To perhaps stretch a cultural approximation, Christmastide is to Christianity what St Patrick’s Day is to being Irish. People are usually completely uninterested in that ancient, spired building at the heart of their towns and villages. Yet come the big night, they flock towards it in their droves. Cold and empty pews are filled by young and old alike and the dust collected by hymn books over the course of another year is swept off in a festive flash.
What is it that these spontaneous attendants seek? I can guarantee that, for the most part, it is not the worship of God incarnate or enough robust doctrinal reinforcement to last until the succeeding December. And that is not a complaint, but simply a fact. No, what they seek is the warm glow of a group of people who have congregated under the umbrella of one broad hope: that there is something higher and better than the individual human experience and its endemic frustrations. They look to reconfirm their aspiration that, amongst all the terrors and miseries of this world, moments of harmony, concord and, ultimately, peace can be found. The Church, with its obvious attachment to Christmas and it’s hope that all can find peace and comfort in the darkest of times, has the intellectual, cultural and spiritual framework and infrastructure to provide a location for all congregate this Christmas.
The Chaplaincy of this university is no different: I have been to two university carol services, and both times the vastness of Holy Trinity Church has been packed to the rafters. I have no doubt that it will be again on the third time that I attend. It is the only church service for which I have ever factored in queueing time when deciding when to arrive at the venue. Furthermore, it isn’t just various Christians who are present. A typically woolly Anglican I may be, but my staunchly atheist girlfriend has already expressed her excitement at crossing the sacred threshold for this particular event. The peculiar composition of the congregation is totally appreciated by the unmistakable and energetic University Chaplain, the Rev Dr Donald MacEwan, who delivers the sermon at the carol service. Naturally, he always delivers a befitting and emotive address from his own religious background, but the tone remains equally inclusive to less-religious attendees.
For the last two years he has framed the Christmas message in a way that has universal appeal, that there can be peace on Earth, and that fear can be banished. This annual flock (both Christian or not) comes looking for hope and welcoming, and their shepherd offers it in the most accessible way he can. This ability of the Chaplaincy- a religious body- to fit within the rhythms of and respond to the needs of the university- a secular institution, is not reserved for Christmas. Beyond traditional civic-religious offices such as Remembrance Sunday, it constantly validates its position within a university with a mixed views body. Last Thursday, Rev Dr MacEwan participated in one of the UDS’ debates (many others of which he has attended), demonstrating his preparation to engage on a potentially hostile intellectual level with other speakers and students alike. Additionally, he is there every year with a team of volunteers to wash the foam off the cold and hungover students emerging from the final rite of passage of Raisin Weekend.
The base of the Chaplaincy- the Manse- is open to hosting events which cover a broad spectrum of student interests from interfaith groups to political societies to VegSoc dinners. Finally, in times of great tragedy, it has been the Chaplaincy which has stepped in and organised counselling for friends and acquaintances of the deceased as well as any initial funereal arrangements. Questions about personal belief are irrelevant. What matters is that when members of the university have been shaken by great sadness and are yearning for a sign of hope, they have a potential source of comfort to turn to.
“Whether you share the Christian faith of this chapel or do not, you are most welcome.” These are words with which Rev Dr MacEwan prefaces every Sunday service at St Salvator’s Chapel. Luckily for us, the team based at the Manse is not some closed cabal of clerics catering for a shrinking number of God-fearing students. It is an active and dedicated team who strive all year around to ensure that the sense of community on which we pride ourselves in St Andrews is never threatened, and that every student has a safe haven they can call in at if weary and rocked from the journey thus far.
The Chaplaincy’s continued presence at our university is something for which we all, regardless of what we believe in our hearts, can give thanks, especially as walk on down with our friends to another lovely carol service.