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.