Financial cutbacks by the Church of England could leave two south coast universities as the only universities in England with no Anglican chaplain.
The Diocese of Winchester is considering a motion to withdraw funding from the chaplaincies at Southampton and Southampton Solent Universities, along with the further education colleges of Bournemouth and Poole and the post of diocesan chaplain to deaf people. The diocesan communications officer and a schools adviser could also face redundancy.
While the Diocese is reported to be facing a large budget deficit, there have been suggestions that student chaplaincy is an “easy target” for cuts. Diocesan officials have sought to play down the controversy, emphasising that no decisions have yet been taken.
A decision is expected at a meeting of the Diocesan Synod on Saturday 28 November.
Students have attracted national support with a petition and campaign opposing the measure. They point out that the chaplains are not only a resource for Christians but play a crucial role in supporting students during emotional difficulties.
As the multi-denominational chaplaincy at Southampton University receives much of its funding from the Church of England, the cutbacks would be likely to affect general chaplaincy facilities and the work of other chaplains.
Southampton's Student Christan Movement, Christian Union, Catholic Society and Jewish Society have united to express their opposition to the proposal.
A peaceful demonstration is planned outside Winchester Cathedral this afternoon (26 November).
“The community at Chaplaincy is just so incredibly special,” said Emma Anthony, a second-year student, “People feel at ease and know they can be themselves among understanding, genuine friends”.
She explained that she was very nervous when beginning her course, but after discovering the chaplains, she found that “a large part of my fear of starting university slipped away - it felt like a safe place”.
She expressed her dismay at the idea of “denying the current and future students such an amazing resource”.
However, in a statement released yesterday (25 November), the Diocese of Winchester accused the students of "jumping the gun".
Diocesan Secretary Andrew Robinson said "Those who are protesting should be assured that a budget of this kind is so critically important that to second-guess what might happen is not helpful".
In response, Church Times blogger Dave Walker pointed out that "if they were to wait until the decision is made as the statement implies they should then their case would already be lost".
At a national level, the Student Christian Movement (SCM) has emphasised that the importance of university chaplaincy should not be underestimated.
“Higher education chaplaincy plays a vital role in meeting the spiritual needs of students and staff” said SCM's national Co-ordinator, Hilary Topp.
She added that “With increasing numbers of people now attending universities, the Student Christian Movement would like to see the churches considering how they can reach more students, rather than seeing work with students as an easy target for funding cuts.”