Legal action not inevitable for university Christian Unions, says report
A report published today by the think tank Ekklesia suggests that the high-profile conflict between a number of Christian Unions and Studentsí Unions need not end in legal action ñ which would be damaging to all concerned.
Entitled ëUnited We Stand?í, the report looks at the background, analyses the current conflicts in universities, examines the various actors and the positions taken by both sides, and proposes a way forward based around the mutual concerns of Christian Unions (which are evangelical in character) and Studentsí Unions.
Student Guilds and Associations at three universities (Exeter, Birmingham and Edinburgh) have suspended Christian Unions from membership or use of premises after accusations that their constitutions or meetings do not meet the requirements of membership, being exclusionary and discriminatory against non-evangelical Christians and especially lesbian and gay people.
The report places the current disputes in a wider social context in which some conservative Christians feel that they themselves are facing discrimination and persecution. But it warns that legal action, currently being considered by several Christian Unions, will not satisfactorily address their concerns, resolve the underling issue of religious identity and liberty, or establish how such groups relate in a culturally and religiously plural society.
The report corrects a number of popular misconceptions about the conflict, including the idea that Christians are being ëbannedí from campuses, and the suggestion, made in a recent letter to The Times newspaper signed by a number of bishops and campaign groups, that ìthere is no restriction imposed on who can and who cannot joinî Christian Unions.
The report warns that proposed legal action could lead to widening an ëusí and ëthemí mentality on campuses with Christian students being used as ëpawnsí in a battle being waged by conservative campaign groups. It also warns that legal action may result in Christians taking other Christians to court, further accentuating divisions within the Christian community both inside universities and outside them.
Listing some of the numerous other Christian and religious groups that exist happily on university campuses in addition to the evangelical Christian Unions, the report also points out that many Christian Unions themselves enjoy amicable relationships with Studentsí Unions, and that many Christians hold positions on Studentsí Union executives.
The report makes nine practical suggestions for finding a way through the conflict.
In particular it proposes that qualified mediation, as yet untried, or mediation assisted by university chaplaincies, could provide the necessary environment for conflict resolution. However, it also suggests that bodies which exist outside universities need to allow Christian Unions and Studentsí Unions the space to resolve their differences without turning university campuses into a ëbattlegroundí.
The report points out that some campaigning groups outside universities are already asking supporters for money to fund legal action, and that these campaign groups have been monitoring the situation for a number of years.
Recognising that CUs have expressed a desire to maintain and safeguard their autonomy the report also suggests that:
Christian Unions elect their executives through free and fair elections in which their members vote, satisfying the requirements of Student Unions but also enabling them to maintain their autonomy in choosing their own officers.
Safeguards be put into place (where they do not already exist) to ally the fears expressed by members of Christian Unions, that they may be ëinfiltratedí or ëtaken overí.
Individual Christian Unions should also be permitted by their national body to consider changing their ëdoctrinal statementsí which are at the heart of the controversy, and which, ironically, prevent the majority of Christians from joining Christian Unions.
Another option would be for Christian Unions to be permitted simply to use the historic Christian creeds as their basis of faith, or a statement of values.
The report can be found online here: www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/united _we_stand_report.pdf