Monday, December 10, 2012

Student Christian Unions & women in ministry

In another century, many years ago (let's just say "20 or more"), I was young, confident, and impetuous. Like so many young people in any age, I wanted to change the world and I was sure I knew how to do it. I had drifted into a place at Bristol University without much idea of what to do with life. But the summer before, I had, as we used to say, "made a commitment" at a youth camp. I decided that I was going to be a Christian. When I arrived at Bristol, confronted at once with the full range of excitements and opportunities that University life offers, it dawned on me that this decision was going to have implications.  Gradually during my first year, something that had previously compelled me intellectually began to convict me at a more visceral level: following Christ was something to be done 100%, or not at all.  I threw myself into all things Christian, did my best to live out my faith in practice, and in the process became more and more involved in the evangelical scene at Bristol. Gradually, I suppose, this made an impact on those around me. What the impact was in some cases I shudder to think, but one effect was, that half way through my second year I was amazed to be asked to become the president of Bristol University Christian Union.

Some might be surprised to hear this, but know that it's not my intention to somehow recant of this phase of my past. Unlike some, after 20 or more years I'm not a "post" evangelical, but still just plain evangelical. I value my spiritual roots and wouldn't exchange my CU experience for anything, because of what I learned and the foundation it gave me for all that came after. But still, there are so many things I wish I knew then, that I know now. All this was brought back to me forcefully last week, when I read about BUCU and their decision (possibly since rescinded) to "ban" women from speaking at their meetings.  I've no intention of defending that policy, which I think was wrong both in principle and on its own terms. In fact, that was one of the mistakes I didn't make during my year in the hotseat. But I did feel deeply for the young man who is the current occupant of that chair. 

Did I mention that I was young, confident, and impetuous? I was twenty years old. I've never been more confident in my own abilities than when I was twenty. I could do anything (in my own opinion). I wasn't arrogant, I just didn't know better, because I had no idea of the huge range of human experience, of success and failure, of the complex interplay of hope and disappointment, of the multiple ways we react to each other and indeed, to God. I was young, confident, and impetuous, and I think I was fairly typical of the twenty-year old human, a combination which is both exhilarating and profoundly dangerous.  Young people really can change the world, but they can also make a huge mess along the way. At this point in my life I was given the leadership of an organisation that encompassed an extraordinary range of views within its membership, which was under pressure from a huge number of external vested interests, and which represented evangelical Christianity in one of the UK's largest Universities.

The conclusion of this should be fairly obvious, but it's one that has escaped the multitude of commentators who have rushed to hit the keyboards this week.  But before we get there, there are a couple of observations that will suffice as my two-penn'orth on the subject:

1. is that it is much more likely that a CU would adopt a "no women teaching" policy now than it was 20 or more years ago.  At that time, CUs could still make some sort of claim to be what they say they are, ie. a union of all kinds of Christians who signed up to the basis of faith. In my time at Bristol, solemn and sound Baptists rubbed shoulders with frothy house-churchers and tidy Anglicans. What might appear narrow from the outside housed a range of opinions which the Church of England itself could hardly match. We invited all kinds of speakers, including women, and nobody flounced out because they were the wrong gender, or the wrong anything else. It worked, somehow. But in the intervening years, British evangelicalism has fractured like thin ice into myriad groups, factions and movements. One of the results is that there are alternatives (some would say rivals) to UCCF (the parent group of CUs) on University campuses now. This means that the Uni CU is now more likely to be a gathering of those from conservative churches than it used to be. Not certain to be, but more likely.

2. is that much of the criticism aimed at BUCU last week was wide of the mark, because it assumed that the CU leadership somehow acted in isolation. Of course, as was pointed out, individual CUs are independent and make their own decisions. But however young, confident, and impetuous CU leaders are, they aren't really operating in a bubble. They all belong to local churches, where their values and understanding of their faith are formed. And their position brings them into contact with all kinds of people with strong opinions on what they should be doing. My time at BUCU was punctuated by constant advice, some of it benevolent, some of it less so.

3. Painful though it is to say, UCCF must think about its role in all of this. It's really not enough to say that they have no control, and there's nothing they can do about it.  This is not the first time a CU has thought of taking this line, and it won't be the last.  At the very least, some sort of advice about dealing with these difficult issues should have been in place. What does an advisory group do if it can't advise that a story like this would light up the national media? In any case, the time-honoured line of "they sign the doctrinal basis, and after that it's up to them" was looking less like a policy, and more like an excuse last week.  UCCF's line has always been that CUs are all about mission, and everything else is secondary and should be left aside. If that means anything, it means they should coach CU's to avoid controversy and stay in the mainstream.

It's been strange to reflect on this from opposite ends of a 20 or more year gap.  I'm not young any more. You might think I'm confident and impetuous, but you should have seen me then.  I've learned a bit more about people, about myself, and about God. There's still a load of things I wish I knew, but I don't know what they are yet. But one thing I do know is that sometimes it's better to show a bit of tolerance than to rush to judgement. And if you think I'm soft for letting young people off the hook, then I've got good reason. One of them is me, 20 or more years ago.


1 comment:

Charlie Peer said...

P.S. I still want to change the world.