Monday, November 20, 2006

On Christian Unions and Students' Unions

As both a Christian and a Students' Union officer it was almost inevitable that I'd write something on the current row in the media and the blogosphere about the current clash between several university Christian Unions and their Student's Unions.

One of the things that stands out the most is that this issue has been very badly reported and I suspect some have misrepresented the position they are in to increase their apparent "victim status". I can't comment on the individual cases without further knowledge (although as a colleague and friend works at Birmingham I have heard some of the details of the situation there) but some of the issues are quite commonplace across the board.

First off these are not cases of "banning" but rather the Students' Unions are disaffiliating the Christian Unions from the union. Society affiliation is basically the formal means by which a society at a university applies and qualifies for access to students' union society resources, which variously include funding, cheap or free room bookings, the SU acting as a guarantor on booking rooms from the university, a website on the SU server, maybe a voting member of the Societies' Forum or Union Council (depending upon how the Students' Union governance is structured) and so forth. In order to qualify for this, there are often a number of requirements set down by the Students' Union that societies must meet. These invariably include:

*The society must be open to membership by all students
*Conformity to equal opportunities and non-discriminatory practices
*The society officers (who are the ones who will be determining how the students' union resources are being used) must be democratically elected by the members of the society
*A minimum number of members (sometimes more than one minimum, related to the levels of funding available)
*Not substantially duplicating another society already in existence

And often some or all of the first three cause problems for Christian Unions. If one comment I've seen on a blog today is true then for years the Universities and Colleges' Christian Fellowship (the national body for Christian Unions) used to have a policy that Christian Unions would not affiliate to Students' Unions. In a somewhat ironic position given the current row, the UCCF would disbar any Christian Union that did.

When I was at the University of Kent the Christian Union there was not affiliated to the Students' Union and, as far as I could see, had no intention to. Whether they had tried to in years past I do not know, but in my day the attitude of the CU was that affiliating would be incompatible as they did not wish to elect their officers, instead having the outgoing officers and some outsiders select the new ones, they would have to drop the requirement for members to sign the UCCF Doctrinal statement (see here for more details, albeit from a critical source) to be open to membership by all students and some other reasons relating to the way they raised and spent money. Also they weren't the only Christian group on campus - others such as the Anglican Society (later "Christian Focus") and the (Roman) Catholic Society were in strong existence and were open to membership by all students. Indeed there were a number of students (mainly reading Theology but also some with friends in several societies) who were members of both, as well as of the Islamic Society.

It seems the Kent problems weren't unique - at Reading it appears there were tensions between the SU and CU, not helped by some in the UCCF apparently spreading scare stories and encouraging confrontation. However an agreed relationship between the two bodies was worked out that is now praised by both UCCF staff members and the current Reading SU President.

Unfortunately not all have pursued a constructive policy and I suspect that much of the current uproar stems from confrontationalists once again spreading misleading advice and encouraging a hardline stance.

The other issue that comes up the most in clashes between CUs and SUs is equal opportunities. Many have felt the Christian Union is not always preaching tolerance - I can recall reports of moments when they have said "We pray against Muslims" and many have found their position on homosexuality to be deeply and proactively intolerant. This is a much harder issue to comment on without knowing the facts, but if true then the societies are promoting intolerance and it is right for the students' union to deny affiliation, funds and resources because of this.

One other point that has been raised is that the actions against Christian Unions are somehow "anti-Christian". But many critics of CUs are to be found amongst Christians. Indeed when the Warwick CU was disaffiliated from the SU some years ago, it was members of Christian Focus who were amongst the most prominent supporters of the move. Many Christians at universities find the CU to be very narrow in their doctrine, being only evangelical protestant but claiming to be a body for "all Christians".

Unfortunately much of the media seems to be spinning the story as one of secular fanatics persecuting innocent Christians. Will they ever get their facts straight?

2 comments:

Owen said...

Great post, Tim

James Stewart said...

Thanks for the link to my post. Just for clarity I want to make it clear that there was rarely any overt confrontation between CU and SU during my time in Reading, but there was certainly a tension and a lot of confusion.

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