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.