Bristol CU and finding grace in hard places

Ten years ago I was a fresher at university. I arrived fresh from a charismatic church environment heavy on the use of spiritual gifts and where my younger sister sometimes spoke at our Saturday evening youth church meetings.

Three things caused an immediate dissonance between my experience of church and what I encountered with the Christian Union. One was the absence of any practice of the spiritual gifts, no prophetic words, speaking in tongues or prayer for healing. Secondly was the friction which later become outright hostility between the CU and Fusion which I had been introduced to and had expected to be the predominant feature of my spiritual life. Thirdly the bar on women preaching or serving as president of the CU.

I had a minor leadership role within the CU during my second year and argued fiercely against the position vis-a-vis Fusion. And when the elections were held to confirm the nominated committee I spoiled my ballot, I believe only witnessed by one other. The election was a formality, the people filling the posts had been chosen by the previous year’s committee – a process which enshrined the conservative position.

I also found the position around women speakers nonsensical, Damian Thompson alludes to this in his Telegraph article on the current furore. When does teaching become teaching, for example women were allowed to give evangelistic apologetic talks but not speak at the evening main CU meetings. Leaving Fusion to one side for now, the justification behind the CU’s position on women and spiritual gifts was that these were secondary issues not foundational to the Christian faith, and therefore to take a position on these would damage the unity of Christian witness on campus. To some extent I got their logic, I didn’t want to see a charismatic CU, a conservative CU, a CU that had spiritual gifts but not women speakers, maybe one backing infant baptism and another supporting adult immersion. However, the logic was also flawed because it defaulted to a conservative position that kept those against various things happy and those wishing to see a missed aspect feature alienated.

I also sat in on the university council meeting where someone brought a motion to disaffiliate the CU because of its positions, I can’t remember the details, I suspect it was either around not having a women president or its views on homosexuality. The details are not important. What was important was that a body separate to the CU felt they had the right to decide what was or was not a legitimate aspect of Christian belief.

I know different CUs take different approaches, some are charismatic, some have women speakers, some work alongside Fusion in relative harmony. I think there are two massive challenges here that are worthy of note, firstly CUs are good as organic student run societies led by people who know the community they are reaching. But this means those in leadership will often be relatively inexperienced.

Secondly, CUs are not churches, but operate and exist as quasi-church entities, that means that for students they are often the place where most of their spiritual interaction and input occurs. For this to work and not displace the primacy of the local church it requires local churches to support and guide the work of student led ministries. It requires local church unity. It means that they don’t try and place their style of worship above another, or use a default conservatism to maintain a status quo that actual does damage the unity of Christians on campus for mission.

I don’t know what’s going on at Bristol CU at the moment, but I know plenty involved in CUs who have got caught up in student media storms, or pressures from the student union. I think they need our prayer as a matter of urgency. I think they need the support of the local churches, I think they need wise counsel. And I think they need our grace. I think they have tried to handle a difference of opinions in the best way they felt they could. It maybe that they’ve got this wrong, but don’t we all from time to time?

7 thoughts on “Bristol CU and finding grace in hard places

  1. Not much seems to have changed since I was a fresher nearly 40 years ago. Sad! It really undermines the CUs’ main reason for existence, that they are not sectarian and divisive, but a unifying influence.

    In Bristol, it seems to me that the problem was that they made a formal announcement. As they never had women speakers before and no one seems to have complained, surely no one would have noticed if they had continued that, or just added a few married couples to their current mix.

  2. As an American looking in on this, I think that what I’m most surprised is that this would even be something that the CU would still hold to now. The Church of England allows women priests. There are women pastors in Baptist in the UK. The Methodist Church in GB has no problem with women leading and teaching men. I guess that I was under the impression that most Christians in the UK were okay with women teaching. But if that’s the case, then wouldn’t the CU be as well?

  3. If we are calling for grace then how about grace for the people ignored in all this. I mean of course the students and guest speakers who have been silenced because of their gender. Also the people who have not heard God’s love because the person God called to tell them was not allowed to speak because of their gender.

  4. What we are forgetting is that

    1) The Islamic society should PROBABLY be considered first because their policy is PROBABLY for no women teaching – ever.

    2) er… That was it.


  5. Thank you Danny. What you have written resonates strongly with my experiences. It was pretty much the same when I was at university although mine was much more progressive when it came to women speakers. UCCF’s conservative stance and position of influence over Christian Unions seemed to be more of a hinderance than a help at times especially when it came to pushing mission through apologetics that had limited success.

    I remember having a long chat with the leadership at Fusion not long after they had started asking them about how UCCF had responded to their aims. I was shocked at the levels of hostility described and the way that UCCF refused even to talk to them, despite their desire to see how best they could support the work of CUs and hall fellowships through the local churches. It was as if UCCF had decided that any Christian interdenominational work at universities should be on their terms alone. UCCF’s attitude was appallling and contrasted sharply with Fusion’s gracious action. Whilst extremely disappointed with UCCF’s response, they didn’t want to cause trouble and stir things up, even though they could have done.

    Hopefully Bristol University Christian Union has local churches who can advise them at this time as to the best way forward.

    • Gillian,

      “Hopefully Bristol University Christian Union has local churches who can advise them at this time as to the best way forward.”

      Sadly from the articles the Church that claims the CU is mostly based there is a split from the Baptist Union, does not look a likely place for good advice on this issue 😦

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