Guest Blog – Dear Discomforted

Recently I connected with a Christian woman (let’s call her Jane) who recently realised her husband was abusive.  She was able to leave him and get herself and her children to safety with the support of her family.  As she has learned more about abuse, Jane began realising one of her church leaders’ behaviour towards his wife seemed to be abusive.  She wrote the following letter (that has been anonymised) to this woman.  She is not yet sure whether she is going to send it, but I suggested it would be a really helpful blogpost to help people learn about abuse and particularly how an abuser operates in Christian communities.  She was happy for it to be published on my blog.  I hope it helps you learn more…

 

Dear Discomforted,

 

I’m writing this because I care about what you’ve gone through and are going through.  It’s been hard to know how or whether to contact you. If you’re reading this it’s because I have decided that I simply can’t say or do nothing, and because you’ve recognised that something isn’t quite right, and it might not be your fault. I’m sure there’s a part of you that is confused about what I’m going to say and what this is all about.  I also think that there’s another part of you that knows exactly what this is about, exactly what I’ve seen and exactly what I’m going to say.  It is a strange truth, that you can, in the same moment, be certain of your own pain and grief, but also deny its existence and source.  That was my reality for 8 difficult years.

 

There is of course the chance that I’m wrong about what I think I’ve seen and what I think is happening. You are the only one who really knows and all I can do is share my own personal experience and pray that if anything resonates with you, that you would feel able to pursue a greater understanding for yourself, with an offer from me of support and love in any form you need.  Absolutely anything.  I have come to understand the many resources available to women and how right it is to respond with all the practical and emotional support it is humanly possible to give.  There are also a great number of agencies and professionals who understand and want to help, even ones specifically for women who are married to church leaders and pastors.

 

In my marriage I prayed for, supported, loved and cherished my husband.  I adored him and genuinely found great delight in the good times. In the beginning he was particularly attentive and loving.  Everything I did was impressive and wonderful in his eyes, it felt like I could do nothing wrong and I was completely swept off my feet by a man who I thought was amazing – a Christian, musical, talented, funny, successful, charming…

 

I have since learnt that the cycle of good times and bad times is one of the many strategies of the abuser.  It engenders a deep love and longing for your partner, a belief in their ‘good heart’ even with the sharp edges, a belief that compels you to work harder, be better, try more.  But the more you try, the less you are appreciated, respected, listened to and truly loved.  The more secure he feels in his possession and control of you, the more tactics of abuse and control he uses to keep you there, living under fear and threat.  In the last few years I lived every day not knowing what mood my husband would be in, but being certain that the next assault was never far away – and I’m not talking about physical violence.  Walking on eggshells in your own home is exhausting. It is also the strongest indicator that your partner is an abuser.

 

For some time I knew that I was unhappy in my life, I knew things weren’t great, but I didn’t fully understand that my marriage was the source of that unhappiness.  I kept up a pretence of happiness, love and unity because I wanted that to be my truth.  It was also a way of managing the stress of not being able to talk to anyone about anything I was feeling.  He had convinced me that any outside involvement in our personal stresses and strains was disloyal and showed a lack of integrity and commitment to each other. I could not see the truth that such secrecy and isolation is in fact damaging and not God’s design for human relationship.  It is merely another tool for the abuser to control and manipulate, but my mind, my emotions, my deepest self was so afflicted by the psychological and emotional abuse that I didn’t know what was real or true anymore.

 

He made me believe that my own mental issues were to blame for any dissatisfaction I experienced. My unhappiness was my fault.  Our arguments were due to my inability to communicate well.  Any tears I cried were a demonstration of how manipulative and controlling I was.  My attempts to discipline our children were my anger issues making them cry.  He minimised and deflected any suggestion that there might be something wrong with him or with our marriage.  There were times that I thought I was going mad, such was the heartfelt denial and convincing rhetoric from him over things that I just felt weren’t right.  Somehow I always ended up apologising for hurting him, for not listening to him or not trusting him and never the other way round.

 

Ironically, admitting to my ‘anger issues’ (genuinely believing this was a problem for me) gave me a reason to pursue counselling.  He reluctantly let me attend these sessions, but I was compelled to share everything I had discussed in them, which he often criticised and belittled.  However, my counsellor saw more than I could see and our conversations explored the deeper truths of the anger I was experiencing.  I started to regain clarity in a mind that had long since lost the ability to find it.  Even now I know I am only beginning the journey of healing in terms of the damage to my mind, but these counselling sessions were a vital start.  I honestly don’t know how long I would have been imprisoned and trapped otherwise.

 

When I got married I made my vows for life; I knew how much God hated divorce and how much I hated being the child of divorced parents.  Divorce was not going to be in my future, nor did I think I would even have to consider it.  I was happy and excited to embark on this new adventure with the love of my life.  I trusted him in every way.  I have since learnt that abusers target the most trusting, empathetic of people; we are the easiest to manipulate and control and to accept abuse as our fault.  I fit the bill.  I had always been very empathetic, wanting to help, support and understand the suffering of others, but I was also very naïve and trusting too.  No-one had ever taught me about healthy boundaries in relationships or warning signs of abuse.  I had no idea to even look for them or that such people in this world even existed.

 

After getting married the change in our relationship was gradual and insidious.  Over time, criticisms about my clothes, appearance, friends, family and interests prompted me to give up more and more of the things that made me me.  I became the wife that he wanted me to be because if I tried to exert my independence then I was attacked for being disloyal, for not understanding his needs, for disrespecting him.  I desperately wanted to be a good wife, to make my husband happy and to love him as a good Christian woman should, so I began to bend and compromise and serve. What I didn’t realise was that he did not return that love and respect for me.  He never bent or compromised or served, unless it met his needs, his interests, his desires.  Still somehow I was the one who ended up feeling bad when I challenged him on this.

 

His treatment of me became more obviously abusive as the years went by, but you don’t see it that way when you’re in it.  He convinced me every time that it was just more evidence of how much I antagonised him and didn’t understand him, of how I needed to change, be different, be better, try harder.  When I was pregnant with our first child, we had an argument about going to the cinema; he threw a vase, smashing it on the floor.  He had chased me into the corner of our spare bedroom and I raised my arms in fear of where he was going to throw this vase, but I was the one who ended up apologising for being selfish and causing him to get so angry.  I became accustomed to his anger.  I remember watching how he talked to the girls so nicely sometimes, wishing he would be that nice to me, then I’d tell myself I was being stupid and dismiss the familiar feeling that something wasn’t right.  It was somehow easier to accept his assertions that I was to blame for him being late for work, for the children not liking their dinner, for buying the ‘wrong’ toothpaste or toilet roll.  He never took responsibility for anything himself, which is another sure sign of abuse.

 

In the back of my mind I excused it all because he seemed such a great Daddy and I couldn’t deny his relationship with his children.  However, having some distance and professional support, I’ve been able to see the abuse they suffered too, not least in witnessing the abuse I was subjected to, where my oldest would often try to defend me.  My youngest once commented “Daddy doesn’t like Mummy very much.” A mother is not protecting her children by accepting abusive behaviour from their father.  In many ways the opposite is true.

 

If any of this feels familiar, then another aspect for you would be the ministry of your husband. How can you be responsible for the demise of his ministry, where he is doing so much good for so many people? Such responsibility is not in fact yours, it’s his, but this must be so hard for pastors’ wives who go through this. I have read the testimonies of a few and it seems that this is the very argument their husbands use in order to heap guilt on them for even contemplating that there’s something wrong in their marriage.  However, the thing these women seem to say is that they knew deep down that their husband’s ministry was not the fruitful, Godly ministry that many professed it to be. In fact, these wives had repeatedly seen hurt and discord as a result of their husband’s behaviour.

 

I’m sorry to say that your husband has been directly responsible for a great deal of my own personal hurt – suggesting I might be pursuing a new relationship in the immediate aftermath of my decision to divorce, and that I would lie to the girls about their father and countless other insensitive and inappropriate comments and actions.  I felt like I was being treated with suspicion, not love, judgement, not grace. My last communication was an email I wrote to your husband, my pastor, that was challenging, but respectful and honest.  I wrote it with great care, out of a desperate concern for three things – 1) my own healing; 2) providing every opportunity for my husband to come to true repentance and change and 3) ensuring that the church I loved was a safe place for abused women to come forward.  To date I have had no reply from a man who was employed to be my pastor. I am living outside of any church fellowship at the moment because I don’t know who to trust and what to tell people.  This is surely the time I needed the pastoral support and resources of the church I’ve called home all these years. Instead I feel abandoned by the church at large and supported only by a handful of friends from my fellowship who have chosen to remain in touch.

 

You are very dear to me, and I can only imagine how hard it may be to read this and how difficult it may be to process even a fraction of what I’ve said.  I suppose I decided that this was still the right course of action because I wish that someone had done this for me.  I wish that someone had said “Hey, I’ve seen how your husband treats you and it’s wrong.  You don’t have to put up with it.  He has broken your wedding vows by choosing to abuse you instead of loving, cherishing and respecting you.  That is not your fault.  God doesn’t like divorce, but he hates abuse even more.”

 

You are beautiful, loved and cherished, made by God to fulfil His purposes for your life, not the purposes of your husband.  I have not liked how I’ve seen him treat you, I recognised so much of the subtle behaviours and dynamics that were true in my marriage.  I saw him ignore and belittle your health concerns over drinking wine that night, I saw him disrespect you by giving you barely any acknowledgement or attention when you explained how he likes to be on time for things, with no mention at all of your preferences and needs; I saw a complete lack of interest in praising and acknowledging you when you heaped praise on him.  You do not deserve to be treated like that.  If you are being abused, you have a right to divorce and a right to know true freedom.

 

I am currently reading scriptures that explore our identity in Christ.  It is so affirming and life-changing after allowing even my relationship with God to be weakened and diminished by my marriage.  There is so much more I could say and so much more I am happy to tell you if you want to speak, but in the meantime, seek after God and His truth, trust Him, follow Him.  He is our only constant, a bright light in the darkness.  If you want an informal, anonymous chat with people who know what abuse is and how to recognise the red flags, then there is also the national domestic abuse helpline – 0808 2000 247

 

I will continue to pray. Get in touch any time, when you feel it is safe to do so.  I am very familiar with the fear instilled by an abusive partner.  I know how they promote that fear in you so that you offer complete submission to them, always telling them everything to show that you’re loyal and supportive, constantly reiterating your love for and commitment to them, as I saw you do that time when you patted his leg and praised what a great husband you had. He was so tellingly cold and unresponsive to this, I couldn’t help but feel desperately sad. I know that if I had received a letter like this during my marriage I would have felt both relief and intense fear.  Relief that my experience finally had a name – abuse – and that it was not my fault, but fear over what would happen next if I began to try and regain the control and independence that was rightfully mine.

 

I would not advise that you speak to your husband about this, unless you are absolutely certain that this is not at all your experience.  I do not care about my reputation here.  If I’m wrong, that’s wonderful!  However, if there is any part of you that has read this and is feeling even a little disturbed or disrupted then get help and advice.  You are not alone and you are worth fighting for. Living under someone else’s control is not living – it’s imprisonment and you need to get out, but it is your decision and such a choice is risky, scary and dangerous without the right support and help.

 

Of course, if I have misread things please forgive me and know that you always have my utmost respect. Either way, feel free to get in touch any time.

 

Yours,

A loving friend who has been there

 

If any of this seems relevant to your life or the life of someone you care about, you can find your local domestic abuse service here: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/domestic-abuse-directory/.

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Guest Blog – When the Youth Bible Hurts

I’ve got a guest post today from Judi Gardener who is a Christian feminist and also a survivor of multiple abuse including spiritual abuse that contributed to staying far too long with the perpetrator. She eventually ended up with PTSD and as a result lost her children through the family court. She is passionate about outreach to the unchurched, support around domestic violence and understanding of mental health issues. Somehow she ended up in an Anglo-Catholic (ish) Church and now has a Morning Prayer habit. She sometimes wishes God had not given her such broad shoulders.

 

It’s unacceptable. Whatever way I looked it was still unacceptable. I had opened a Youth Bible at random, it was a New Century Version but what I was reading actually seemed more fitting for the 19th century. It was not the Bible verse itself (Psalm 51), but the devotion that accompanied the text which got me so steamed up. The back cover informs me that the devotions are real life stories.  For the sake of the young woman who was the main character in this story, I sincerely hope there was more to it. If not, yet another young woman has been drastically failed by the ignorance of church leaders and will, years later, likely still be struggling through life.

 

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The box was headed “sexuality”, with a subheading of “whiter than snow”. It contained a not unfamiliar story of a young girl called Barbara who at nine-years-old was physically and sexually abused by her uncle. Apparently by thirteen she was sexually active with numerous guys and often dated guys four or five years older than herself.

What the devotion then focuses on is not that Barbara had obviously been abused by a number of men, but that Barbara was a sinner. In other words, the Youth Bible victim blames Barbara, in a rather big plot twist.  At no point in the text are the sins of the men who had sex with an underaged vulnerable girl mentioned. Apparently, Barbara needed to turn to God and have her sexual sin forgiven.  Excuse me.  Barbara, whilst no doubt a sinner just like all of us, had been more sinned against than she had been a sinner in her short life.

One of my go to Bible stories is that of the Samaritan Woman.  Jesus did not condemn her, but instead stayed in her company despite the cultural taboos.  He would have known why she had multiple husbands and was now living with another man outside of marriage. Had she been sexually abused?  We cannot know.

God certainly does not condemn all promiscuous women, Rahab the harlot is also described as a woman of faith. In John 8 1-11 Jesus deals with the adulterous woman, a familiar but for some quarters of the church a difficult story to stomach.

The truth is, a child who has been sexually abused such as Barbara, will feel filthy. The Youth Bible reflection explains, ‘“I came to church feeling like a tramp” she told Jan after they prayed. “But now I feel God has made me clean again.”’

This was supposedly after Barbara had asked to receive forgiveness for her sins. Now I am not doubting her experience and the peace that comes on giving your life to Christ, but for me, as an adult survivor of child sexual abuse, that dirty feeling did not instantly disappear. I was raped, for the first time at no older than seven and in hindsight I am grateful that I was not aware of what was happening to me. The experience left deep scars that lasted well into my adult life, way beyond my conversion.  It was being led into inner child healing and meeting up with my abuser years later that finally freed me. The former because it gave me some control over what I had suffered and the latter because I managed to see what a wounded man he had become and forgave him. The rape, like Barbara’s, was incestuous and was completely mishandled by my family when I choose to reveal it out of fear for another relative. I know now why.  Put simply, it was about shame. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in our family. It is the same in church. I think we can all recall situations where the reputation of the church was more highly valued than the welfare of the victim.

You may say this is an old version of the Bible and today’s teenagers get a different message, yet many of today’s church leaders would have been brought up on such Youth Bibles at the turn of the century and just as your music taste reflects your youth so do your values. It’s scary, and no wonder misogyny still rears its ugly head in our churches.

It needs to stop. Churches (if they have not already done so) need understandable child protection policies which include being able to deal with spiritual abuse and sexual abuse. Victim blaming is spiritually abusive and psychologically damaging. Victims need high quality pastoral care alongside support for reporting crimes. No further Barbaras, please, in Jesus name.

GUEST BLOG: Reproductive Loss

I was recently contacted by someone saying that their experience of Christian culture and Scripture suggested that women were only valuable if they had children.  She asked me if I knew of any resources about this.  And the first person that came to mind was Karen O’Donnell, who is an extremely wonderful woman!  I asked her if she’d be up for writing a guest blog for me and she agreed.  Karen blogs at Verum Corpus and is on Twitter @kmrodonell.

 

“You give and take away. My heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name.”

 

I remember hearing Matt Redman sing this song at a Christian festival, surrounded by the youth group I led. They were loving it and I was too. It was months later that I discovered this song had been written by Redman and his wife in response to reproductive loss. I remember thinking that it was incredible that they could say this after such an experience. Little did I know that their experience was about to become mine.

 

In my twenties, I experienced repeated reproductive loss whilst trying to have a baby. I was a worship leader and youth leader in a lively, evangelical church. After the first miscarriage, so many women comforted me and told me stories of their own loss. These stories were, unanimously, stories that led eventually to them giving birth to living, healthy children. No one blamed God for my loss. But children were clearly a blessing from God and having a family was taken for granted.

 

But that first loss led to more. A four-year period of my life was constant peeing on sticks, appointments with doctors, and regular heart-breaking loss. And this church, that I had been part of for fourteen years, didn’t know what to do with me. People avoided me because they just didn’t know what to say. The leadership team (all male, all fathers, of course) barely spoke to me. Sometimes, well-meaning women prophesied that I would have a baby by this date or that year. Those dates and years came and went. No baby. I couldn’t worship because I couldn’t sing about God’s love and faithfulness without bursting into tears. Over time I started arriving at church late to avoid the worship time (and the dreaded risk of the “you give and take away” song). Then I started avoiding church all together – I couldn’t handle seeing more pregnant women. Eventually, I just never went back to the church.

 

Lots of good has come from this. I don’t have any children. But I do now have a PhD, and academic career, a new life and some objective distance from these events of my twenties. There are two issues to highlight in this experience of mine. First, it’s really hard to know what to do with reproductive loss theologically. Lots of the things that are written are sentimental and don’t take the horrific experience of such loss seriously. Lots of the literature around this issue from a Christian perspective, assumes that eventually you will have a living, healthy baby. And that’s just not true. Culturally, we are not good at handling reproductive loss. It’s caught up in taboos around acknowledging early pregnancy, taboos around bleeding, and sex. So, we don’t talk about it.

 

The second issue is that having children is taken for granted for Christian couples in many churches. We have few narratives of the Christian life that do not include children for married couples. There is an expectation that, once married, children will follow in reasonably quick measure. Again, this just isn’t the case! Infertility is common in both men and women. Tommy’s charity estimates that anything between 20-50% of all pregnancies end in reproductive loss. Not all of those who are infertile will want to go through the intrusive and fraught adoption process. And, let’s be honest, not all people want children. This can be difficult to admit in churches that are orientated around the family, where children are seen as a blessing from God, and the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ command is taken literally.

 

No two situations of reproductive loss and childlessness are the same and people feel very differently about their experiences. So, what helped me might not help you. But these are things that I found healing and restorative.

 

  1. If your church can’t (or won’t) support you through the experience of reproductive loss and/or childlessness, then find some support elsewhere. For me, that meant leaving not just the church I had been part of all my Christian life but leaving the whole evangelical tradition. I worship in a liberal Anglican church now which isn’t perfect but has a broader understanding of the varieties of Christian life. Whilst it is welcoming for families, it also has many activities and experiences that are not shaped around the family. And no one has ever asked me when I plan to have children.

 

  1. Seek out places where you can tell your story. This is especially true if you have found your experiences to be traumatic. It is vital that you can tell your story to witnesses who can hear it and love you. This might be an online forum like Saltwater and Honey, a support group, or a group of friends who love you and have experienced similar things themselves. If you can’t find one, start one.

 

  1. Don’t go to church on Mother’s Day.

 

  1. Read theology that gives you life. For me, it was Serene Jones’ “Rupture” in Hope Deferred: Heart Healing Reflections on Reproductive Loss that helped me reflect on my experiences and come to terms with them. It helped me be whole again. It helped me pray. And eventually, it led me back to Church. You might also like to read the brilliant Dawn Llewellyn’s work on voluntary and involuntary childlessness. Or Nicole Johnsons reflection on Invisible Grief in reproductive loss.

 

Over the last few months I have been working on a theology of reproductive loss. My research revealed that very little has been written on this topic, and very little research has been done with people who experience such loss. So, I’m seeking to rectify this. This is the outworking of my own recovery – engaging with the world and offering something out of my experience. I’m working towards a theology of reproductive loss that begins with the miscarrying body and offers hope, not in the form of a future baby, but in the form of a future life in all its fullness.

 

Karen has created Reproductive Loss Reading List that you might find helpful. 

 

 

#metoo – Guest Blog

I am really honoured when women choose to share their stories with me.  Today is a guest post from a woman who has told me some of her story.  She writes about the abuse she was subjected to and the ways Christian culture colluded with the man who hurt her.  I’m really grateful that she has chosen to share her story here.

 

It makes shudder like hearing nails scraping a chalkboard as I think about the way he touched me. The passion that was between us was so strong, yet very one-sided. Tears fill my eyes as I remember what I let him do to me. I wasn’t raped but I didn’t enjoy the somewhat forced sexual relationship we had.

 

He said he was a Christian, that he’d asked God for forgiveness and when in prison his church – my church – prayed for him. He knew he did wrong but said it was a massive misunderstanding, he was immature and shouldn’t have engaged in sexual activities with an under-aged girl. I trusted him, because the church trusted him so we began dating.

 

As with many churches, they love a redemption story – especially when it includes a romantic twist. I quickly became a mini celebrity at the local church for not believing his conviction was real and that it was all a misunderstanding. Girls cry rape all the time, right? His parents adored my Christian nature of forgiveness and welcomed me into their family.

 

I was away at university whilst we were dating. He came to my halls of residence, met my flat mates and showed me off proudly to others.  It was going well and, even though it was only a few months, everyone seemed to think it was a great relationship. My low self-esteem had been boosted up and I felt like I was the one who had changed him; I was the one God used and we would be that story of forgiveness – hoorah!

 

The Church isn’t good at talking about sex – yes, I know that is a generalization – and no one spoke to me about the added complications of dating someone that had links to rape. No one thought it might be a good idea to offer to mentor this vulnerable couple. Even though I wasn’t a virgin going into this relationship, I didn’t know how forceful sex could be and that I had a right to say ‘no.’

 

My throat fills with vomit as I think about his convincing, or perhaps more appropriately, conniving nature to touch me. The words he said and the backhanded compliments I received – just so he could undress me. His eyes which once looked full of love, turned into a stare like a predator.

 

Only a few months in and he was talking about living together and a future of marriage. His dreamy words kept making me forgive his persuasive nature in the bedroom. I come from a ‘broken home’ and a ‘blended family’ so the idea of an idyllic marriage being possible was so tempting.

 

After being undressed whilst on my period I decided that it was enough. I didn’t want to participate in any sexual activity whilst on my period – I was bloated, hormonal and tired. I’d say no but he thought it was foreplay. He watched so much porn that I was no longer a person, but rather a doll for him to play with.

 

Something in my mind told me that I needed to get out of this commitment, before a ring was on my finger. I ended it, taking the shame of not being the one who could ‘fix him’ like I thought God wanted me to. His family and the church turned a blind eye to me and I felt ashamed for years afterwards.

 

A year or so after our relationship ended his family contacted me. He had been accused of rape and was facing another prison sentence. They asked if I’d go to court and testify about my positive relationship with him. I politely declined saying I could not advocate in a positive way about his sexual nature.

 

Dear church, please talk about sex. My situation may not be the norm for every Christian woman, but many do use Christianity as a way to manipulate others into sexual acts. If we could get over the embarrassment of saying penis and vagina, then we might just be able to talk about healthy boundaries and communication.

 

Even now as a married woman that experience affects my life; the intimacy I have with my husband both emotionally and physically. To look into my husband’s eyes and see love and care and engage in sex because I want to, not because ‘I have to’ is still a challenge. I am grateful to be with a man who journeys with me in this and echoes God’s love for me.

 

I shake with fear at the thought of other 19 year olds being in these relationships. It drives my work to educate others around sex and relationships and break down the lies that porn teaches us. God does forgive and he does change people but let us be wise in how we engage in these topics with his people. Let us not shy away from these conversations but rather embrace the beauty of learning about relationships from a relational God.

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.

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.