Evangelical bishops join legal row over Christian Unions

By staff writers
November 23, 2006

Evangelical bishops join legal row over Christian Unions

-23/11/06

Anglican bishops became embroiled in legal disputes last night when they told student unions they were acting unlawfully by suspending Evangelical Christian Unions who discriminate.

The move followed decisions by student guilds and associations at three universities, Exeter, Birmingham and Edinburgh, to suspend Christian Unions from membership or use of premises on the grounds that their constitutions or meetings are exclusionary and discriminate against both Christians and non-Christians and particularly gay people.

Other university unions, including Heriot-Watt University and some London medical schools, are said to have taken similar action.

The Christian Unions, which are run by The Universities and Colleges' Christian Fellowship (UCCF) are one group of Christians amongst many on university campuses up and down the country.

The controversy centres around the 'doctrinal statement' which office holders in Christian Unions are required to sign. These commit Christian leaders to affirming "The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God" and "is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour".

Instead of having open elections as other societies do, with Christian Union members then voting for their leaders, CUs insist that only those who will sign the doctrinal statement can be candidates.

Many Christians however feel unable to sign the statements, feeling that they are too narrow and exclusionary. Others, who are interested in the Christian faith and would like to play a part in the society as an office holder, are also prohibited from doing so.

At Exeter university, the Christian Union had to change its name to the Evangelical Christian Union.

UCCF, the body which runs the Christian Unions, have rejected suggestions that the doctrinal statement might be replaced by one of the historic creeds which churches from across the Christian denominations use. They have also refused to use a statement of values.

The doctrinal statement also lies at the heart of another problem, and that is the approach of Christian Unions to Lesbian and Gay people. The interpretation of the Bible, spelt out in the doctrinal statement, does not allow for Christians to hold differing views on sexuality. Whilst leaders in Christian Unions are permitted to hold differing views on a range of moral and ethical issues such as war, and social justice, UCCF insists that only one approach is taken on the issue of homosexuality.

At Edinburgh a course looking at homosexuality was banned because the students' association claimed it breached anti-discrimination policies.

A letter signed mainly by evangelical Church of England bishops and organisations including the Evangelical Alliance, but also the Roman Catholic church's lead bishop on higher education, calls for the groups to be reinstated.

It says: "Christian students at many of our universities are facing considerable opposition and discrimination in violation of their rights of freedom of expression, freedom of belief and freedom of association". The letter adds that "we believe this to be intolerant and unlawful" and that the Christian unions currently suspended "should be reinstated with full society rights forthwith".

"Of course university student guilds/unions have a responsibility to ensure that official societies are run in a proper and lawful manner. However, this does not give them, or anyone else, the right to restrict or change the essential beliefs of those societies or impose as leaders people who do not share those core beliefs ... as a faith sharing organisation, CUs specifically invite people who do not share the Christian faith to attend their meetings, [but] it would be inappropriate for anyone who does not agree with the aims, objects and beliefs to be executive committee members."

The signatories include the Anglican diocesan bishops of Winchester, Chester, Rochester, Southwell and Nottingham and Lichfield and the Rt Rev Crispian Hollis, Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth.

The Christian unions at two universities have threatened legal action.

The 1986 Education Act imposes obligations on universities to safeguard the lawful exercise of freedom of speech and a universities' working party's guidelines for student unions, published in 1998, state that unions shall not harass, intimidate or threaten any member or group.

The Universities and Colleges' Christian Fellowship (UCCF), umbrella body for 350 university Christian unions representing up to 20,000 students, said the organisations were under "unprecedented" attack.

However, previously UCCF is understood to have pursued a policy of discouraging CUs from affiliating to Student Unions.

Evangelical bishops join legal row over Christian Unions

-23/11/06

Anglican bishops became embroiled in legal disputes last night when they told student unions they were acting unlawfully by suspending Evangelical Christian Unions who discriminate.

The move followed decisions by student guilds and associations at three universities, Exeter, Birmingham and Edinburgh, to suspend Christian Unions from membership or use of premises on the grounds that their constitutions or meetings are exclusionary and discriminate against both Christians and non-Christians and particularly gay people.

Other university unions, including Heriot-Watt University and some London medical schools, are said to have taken similar action.

The Christian Unions, which are run by The Universities and Colleges' Christian Fellowship (UCCF) are one group of Christians amongst many on university campuses up and down the country.

The controversy centres around the 'doctrinal statement' which office holders in Christian Unions are required to sign. These commit Christian leaders to affirming "The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God" and "is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour".

Instead of having open elections as other societies do, with Christian Union members then voting for their leaders, CUs insist that only those who will sign the doctrinal statement can be candidates.

Many Christians however feel unable to sign the statements, feeling that they are too narrow and exclusionary. Others, who are interested in the Christian faith and would like to play a part in the society as an office holder, are also prohibited from doing so.

At Exeter university, the Christian Union had to change its name to the Evangelical Christian Union.

UCCF, the body which runs the Christian Unions, have rejected suggestions that the doctrinal statement might be replaced by one of the historic creeds which churches from across the Christian denominations use. They have also refused to use a statement of values.

The doctrinal statement also lies at the heart of another problem, and that is the approach of Christian Unions to Lesbian and Gay people. The interpretation of the Bible, spelt out in the doctrinal statement, does not allow for Christians to hold differing views on sexuality. Whilst leaders in Christian Unions are permitted to hold differing views on a range of moral and ethical issues such as war, and social justice, UCCF insists that only one approach is taken on the issue of homosexuality.

At Edinburgh a course looking at homosexuality was banned because the students' association claimed it breached anti-discrimination policies.

A letter signed mainly by evangelical Church of England bishops and organisations including the Evangelical Alliance, but also the Roman Catholic church's lead bishop on higher education, calls for the groups to be reinstated.

It says: "Christian students at many of our universities are facing considerable opposition and discrimination in violation of their rights of freedom of expression, freedom of belief and freedom of association". The letter adds that "we believe this to be intolerant and unlawful" and that the Christian unions currently suspended "should be reinstated with full society rights forthwith".

"Of course university student guilds/unions have a responsibility to ensure that official societies are run in a proper and lawful manner. However, this does not give them, or anyone else, the right to restrict or change the essential beliefs of those societies or impose as leaders people who do not share those core beliefs ... as a faith sharing organisation, CUs specifically invite people who do not share the Christian faith to attend their meetings, [but] it would be inappropriate for anyone who does not agree with the aims, objects and beliefs to be executive committee members."

The signatories include the Anglican diocesan bishops of Winchester, Chester, Rochester, Southwell and Nottingham and Lichfield and the Rt Rev Crispian Hollis, Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth.

The Christian unions at two universities have threatened legal action.

The 1986 Education Act imposes obligations on universities to safeguard the lawful exercise of freedom of speech and a universities' working party's guidelines for student unions, published in 1998, state that unions shall not harass, intimidate or threaten any member or group.

The Universities and Colleges' Christian Fellowship (UCCF), umbrella body for 350 university Christian unions representing up to 20,000 students, said the organisations were under "unprecedented" attack.

However, previously UCCF is understood to have pursued a policy of discouraging CUs from affiliating to Student Unions.

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