Mark’s Christian Union Story

I’ve been sharing people’s university Christian Union stories over the last week, You can read those that have been written so far HERE.  Today’s story comes from Mark Hewerdine (you can follow him on Twitter HERE).


It was 20 years ago this week that I moved to Manchester to begin university, and 20 years since I was introduced to the Christian Union by two wonderful young women. They were second years and led our hall-based bible study group and were amazingly supportive and encouraging. My initial impression of the CU was overwhelmingly positive and I have to say that the three years I was part of it were deeply formative in a very positive way.


The CU seemed to gain a new lease of life and experienced rapid growth in my second year, partly as many young Christians fresh from Soul Survivor arrived with a passion not only for evangelism but for service and social justice. Interestingly, many were also from some of the newer free churches. I think this was significant since they tended to have experienced a more egalitarian brand of church and leadership.


In contrast, my CU at the time I joined – and many others – tended to be conservative evangelical in make-up and ethos, reflected in the insistence that the chair be a man (even if there was also a requirement that the vice-chair be a woman). This insistence seemed to stem from a (mis)understanding and (mis)application of teaching concerning church leadership. I think CUs falsely saw the need to apply a very conservative reading of leadership in a church context to something that wasn’t and isn’t a church.


However, it was quite obvious that in my time the chair and vice-chair acted and were treated as equals. Often it was the female vice-chair who was ostensibly taking the lead, showing just how ridiculous the official rules were.


I think it was significant that a large proportion of CU members joined churches where women were in positions of senior leadership, or at least were preaching and leading services regularly. It’s not that these members then actively kicked against complementation theology by argument; rather, men assumed that women could lead within the CU and could/should speak with authority. And women assumed the same. This lead to a largely healthy approach to gender.


I saw women leading and giving wise counsel, being affirmed and respected by (most) men for their gifts and leadership. Women were hall group leaders, and active on all committees. Although the majority of guest speakers were men – largely due to the dominance of men in local church leadership – there was no bar on women speaking and teaching at any meetings.


However, in hindsight I see that some of what I picked up regarding “how to be a Christian man/woman” was still influenced by a complementarian theology and narrow stereotypes. The rhetoric of delineated gender roles/characteristics was still floating around even if it was being challenged – as much by behaviour and example as in argument. When it came to the “a” word – accountability – there was an assumption that if women and men wished to meet to discuss their deepest issues and struggles (they were encouraged to do so) this would be in single sex groups. I don’t think that was altogether a bad thing and was the only example of gender segregation I recall.


I did sense a shift, a turning of the tide even across my three years. It seemed to me – and perhaps it’s wishful thinking – that the CU was part of a growing affirmation of women’s ministry and leadership, and critique of complementarianism. Thus it was rather sad to realise that the vast majority of churches being recommended to new students by the CU in Manchester either oppose the notion of women in senior leadership or are led solely by men.


After leaving university I began to pick up on the stories and experiences of other Christians from other CUs and was taken aback at just how “progressive” Manchester seemed to be in many ways: on gender, social justice, ecumenism, politics. Sexuality remained the last taboo, and sadly I suspect very few, if any CUs, have really made much progress on this area.


20 years on from Fresher’s week I continue to reflect on what formed me as a Christian, what mistakes I made as a younger man and what I would do differently if I had my time again. 
One theme keeps coming back to me: it is easy for 18 to 22-year-old students to be strongly influenced, guided (even misguided) by older Christians in positions of influence. The relationship between CU and local churches has always been complex and from time to time disagreement flares up regarding what that relationship should be. I was aware as a student of the positive and (in my view) negative influence local clergy and lay church leaders could have over students which seeped into the way CUs are run. I wonder if chaplaincies need to have a stronger role in being a support to CUs insofar as they are on the ground in student land constantly and can provide some continuity. Yes, chaplaincies are often regarded with suspicion by CUs for their liberal or interfaith leanings. Can that suspicion be overcome to the benefit of CUs? I also fear that some church leaders in my time (and today) actively discourage Christian students from being open to hearing other points of view or other theological positions for fear that young impressionable minds will be led astray. I think that does students a disservice in the long run and can actually precipitate a crisis of identity and faith later on when they realise just how complex theology and faith really are.


It’s easy to hurl rocks at CUs for being homophobic and sexist. And often they are those things. But when young passionate Christians crave certainty and security as they leave home, perhaps we should be holding to account those other, older Christian voices around them who collude with, even encourage that black and white thinking. I was often a bit of an idiot and at least mildly obnoxious as a passionate young student Christian eager to save the world, but today I try not to be too harsh towards my younger self. Perhaps we older Christians should treat students with similar gentleness and kindness, without colluding with bigotry or patronising young people who do need to take responsibility for their words and actions.

“Spud’s” Christian Union Story

Last week I began a series of guest posts from people sharing their stories of being in university Christian Unions.  You can read more about why HERE and Liz’s Story HERE.  Today’s story comes from someone who has asked to be named as Spud.


My CU has given me many positives over the year; by helping with my self-confidence, giving me a wonderful group of friends and a place to study the bible. Mostly I’ve had a positive experience with my CU, with everyone being welcoming and cheerful to me over my first year at university. I’ve become part of a weekly group where we can discuss the Bible and pray. 


However, I have witnessed my friend being made uncomfortable in Fresher’s week when telling a CU rep that she doesn’t believe in God, and I have been uncomfortable being told I should go into the streets and encourage strangers to become Christians. I’ve found it frustrating when my friends in CU don’t listen to me when I say that I don’t like loud and large churches and prefer a more traditional church. 


People I come into contact with in my CU are encouraging and friendly, but there are some things I disagree with about my CU but do not feel able to discuss these.


One of the things I don’t feel able to discuss is different ways of doing evangelism, as it feels like everyone is so set in their ways – I was brought up to believe you evangelise through your actions and how you portray yourself to others, and then that will lead people to question why you act as you do and you can explain why with God and Christianity. Most people I’ve met in the CU evangelise through telling people they’re Christians and why other people should be too which I feel can intimidate and put people off Christianity and the CU. 


Another topic is how you worship. They are used to loud worship, maybe Christian rock music or a loud preacher. As quite a self-conscious person, raising my hands in worship, praying out loud and responding aloud have always been things I avoid as I don’t like drawing attention to myself. My CU friends don’t seem to understand that I can worship in my church by listening to a sermon and singing hymns or music without raising my hands. 


The CU has such a bad reputation at my uni that I feel embarrassed to say I go to it, even though I know everyone in the CU is such good people at heart, they just sometimes go about showing it in the wrong way. I try to explain to non-Christian’s that in my view the CU is sort of like a denomination of Christianity, and although they act like that, not all Christians do.

Liz’s Christian Union Story

Yesterday evening I posted a BLOG inviting people to share their stories of university Christian Unions, in less than 24 hours I have received seven stories.  Over the next few days, I hope to share these people’s stories with you.  If you would like to share your university CU, email me at befreeuk at gmail dot com.


Here is Liz Clutterbuck’s story


I only became involved in CU in my second year, largely thanks to a housemate being very involved (she became president – as a woman – which was good). During this second year, I went on the only single gender event I can recall from my time in the organisation: a girls’ weekend focused on the contents of the classic “Relationship Revolution”. (The gender implications of that book is a whole other story!)


I actually appreciate the safety of single sex groups, for sharing stories & praying together. But, it was on this girls’ weekend away that I had my very first experience of a woman announcing that women shouldn’t lead churches. It wasn’t anyone in leadership, just a girl I got talking to over breakfast who asked what my parents did. When I told her they were both ordained, she replied “oh, I don’t believe in women’s leadership”. Literally my first ever encounter with complementarianism, having been brought up in the pretty liberal & inclusive Methodist church. 


It stunned me that an intelligent woman, who had got into a world class university, had such views. Luckily she was in the minority, and we did have both a female president & UCCF worker, but I was concerned that no one else seemed to find her views odd! Poor, naive, 18-year-old me! 


Fast forward 10 years & I was a student worker in a central London church, working with students from colleges including LSE. In my first week of the job, I was hosting a UCCF training event at my church, when a relay worker asked “so why do you think God is calling you into leadership?”, it took me a couple of moments to realise that she meant “why do you think God has called you – a woman – to lead.” It set the tone for the next 3 years, where, as an Anglican ordinand I was determined to show them just how normal women in leadership is! 


(You can follow Liz on Twitter @lizclutterbuck)



Stories from University Christian Unions

Tonight on Twitter there were various conversations that occurred, motivated by these flyers that are being handed out at Freshers week in Chester University and LSE…



Putting aside the clear lack of understanding about their audience, these events include men/”guys” eating meat, playing FIFA and crazy haircuts.  Women/”ladies” get tea and… more tea.  I know that CUs have mainly had a rather problematic approach to gender theology (they’re usually either implicitly or explicitly complementarian) but strongly sex segregated events and groups do seem to be a new thing.


After seeing these flyers, some people began sharing their experiences of university CUs, with regards to gender, and a few other issues regarding sexuality and catholicism.  So…  I suggested it may be good for these stories to be shared!


If you, or anyone you know, has a story about a university CU that you would like to share, please email me 600-700 words sharing your story and letting me know what name you want it to be shared under and then I’ll get it up on my blog.  Email befreeuk (at) gmail (dot) com.


Just to be clear, I don’t want to be hating on CUs, I’m sure for a lot of people they have been an important part of their journey in faith.  Rarely is anything entirely bad and I know that my experience of faith communities is that God has used them and grown me through them, even if some (or even many) aspects of them have been difficult/painful/frustrating.  Sharing our stories enables others to makes sense of their story and gives us a way of shaping what is going on for us, both in the past, now and hopefully, in the future!


By sharing these stories, especially when there is enough distance from them to describe the longer term implications, perhaps we can encourage CUs to make different decisions and hopefully those who are still hurting or damaged can know that they are not alone!


Thanks in advance for getting involved!!!



In The Dead End

Sometimes it’s in the dead ends that we learn the most.


This week has not been the easiest of weeks.  About six months ago Mr GLW and I felt God had called him to apply to become a police officer.  He had been a Special Constable (volunteer police officer) with the Met Police for a number of years and for the last two or three he had occasionally suggested that becoming a fulltime officer would solve various problems we kept happening upon, mostly related to our main income being my freelance work and the lack of security that gave us.


I’d always been very against this idea as I wondered how I would do all the stuff I’m Meant To Do, if I had to be a full time parent AND police spouse.  However, within the last year as I prayed and journeyed with God I became convinced that Mr GLW should apply, that God was in it and I felt a lot peace about it all.  I didn’t really want to be going down that road, but obedience to God takes priority, always.


So I began the rather painful process of accepting that my role was changing.  I’d become so used to being a freelance specialist, with the freedom to work whenever, while Mr GLW stayed at home and looked after the children.  Even when he began part-time work with a local charity a couple of years ago, I could basically work whenever and left many of the caring and household responsibilities to Mr GLW (and he was a lot better at it all and like it a lot more!).


I spent a lot of time praying and grappling with my changing role.  Why was I so resistant to becoming “just a mum” when my feminism insists that tasks culturally coded as women’s work are very important?  If everything I did was in obedience to God, why was it so much easier to be obedient to God when I got to do all the stuff I loved?  Even though I spend my life massively critiquing platform, why did it feel so hard giving up a career which presented opportunities to speak and write and have my voice heard?


The first day of the summer holidays was also Mr GLW’s first day training as a police officer.  I had spent the weeks previously frantically trying to get all my projects finished up, working long hours and being super busy.  Suddenly I became a fulltime parent in the summer holidays, with three children aged 4, 10 and 13.


(I should mention that just over a year ago, God called us to move my niece and her 3-year-old son halfway down the country to live with us, resulting in large upheaval in our life, which you can read about HERE.  Earlier this year it became apparent she couldn’t cope with being a parent and so we supported her to firstly get a job and then, when she couldn’t cope, we miraculously found an amazing Christian safe house for women where she could stay.  All this means that we inherited a four-year-old earlier this year, with all the challenges that brings, alongside having a marvellous ten-year-old with additional behavioural needs and an adorable thirteen-year-old with teenage rantiness.)


The summer holidays involved almost constant argument.  “He hit me.”  “He’s lying, I never hit him.”  “YES YOU DID.”  “Shut up arguing you two!  Mum can I go out with my friends…”  On and on and on.  There were also wonderful times.  Friends blessed us with a week’s holiday in their holiday home free of charge.  The kids enjoyed my more spontaneous parenting and things being different every day (except for Smaller GLW who likes everything to be the same every day and has a meltdown when it’s not).  Early on I found Smaller GLW wailing in his bedroom.  “Why has daddy left us all ALOOOOOOONE?” he moaned with tears rolling down his cheeks.  “He hasn’t left you alone, I’m here” I said while patting him.  He howls and informs me, “Well that’s basically the same thing.”


Weeks three and six were the worst.  By week six I was ready to give up.  The exhaustion.  Never having a minute to myself.  The lack of capacity to think about anything but when to load the dishwasher and put the washing out.  I’d had a weekend away with God in June and “courage” was one of the words God gave me for the year ahead.  At the time I had been mildly concerned about that.  Courage?  I’m usually quite courageous.  Challenging injustice.  Saying the things no-one else wants to (vagina, vagina, clitoris, vulva).  The idea that courage was going to be needed for the year ahead had concerned me slightly.  Week 6 of the summer holidays, enduring bickering, arguing and Never Any Silence had not been what I envisaged as The Courageous Act.  Yet it took all of my energy to keep going.  Courage is the still small voice that says “I will not lock my children in a room and run away, I will cook their dinner and tell them I love them instead.”


Last week was back to school and things began to improve.  I began thinking about the MA I’m starting later this month with London School of Theology (I am getting it free and don’t have a first degree so I am calling it the Miracle Masters).  Everything was becoming calmer and I had begun to really embrace my role as primary carer.  I had a system for cleaning, we’ve been doing after school beach trips because of the Global Warming induced hot weather and we’d all basically adapted to this new life.


Alas, this was short lived!  Mr GLW had been struggling with the training.  He’s 45 and the training is full of twenty somethings who live at home and can revise and have the headspace for remembering ALL THE LAWS.  Having lived with me for nine years, Mr GLW’s unhealthy power dynamics radar goes off rather quickly and the system and structures were hard to deal with.  He was struggling with the hours, with the lack of time to spend with the children and me.  Everything felt unmanageable.  So he began suggesting that we had a made a mistake.  Clearly God had not called us down this road.  We had got it wrong.


I married Mr GLW because God told me to.  I moved house twice to locations God told me to.  I have taken jobs because God told me to.  I have left jobs, because God told me to.  My life belongs to God.  Everything I do is in obedience to God.  And usually Mr GLW is on-board with that.  Not last week though.


He wanted to believe that if things were going wrong, it must be that we somehow misheard God, on numerous occasions, in numerous ways and through numerous circumstances.  I have dealt with many painful and horrendous things, and I am able to do that in the full assurance that God loves me, and that through Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit I can follow the path He guides me to.


If we are fully submitted to God and we live in full obedience to Him, when things go wrong, that doesn’t mean we heard Him wrong.  It means that things are not going how we envisaged they would.


Often when things go wrong, “why” is the biggest question.  If we could understand why then we could move on.  Yet why is about gaining control.  If I understand why, I can fix it, change it, move on from it.  But the book of Job suggests “why” doesn’t get us very far with God.  For Mr GLW and I, this journey has yet again taught us that it is not “why” but rather “how” that is the most important thing to ask.  “How do we get through this?”


Mr GLW continued to try and make the job work, but on Tuesday morning at 3.30am I found him awake, anxious and having had various nightmares.  Clearly it wasn’t working and he couldn’t cope.  So yesterday he resigned from the training.


I currently have hardly any freelance work.  Having not been doing much freelance stuff over the summer (because it’s hard to work when children are arguing about who did what and why and that they are the one who is definitely right) we have very little in the way of next steps for having enough money to live on.


I have spent six months adapting to a new life.  Psychologically and emotionally it has been painful and sacrificial.  Practically it has been exhausting and meant me fitting myself into a role I was never made for.  And now it’s all going to change again.  I’m going to go back to being a freelance Gender Justice Specialist and Mr GLW will become the stay at home parent.


Sometimes it’s in the dead ends we learn the most.


Mr GLW has tried things the way he thought they would work.  And they didn’t.  I have learned a whole lot about myself.  We have discovered that living unconventionally is our call and that is something to embrace.


In the last week God has spoken to me in various ways.  Listening to Biffy Clyro on Radio One the other day and one of the band said that his favourite lyric was,

“Take the pieces and build them skyward.”

In the midst of feeling broken by this whole situation, it was a glimmer of hope.


I’d randomly bought Stuart Townend’s album “The Journey” after hearing a song from it at a friend’s commissioning service.  While going for runs in the morning, I’ve been listening to it.  From one song came the lines,

“Not what you give, but what you keep, is what the King is counting.  O teach me Lord to walk this road, the road of simple living;  To be content with what I own and generous in giving.  And when I cling to what I have please wrest if quickly from my grasp; I’d rather lose all the things of earth to the gain the things of heaven.”

As I ran and listened, was the truth my heart held to.


From another song,

“It is well with my soul when the storms of winter blow, and the cares of this world take their toll.  In the heat of the day there is grace enough to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.”


I preached a sermon on Sunday that I wrote late last year for the Sermon of the Year competition.  You can listen to it HERE.  With hindsight I see that it is a sermon I have spent my year living out (the old adage goes “be careful what you wish for” but for preachers perhaps it should be “be careful what you preach on”).  In it I said,

“Sisters and brothers, we have access to a hope that can set the world alight. Yet because of God’s grace, He allows us to contain it. He allows us to hold just enough hope to know we are saved, without forcing it to change us, to make us people of the deficit.


We have a hope that could set our lives and our communities ablaze, yet we are sitting too comfortably.


Until we are willing for God to disturb us, to take us outside of comfortable, then He won’t. And though we have a reason to hope, we have no need of it. No need of it at all.”


God has called us into a dead end and it’s painful and difficult.  But there is no place we’d rather be.