Legal action not inevitable for university Christian Unions, says report

London, UK - NOV 29, 2006 A report published today by the think tank Ekklesia suggests that the high-profile conflict between a number of Christian Unions and Students’ Unions need not end in legal action – which would be damaging to all concerned.

Entitled ‘United We Stand?’, 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 Students’ 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 ‘banned’ from campuses, and the suggestion, made in a recent letter to The Times newspaper signed by a number of bishops and campaign groups, that “there is no restriction imposed on who can and who cannot join” Christian Unions.

The report warns that proposed legal action could lead to widening an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality on campuses with Christian students being used as ‘pawns’ 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 Students’ Unions, and that many Christians hold positions on Students’ 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 Students’ Unions the space to resolve their differences without turning university campuses into a ‘battleground’.

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 ‘infiltrated’ or ‘taken over’.

Individual Christian Unions should also be permitted by their national body to consider changing their ‘doctrinal statements’ 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.

Additional information for editors

The report can be found online here: _we_stand_report.pdf

1. Ekklesia began in 2002 and was listed by the Independent newspaper in 2005 as one of the top 20 British thinktanks. It promotes transformative theological ideas in public life.

2. Ekklesia has worked in the area of religion and public life since its formation in 2002. Its co-directors and associates have much longer experience in the area, coming from a wide variety of backgrounds.

3. This year, Ekklesia brought out a book Faith and Politics After Christendom: the church as a movement for anarchy’ (Paternoster, 2006) which amongst other things highlighted the issues and tensions surrounding university CUs and their relationship to SUs. It also located what was happening within a wider debate about the role of religion in public life.

4. Ekklesia has monitored the media coverage of the issues and the developing controversy and has an understanding of the theological issues involved for CUs. It has also had discussions with both the National Union of Students (NUS) (who represent SUs) and the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF), to which CUs are affiliated.

5. Ekklesia wishes to see such controversies addressed constructively and has a commitment to conflict transformation work.

6. One of Ekklesia’s directors was president of the Christian Union at the London School of Economics in the early 1990s, and has first hand experience of many of the issues that are raised by the current controversies.

7. Ekklesia is an independent think tank which is not formally linked to any Christian body.