Christian Union in the US

Last week I was contacted by Emily Nielsen Jones who runs Imago Dei Fund.  She’d come across the university CU series I’d been running and wanted to share her thoughts.  After a couple of emails we interestingly discovered we were talking about two different Christian Unions.  In the US there is an organisation called Christian Union who run ministries on Ivy League university campuses in the US.  The blog series I’ve been running is actually focussed on UK Christian Unions which are organised by UCCF.


Fascinatingly, Emily read the content about UK Christian Unions and thought it was about the US organisation which has exactly the same issues with sexism and patriarchy.  These two organisations are entirely separate and on two different continents and yet both are infused with sexism!  Emily sent me a post that she wrote about the US Christian Union organisation, which you can read by CLICKING HERE.

Hannah’s CU Story

I’ve been posting people’s university Christian Union stories for a few weeks now and we’re at the final one!  This one comes from Hannah Mudge.  She’s a marvellous woman and you can follow her on Twitter @boudledidge.  If you’d like to read the other CU stories, you’ll find them all HERE.  


I started university in 2003, having been brought up attending a C of E church. In the year or so before university I had decided to explore other options and checked out various denominations and church groups, which led to me doing the Alpha course at my local Baptist church and also visiting church – an evangelical, charismatic ‘new church’ – with my boyfriend and his family.


On visiting my university for the first time I had heard a lot about the Christian Union (CU) and was impressed by the number of members, the amount they seemed to have going on and how exciting everything appeared to be. Coming from a small town I had never had much experience of Christians my own age and was really looking forward to meeting some. Like most people going to university, I just wanted to make lots of new friends and ‘get stuck in’ to socialising.


People at church had encouraged me to get involved with the CU so I signed up at the Freshers’ Fayre and started attending meetings, also becoming a member of my hall’s cell group. A few years ago I dug out a lot of leaflets and notes I’d kept from that time. My leaflet from the first main meeting of term tells me that there were four prayer meetings a week, three ‘cold contact’ sessions a week (in which members went out and about on campus to evangelise), one ‘lunch bar’ per week (lunch and a talk on one aspect of Christianity, which we were encouraged to bring friends to) – and of course the main meeting. Then there was ‘Mission Week’ in Semester Two, the main outreach event of the year and a ‘house party’ at a residential centre in the countryside. The first flyer I received also included details of the now-infamous PURE course, which received a lot of attention from the national press in the mid-2000s.


I think I came away with quite a positive impression of the CU from that first meeting. My notebook tells me that it focused on being fearless about proclaiming the truth of the gospel in a world where people are ‘afraid to stand up for what they believe in’. My notes included: “God is the most important thing. We live in a society where tolerance and doing what you want is most valued but it requires great courage to speak up and say that we know how to live the right way.”


Topics covered at a later date included: ‘The church is the Spirit’s megaphone to the world’, ‘False teachers and the world leading us astray’ and ‘The persecuted church’. As time went on, I began to make some observations that went beyond my initial impressions – observations that weren’t always positive. I should probably point out that at first, I didn’t know or hadn’t understood that the CU wasn’t some sort of ecumenical organisation, so was slightly surprised that almost everyone was evangelical.


  • The emphasis on quite in-your-face evangelism seemed quite obsessive and intrusive.
  • There was an expectation that you’d attend all meetings and get-togethers, which I wasn’t always able to do due to visiting my boyfriend or simply due to wanting to spend time with friends.
  • I therefore didn’t feel as ‘included’ as many other people. I also ended up feeling quite paranoid that people felt my lifestyle was unacceptable. I came from a sheltered, middle-class background but one that was outside the evangelical bubble and I often felt as if I was saying the wrong things and doing things – like going on nights out, having close friends who weren’t Christian – that were disapproved of. There was a definite sense of ‘concern’ about people whose social life didn’t revolve around church and CU activities and the problem of non-Christian friends ‘leading Christians into sin’ was often discussed. Your non-Christian friends were people you invited to CU events and asked along to church, but not people you should spend too much time with.
  • Talk about sex and relationships was a key focus. Let’s expand on that:


I know it’s inevitable that it’s going to happen at a university. It’s full of young people – it’s unavoidable – and so there was plenty of discussion on ‘purity’ and ‘modesty’. Most of the people in my cell group were in a relationship – and like me, all but one of them were in relationships with someone at a different university. There was a lot of talk of ‘temptation’ and the importance of resisting it.


So during my first semester, I attended the PURE course –  billed as ‘Sex and Relationships – God’s Way. This took some commitment for a fresher – it was held over breakfast and involved getting up at 6.30am and trekking across campus in the cold and dark when no-one else seemed to be up. Interestingly, I looked back at the notes and handouts from the course some years later when PURE was making headlines about its allegedly homophobic teaching and interestingly there was absolutely nothing to be found about LGBT issues – so this may have been added into the course at a later date. Some session outlines were as follows (taken from handouts and my notes):


What does it mean to be a man/a woman? Man: work in and take care of the earth; be united with women. Women: Man’s helper on earth, be united with man. Equal but different. The world says men/women are not different and focus now is on empowered women and demeaning marriage. I was young; I’m not sure I had any critical thinking skills; I hadn’t yet encountered feminism and this was the first teaching on gender and Christianity that I’d ever heard. So it wouldn’t have registered that this is was complementarian teaching or that many Christians would not agree with it.


What’s wrong with relationships these days? Sex used wrongly – flirting, promiscuity, jealousy, control.


What can men/women do to help the opposite sex? Good communication, respect, friendship, modesty. girls can be helpful to guys by being careful what they wear. It was claimed that ‘Girls want friendship from guys, but guys need us to be helpful’. ‘Helpful’ was defined as dressing and behaving modestly and not ‘obsessing’ over getting into a relationship.


Pure sex Stay away from sexual sin and avoid immorality. Don’t lead people on, flee temptation, be accountable to a friend, control your thoughts. The ‘Big Five sexual problems for men and women’ were highlighted, with no. 1 for men being ‘masturbation’ and no. 1 for women being ‘fear of singleness’.


After the course, my hall group leader let me borrow her copy of Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye. It confused me, bemused me and angered me. It was my introduction to the idea of ‘courtship’ rather than just ‘going out’ with a person and I found it bizarre – never being alone with your partner, chaperoned dates, the idea that women shouldn’t make any moves and are ‘in need of protection’. It seemed totally irrelevant to UK culture and I didn’t find much to take from it, but at the same time felt vaguely ashamed that I might not be conducting my relationship with my boyfriend the ‘right way’ in the eyes of God.


As my first year wore on I attended CU meetings less and less. The feeling of having very little in common with other members had deepened. I remember feeling that the topics discussed were too repetitive (evangelism; resisting the evils of the world; relationships) and I had picked up that other students were quite hostile towards the CU and its methods in a way that they weren’t towards other Christian groups on campus. I was also struggling with mental health issues – becoming quite reclusive – and didn’t feel I could talk about this to my CU friends. They were nice people, well-meaning and committed Christians and just like me, young in their faith and their ways of relating to and understanding the world – but I just didn’t feel at home among them and I also felt that there was a very particular stereotype of being a woman promoted that I could never live up to. This point in particular was something that I struggled with for years after starting to attend evangelical churches.


It was after I left university that I started to understand more about gender and the church and it was around the same time that controversies over Christian Unions began to make headlines – the PURE course, a refusal to let women speak at main meetings or include women in leadership, negative attitudes towards other Christian groups, the UCCF doctrinal statement. My former university’s magazine ran a feature on sexism within the CU, in which the President affirmed a complementarian position.


It had never occurred to me to think too much about these issues as a first year student – but I was essentially new to evangelicalism and completely new to any church teaching on gender. It also didn’t necessarily occur to me to question anything I was told was fact. A couple of years down the line, it gave me great cause for concern that complementarian teaching seemed to be the default and that there was a lot more about gender going on in CUs that I had probably been oblivious to.

When Men are People and Women are Novelty

This week Donald Trump’s misogyny became clearer to the world.  We now all know that he likes to sexually assault women.  Many were upset because they have wives and sisters and daughtersOthers were upset because he used bad wordsYet others wanted people to grow up and stop being so sensitive about the things men say in private.  Even when those things are a man admitting sexual assault.


Another thing that happened this week is that two brand new Christian events were announced.  Naturally Supernatural is a new event from the Soul Survivor team and replaces Momentum.  And Jesus Culture announced a new event that will be happening in Manchester.  These new events that haven’t happened previously.  Currently the Naturally Supernatural line-up includes five white men, one black man and one white woman.  The Jesus Culture event has seven white men (two of them are called Chris) and one white woman.  This event has more Chris’ speaking than women speaking.


Now, dear reader, you may be wondering how on earth Donald Trump’s misogyny is related to two new Christian events.  So I shall tell you.


Donald Trump’s misogyny started as a seed.  It grew in a soil of white male entitlement, wealth and power.  It grew as he was socialised to understand that men are people and women are novelty; where his power and wealth gained him impunity.  It has been cultivated most recently by white, male conservative Christians, who have either been silent on his comments, have undermined the seriousness of them or have reluctantly admitted that he’s in the wrong.  When these same conservative Christians have expressed concern, it’s because they are fathers and husbands.  It seems it’s only possible for men to care about women if they are emotionally invested in one.  Because men are human and women are novelty.  I wrote about that HERE.


These new Christian events are contributing to the soil.  At a very fundamental level they are saying men are people and women are novelty, in a Christian world where 65% are women.  Jesus Culture say, “There is a stirring.  God is on the move.  A hope for the nations.  The inescapable truth that He will do great things in our day.”  If Jesus Culture are unable to discern that God’s move involves a whole load of women, I’m not sure we can trust that they are really hearing from Him.  The world is changing, the roar of woman is finally being heard across our nations and yet Jesus Culture are deaf to her voice.  Because for them men are people and women are novelty.


Naturally Supernatural is “Equipping the church to live spirit-led lives.”  The Kingdom of God currently has a female majority, yet as an event they can only find enough women for novelty.  When the men who attend this event can only be upset about Donald Trump’s actions because of their wives and daughters, who can blame them when women’s only roles at the event are as wives, mothers, daughters and sisters?  There will be little that shows women are Christian teachers and leaders, competent and skilled, capable and trusted by God and by well-known Christian organisations to bring God’s Truth to all.


We can all imagine that we are nothing like Donald Trump.  That his words and actions are disgusting.  But unless we are actively working to create a world where women are no longer novelty, we are part of the soil.


Ali Campbell has also written about this over on his blog and has some really great stuff to say!  Read it HERE.

Anon’s University CU Story

I’ve been hosting people’s experiences of University Christian Unions over the last few weeks.  You can read the rest of them HERE.  Today’s story has been shared anonymously.


I studied for five years at a Scottish university and attended the Christian Union. It was a medium-sized society of around 40-60 regular attendees. In my first year I showed much enthusiasm for all things CU leading to me serving on the committee as secretary during my second year.


By and large, jobs were dished out fairly evenly. Exec committees were almost always 50:50 and bible study leaders were usually co-led by one guy and one girl. Our CU was about 2:1 female:male. This was higher than the average gender distribution in a church, likely due to the technical nature of the university. Just about every other CU-related activity mirrored that ratio except for one thing: speakers.


We never had a female speaker at our main meeting. Although we had many female students chairing some of those meetings, sharing testimony, leading prayer and music, the main speaker – typically a local pastor or trainee minister – was always male. We had one excellent female speaker at an evangelistic lunchtime talk in my first year. I was thrilled to see her up at the front, excited that my CU was breaking stereotypes, yet, disappointingly, she was the only woman I heard giving the main talk at a CU event throughout my degree.


I was on the CU committee in 2012 when news broke about Bristol CU and their controversial change in policy over female speakers. I made sure that in our next committee meeting we were aware of UCCF’s stance in case our student union approached us. It was a useful conversation but I feel we could have done much more than just be ready to give a statement.


I doubt whether it just so happens all the sound preachers in our city happen to be male. Despite our claim that the CU welcomes all speakers who agree with the UCCF doctrinal basis of core beliefs, we likely stuck with male speakers as the safe conservative option to keep the peace among our interdenominational society. This isn’t being balanced though. This is catering to the desires of a particular group of believers within our CU.


CU isn’t a church. This point is emphasised to new recruits each year so that they go and find a local church to join alongside CU. Yet, we still adopt very similar practices to congregations in who does what.


I recall a conversation where I was challenged by a non-Christian course mate who wanted to be president of a society she was involved with. She asked me why I didn’t want to be CU president. While there is a whole other list of reasons/motivations for being on a committee in CU versus another society, I found myself ducking around the fact that girls in the CU tend to be vice-president, not president. I was embarrassed by the backward thinking of the people I so dearly loved.


I noticed an increasing number of girls-only, guys-only events being run by the CU over the years and I’m torn on whether we should host such events. One-to-one mentoring of older women with younger women and older men with younger men is biblical (Titus 2) and highly useful. However, I feel too many of these sorts of events legitimise gender stereotypes associated with the church which is damaging. In my experience, if you stick a group of Christian girls in one room together, the conversation will eventually turn to weddings, not what God has been doing in their life recently. A female who doesn’t enjoy tea and cake (which is frankly just a chance to gossip) and would much rather attend the video games evening that is “boys only” will miss out on valuable fellowship with her sisters in Christ because those are the only social gathering options a CU is offering. It’s at these initial social events that friendships begin and can develop further on a one-to-one basis. That’s where discipleship starts and people miss out if they don’t feel welcome at these introductory fellowship events. We can say that these events are open to everyone but it’s unlikely many would feel brave enough to go against the grain and be in the minority at such an event.


Despite all of this negative stereotyping, I was particularly proud of the committee in my final year who decided to host a seminar on taboo topics. CU members were specifically asked what they would do if a friend approached them to say they were having issues regarding their sexuality/gender identity. As enthusiastic as I was about the evening (being a bisexual feminist) it was very awkward because Christians have created a culture of not being open about such subjects. I still don’t feel like I can come out to my Christian friends for fear of being judged even though it’s really none of their business who I’m attracted to but that’s another story. These topics are much more prevalent in our society today and are increasingly keeping people from investigating Christ because we paint a poor picture of what the church should be like.


As I progressed further through my degree I, typically, had less time for CU and over time spent less time there. I wish I had questioned the choice of speakers etc. My sister ended up being president of her university’s CU because she was the best person for the job. I do hope that was the reason my university CU chose the people they did to lead and teach the CU.

Stephen’s CU Story

I’ve been posting different people’s university Christian Union stories over the last few weeks.  You can read the previous ones HERE.  Today’s story comes from Stephen Wigmore and you can follow him on Twitter: @stephen_wigmore.


I am generally a big fan of CU’s but I always thought that the CU at Warwick University was sadly harming its own mission by taking a narrow view of what Christian ‘mission’ and life should involve. 


The requirement that all events be aimed at evangelism, and from a relatively conservative evangelical protestant perspective, shuts them off to a whole world of potentially enriching practices, theology, perspectives and members. Not to mention being a truncated version of the Gospel. The Bible makes it astonishingly clear that good works and preaching the word of God cannot be separated. 


My CU at Warwick when challenged on this claimed that CU was’t meant to be ‘a church’ and so Christians should get those other things elsewhere. But that was a bit dishonest because in practice for most non-Christians and Christians on campus the CU was basically the Church on campus. Also, the CU refused to even mention events to its members from other Christian groups that might cover some of the good works and pastoral, spiritual areas it didn’t focus on. It’s called the ‘Christian Union’, not the Evangelical Christian Union, or the Christian Evangelism Union, it should present as complete a picture as possible of Christian faith and life.


I think the end result is that CU members get a reduced version of the rich spiritual heritage across the Christian Faith and their evangelism is weakened, not strengthened, by not presenting a more complex and rounded view of the Christian tradition to non-believers.


I have huge regard and respect for all the CU members and leaders I knew at Uni. They were the most lovely, kind, giving people. I say these things purely because I know how talented, devoted and hard-working CU members were, and I thought the whole structure ended up needlessly making their efforts less effective and fruitful than they otherwise would be. If I blame anyone it’s purely UCCF Central’s command and control attitude towards CUs.

Stephanie’s CU Story

I’ve been sharing people’s stories from their experiences within university Christian Unions.  You can read the previous stories HERE.  Today is Stephanie’s story:


I did have great kindness from some within the CU from other churches and I did find some of the speakers inspiring and helpful. Noteably Roger Carswell talking about his battle with mental health, a talk I cried through and which helped me come to terms with my own problems.


I became a Christian towards the end of my first year of university, so I had no previous experience with church or Christian culture therefore I assumed that this was how Christians should behave, going to loads of meetings and being very busy and frenetic. It was disastrous for my ME, but I guess to some extent I was trying to please God and although there was a cognitive dissonance between my feminist, more liberal values and the Christian world in which I found myself I felt it was part of being a Christian and “how things were”.


From a gender perspective, in my CU:


  • Clothing was policed at times, I remember a friend being very upset to be told that her top was too low. But the men saw nothing wrong with going topless in summer, women not being visual creatures etc.
  • Women didn’t even lead the small midweek groups in college CU meetings from memory.
  • It was very complementarian. There were lots of capable, gifted women who would talk about how wonderful it would be to be a vicar’s wife, but sadly none of my female university contemporaries have yet been ordained, although loads of my male university contemporaries have.
  • I was told swearing was worse in a woman than a man.
  • All this said there weren’t many male and female separate CU events, and I think women could be part of the worship team.


The university CU was very hardline while I was there (even 24/7 prayer rooms were considered suspect).  What I’ve seen in the time since I left is that they have softened a bit. One problem was that a particular extremely conservative evangelical local church was dominating everything.


I sometimes feel like my faith journey since I left university has been unpicking some of the hardline conservative doctrine I was taught at university.  In my third year when my health was in a terrible state in general (and my mental health was in a right state) I found Adrian Plass’ books and they were like a window into a different Christian world and helped me so much.


Students are very, very young and for some reason my CU seemed only to be undergraduates, some input from postgrads would have helped I think. It is hard when there are a lot of young people and insufficient older Christians in the student churches to disciple them.

Political Narratives and Vulnerable Women

Yesterday, the Washington Post published an article about a vulnerable woman from Pennsylvania.  She was subjected to severe sexual harassment and discrimination in a male dominated workplace.  Successfully suing her employer, she was awarded $450,000 in damages, to then have the “verdict overturned by a federal judge who did not question the facts of the case but decided that the matter had been handled appropriately”.


She continued working in an environment where she explains that men were abusive to her every single day.  Her sister became seriously ill and died of cancer.  She was sacked from her job after making a dangerous decision in the midst of severe anxiety and has been left with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.


Yet, the article was not about the appalling injustices the woman, Melanie Austin, has faced or the ways she has suffered.  Written by Stephanie McCrummen, THE ARTICLE focusses on Melanie as a passionate Donald Trump supporter.  It is brilliantly written and powerfully shows how Trump’s political success and approach to campaigning validates dangerous and ludicrous ideologies; views more at home on conspiracy theory websites than in a presidential campaign.  Reading it, I variously laughed aloud, made shocked faces and loudly exclaimed “WHAAAAAT?” to myself.


Melanie Austin believes President Obama is gay, that Michelle Obama is a man and that their children have been kidnapped, possibly from a family in Mexico.  She was involuntarily hospitalised after stating online that “Obama should be hanged and the White House fumigated and burned to the ground”.  The fact that Donald Trump’s campaign (and the people who support it) has validated and normalised her views is one of the most shocking things about the article.


Usually my empathy levels are extremely high when I encounter women who have been sexually harassed, emotionally undermined and/or dominated in ways that leave them anxious, their confidence decimated and their lives in tatters.  I feel their pain, I feel anger and outrage at what they have been put through and the ways structures and systems have damaged them even further.  However, as I read the Washington Post’s article I did not feel much empathy for Melanie Austin.  I was incredulous of her views, horrified by her politics and disgusted by Donald Trump’s political campaign.


The empathy deficit that occurred as I read was because the narrative caricatured her rather than focusing on her as a multifaceted human being.  Just as a cartoonist may enlarge their subject’s facial features to create an exaggerated likeness, so this article enlarged and attended to Melanie’s offensive political views, without really examining the system in which those views have been cultivated.  And I became complicit as I read openmouthed about her.  Her views reduced my capacity to see her as a human being.  To conclude that I (a passionate supporter of women, particularly women who have been broken by male abuse and by patriarchal institutions) had dehumanised this woman who had been damaged so badly, shocked me almost as much as Melanie’s views about the Obamas.


As we navigate this complex and extremely stormy political waters, we can become fixated on the extraordinary views of individual people, unable to step back and see that their views have grown to fruition in a soil of lies sold to them by large media corporations, politicians, multinational companies and also (much to our shame) faith leaders.  We of the “educated class”, look at the likes of Melanie Austin and, alongside our horror, we feel relieved that we are not so stupid, so ignorant, so disgusting as to believe such utterly vile lies.  And in so doing we dehumanise Melanie as stupid, ignorant and disgusting.  We are enlightened and we can be sure that only stupid, ignorant or disgusting people would vote for Donald Trump.  We are, of course, the superior class.


And yet, Melanie has been subjected to abuse, systemic injustice and is living with the consequences of that.  She looked for answers and found them in the conspiracy pages, in right wing politics, in televangelists and in Donald Trump.  She views herself as a Christian.  She prays daily, sings hymns and says she feels, “happy and blessed.”


I write this article from the UK where the threat of Donald Trump (and his most passionate supporters) are a whole ocean away.  Yet Brexit may be perceived in similar ways to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  The demonising of immigrants and false and misinformation abound.  Whether intentionally or unintentionally Brexit has validated racist and xenophobic ideologies and people are divided, not along traditional political lines, but by deep values that are hard to even recognise, never mind articulate.


Stephanie McCrummen’s article expertly enables us to see the danger of Donald Trump, but at the expense of the humanity of a vulnerable woman with a long history of trauma and hurt.  She becomes a parody, no longer a person, but a spectacle for those of us with more progressive views to stare at.  Her humanity is lost as she becomes a vehicle for demonstrating the danger of Trump.


It is in our realising Melanie Austin’s humanity that we have some hope of changing the narrative.  Rather than dehumanising her and seeing her as the enemy, we could seek to find ways to relate with her and offer alternative answers to her struggles.  Jerry Falwell has told her that September 11th was the fault of the “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians.”  Instead of feminism giving her an analysis of the violence perpetrated against her, she sees it as causing a terrorist attack.


We must make visible the systems and structures that created Trump supporters, just as we must find ways to demonstrate how Brexit is the result of political decisions (by both the Labour and Conservative parties), a lack of political education, class inequality, long-term biased media reporting and the capitalising of the injustices facing the least powerful in society.


As Christians, this mandate is clearly laid out by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  (Ephesians 6:12).


And Jesus taught us how to behave in these situations, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:44-48)


“If you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?”


As Christians we may be fighting for our voice to be heard above “Christian” extremists like Jerry Falwell and John Hagee, but we must choose not to ridicule or dehumanise Donald Trump’s supporters, for what reward will we get for that?





H’s Christian Union Story

Over the last week or so I’ve been sharing guest posts from a number of different people about their experiences of university Christian Unions.  You can read the previous posts HERE.  Today is H’s story.


Though from an evangelical background, I arrived at university with fairly harsh preconceptions of Christian Unions – my older brother had been a Christian Union college rep and ended up losing his faith at the same time. When he did he also lost pretty much all his Christian friends. So I was cross with them.


When I arrived, however, I met some nice people in the Christian Union, I really wanted to do well at the whole ‘being an evangelical Christian’ thing, and I decided that maybe it was better to join and help from the inside rather than complain about something that I had never been part of. So I threw myself into my C.U pretty enthusiastically. I attended a conservative evangelical church in my university city that was one of their recommended options, and I regularly attended all the meetings. I attended a collegiate university, and so I had a college C.U as well as the main university C.U. The college C.Us ran basically independently of the main one – there was very little control over how we did things, so long as we had a meeting once a week that involved Bible study and aimed to put on some kind of event once a term where people would hear the gospel. Fortunately for me, I was in a more ‘open’ college C.U that had good relationships with the chaplain of the college and worked hard to maintain interdenominational, ecumenical friendships with students in chapel – my college rep when I first arrived largely ignored any prescriptions from the executive committee about college group content, and also ignored the executive committee position that Christian Unions should keep their distance from the college chaplain’s work. The independence of individual college groups just so happened to work in my favour, but, in retrospect, I also appreciate that this meant different students in CU had wildly different experiences, depending on where they lived.


I was asked to be my college CU rep mid-way through my first year, and gladly accepted. For one thing, I wanted to make my college group much less of a ‘boys’ club’ (I was often the only female student who attended) and I was also excited to learn more about leading small groups, organising events, and understanding the barriers my fellow students had when it came to the gospel. I threw myself into it wholeheartedly, which was no small commitment – each week our Christian Union had 5 early morning prayer meetings, college group, bible study training for college group, the whole university CU meeting, and an evangelistic talk – this was before you added on any additional outreach you were doing in college. I went to pretty much everything, which left very little time for actually socialising with my non-Christian friends. I was particularly committed to attending the prayer meetings, and really valued the experience of praying with other Christians every day – though I didn’t like feeling as though I had to have some kind of evangelistic story to share every time, nor did I enjoy being questioned by my peers about my personal spiritual life.


The power held by my Christian Union’s executive committee made me uncomfortable: these were students who were only a year older than me, and very few of them had formally studied any theology, but they would sometimes behave as though they were in a position to hand out unsolicited spiritual/theological/life advice because they led the Christian Union. This was particularly the case with the male leaders.


Mid-way through my time as CU rep, I began to feel less and less comfortable with the way things were run in the CU. This was triggered by a few things:


  • My male co-rep in my college was invited to be on the executive committee as Prayer Secretary, despite almost never having attended the Morning Prayer meetings. The reason given to me was that he was a theology student. His predecessor had studied maths. Despite my heavy commitment to the CU, I was not invited to take on any formal leadership role. I was told that they thought I would be of better service in ‘other ways’. I suspect this was partly sexism in not wanting a woman to head up prayer meetings, and partly a level of discomfort with my attitude of occasionally challenging the way things were done.


  • The executive committee overruled my choice of successor for the position of college rep. I wanted us to have one male leader and one female leader, which is the norm for college groups. One of my female friends faithfully attended college group, regularly prayed with me and helped with our college events, and also attended the chapel as she was in the choir. I thought this last point was a bonus – it was a wonderful bridge building opportunity – but the fact she didn’t attend an ‘approved’ church meant her leadership was refused by the executive committee. There was no one else suitable to ask, and so we ended up having no female leader, leaving the burden of running college group up to one male student. They even suggested I ask another guy who was in college group but rarely attended, rather than allowing my chapel-going female friend to lead.


  • I only ever remember there being one female speaker (at an evangelistic talk) during my entire time in the CU – and that was when the topic was ‘Is the church sexist?’ There were certainly never any female speakers at C.U meetings or during the main mission week.


  • During my 3rd year at university (the year following my time as college rep) I became extremely unwell physically, and this triggered a depression relapse. I had to stop attending CU meetings because I was not well enough. This went on for months, and I was barely able to complete the year. Despite the many (!) hours I had previously spent in their company, not one of my fellow CU students outside my college reached out to see how I was doing.


This highlights a very real problem with the CU model: the level of time/emotion/energy commitment required of students often goes way beyond the kind of commitment even asked of church members, but CUs don’t have the pastoral training or capacity to back this up, since they’re led by students. I remember once talking to a CU friend about my depression and illness and how much I didn’t want to even be alive anymore, and his response was ‘at least you know God is being glorified in all this’.


We never had any gender segregated/stereotyped events at my university, but the ‘CU approved’ churches often did, and this fed back into the atmosphere of the CU. I felt remarkably out of place just for not being a flowery-skirt-wearing girl and showing up to events in trackies and a hoody.


I still have a few good friends I met while in my CU, and on the whole I believe that the students involved are well-meaning, caring, passionate, people – but they are also basically teenagers, who will inevitably make immature decisions. The ‘adults’ that UCCF pair up with Christian Unions are also often barely out of university themselves – several of my CU friends went straight from leading our CU to supporting a CU at another university after they graduated. This is, in my mind, a big part of the problem.