As I’ve said before, it will be interesting to see where this ends, as some of the same arguments that could be applied to Christian Unions can be applied to a number of other potential university societies.
Having said that, the Bishops letter does seem to be exaggerating the issue somewhat, particularly with the statement:
“Christian students at many of our universities are facing considerable opposition and discrimination in violation of their rights of freedom of expression, freedom of belief and freedom of association”
Firstly, it’s not ‘Christian Students’ as a whole – bear in mind that at Exeter a key element in the story were other Christians who were not allowed to be part of the Christian Union because they wouldn’t sign the doctrinal basis that helped get the name change through. Secondly, there also isn’t any effort to stop the Christian Unions meeting, banning their beliefs or anything like that, it is primarily that the Student Unions are withdrawing support as they believe the CU’s are contravening the Student Union rules, which state that the union ‘shall not harass, intimidate or threaten any member or group’. The issue is one of a conflict between the rules of the Student Union, and the way the Christian Unions want to operate – if they were operating independently of the Student Union, there wouldn’t be a problem.
Ironically, this is exactly what the UCCF has previously done, having pursued a policy to discourage Christian Unions from becoming University Societies. I suspect that this will be the ultimate result of the latest round of arguments. I’m sure there would be local Churches willing to support the groups and provide meeting rooms and the like instead of using the Student Union. Assuming good relations with them (which a number of Universities don’t have), they could even affiliate with the University Chaplaincy, as suggested by the Anglican Chaplain of Southampton University – although I suspect that may cause problems as they’d probably require the Chaplain to sign their doctrinal statement…
Update: Not surprisingly there is a load of comment on this across the blogsphere – Dave has a growing list which I won’t bother to repeat. The text of the actual letter is available online here, and having read the whole thing, it certainly re-enforces my opinion that they don’t really understand the issue. For example the comment about the SU imposing leaders on the CU is wrong – one of the current issues is that some CU’s operate by each committee appointing the next years committee contrary to the democratic principles of the SU, the SU’s are requiring that the CU committees be appointed democratically under the same rules as other societies, free and open elections. The bishops also seem to have confused meeting attendance with joining the CU – for example as happened at Exeter, some CU’s are excluding Christians from joining who won’t sign their doctrinal basis. Also, whilst some invite a range of speakers to meetings there are apparently others that won’t allow anyone who hasn’t signed their doctrinal basis from speaking. Really there is a lot more going on, and I suspect a number of people who have signed their names to the letter haven’t really taken the time to investigate, and have just listened to the hype.
Anyway, on a happier note I was quite pleased to see a couple of postings on the subject reporting that a while ago Reading University Student Union and Christian Union managed to sort things out without resorting to the courts. See also words of explanation from the RUSU President. It is interesting to note that at Reading the two organisations are quite happily co-existing, and the Christian Union is not affiliated with the Student Union for exactly the reasons that Exeter and others are de-affiliating their Student Unions. More to the point, both sides seem happy, and understand the situation. The CU can run their own affairs how they wish, and because they are separate the SU don’t have issues over their discrimination policy, indeed relations are so good that the RUSU President has even hosted an event for the CU.
“That process allowed us to agree that for the CU membership in the SU was not vital, and that the SU could nevertheless provide some facilities to the CU because of the two organisations’ friendship (given certain provisos).”
Perhaps a lesson for those CU’s resorting to the courts, over hyping media, and the letter writing bishops?