to at home and school. With this perspective, perhaps it is somewhat unsurprising that many students start to grapple with deeper questions of their meaning in a supposedly uncaring universe and therefore engage more seriously with the different varieties of religious faith accessible here in St Andrews.

It does seem that there might be some truth to the claim that St Andrews is more intensely religious than many of the places that British students at this university come from.

Three reasons could explain that.

First, there is such a wide variety and availability of religious congregations in town, allowing for a larger-than-average spectrum of people to live their religious life in public.

Then there’s the fact that the presence of the University and its student body means that the average St Andrews’ inhabitant could have both more free time and intellectual interest in engaging more deeply with these questions of faith and being.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the extremely active religious social calendar and social aspect of the many congregations here in town may both attract and retain a greater number of people than the standard British experience.

But perhaps the greatest takeaway about religious life in St Andrews, as Fr Michael John alluded to, is that students are reinterpreting Harry Styles lyrics.

“In this world, it's just us, you know it's not the same as it was,” Styles sings in ‘As it Was’.

Many young people here in St Andrews might just be thinking: “Yes it’s not the same as it was, but maybe in this world, it’s not just us”.

Illustration: Lauren McAndrew

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