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.