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?