I have recently received a letter from Dr Peter May, the chair of the UCCF (Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship), the group to which Christian Unions in higher education are affiliated and accountable.
Dr May writes: ‚ÄúThe current opposition experienced on some campuses is, we believe, a measure of the impact the Christian Unions are having. They cannot be ignored and inevitably some people would like to silence them. The simple logic that committed Christians should be responsible for running Christian Unions is both lawful and obvious.‚Äù
He is referring to the threats of legal action currently flying around, and allegations that CUs are being 'repressed' by student guilds.
I was, I admit, surprised to receive a letter from the UCCF. After all, I would not be allowed to address a meeting of the Christian Union, nor to become a member, if I was at university. In order to do either, one would have to sign the UCCF‚Äôs narrow ‚Äústatement of faith‚Äù, which, like many others, I believe to be theologically flawed. Apparently, that means I am not a ‚Äúcommitted Christian‚Äù. Thanks, Dr May.
It was a particular irritation when I was a college chaplain that the UCCF served to undermine the work of the chapel. The message from CU central was clear. Chaplains are not to be worked with. They are different. Don‚Äôt trust them.
Throughout the country, university chaplains who do not subscribe to the UCCF‚Äôs creeds ‚Äî and that‚Äôs most of them ‚Äî are painted as obstacles. And thus young people are inducted into the cultural war that following Jesus has now become. Shame on us all.
Some Christian Unions have found ways round this narrowness. When Jonathan Bartley (now co-director of Ekklesia) ran the CU at the London School of Economics, he conveniently forgot to sign the statement of faith, as did several others.
The UCCF has what are, in effect, compliance officers, who travel the country, on the lookout for dissenters. But they can‚Äôt be everywhere. Other Evangelical Christians have simply left Christian Unions to set up groups such as Fusion.
My experience of Christian Unions is that they are full of good kids, seeking to be faithful to the gospel, but often being manipulated by wider cultural agendas. Some student unions have a default hostility to Christianity. And some extreme Evangelicals exploit this hostility so as to depict themselves as a persecuted minority.
This sort of clash serves only to give Christianity a bad name on campus, and persuades most students to see Christians as insular, defensive, and extreme. God is hardly glorified by Christian Unions with a siege mentality. Now is the time for them to open up.