Tag Archives: UCCF

Theological Hoop Jumping

A few weeks ago I commented on the brewing row over the meaning of Easter caused by an upcoming talk by the controversial Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John. Subsequently John has responded to the criticism through the Church Times, and Bishop Tom Wright has produced an extensive article expressing why his original criticisms were valid.

Included in the prominent critics were Bishops Wallace Benn and Pete Broadbent who followed along from Bishop Tom Wright and released a statement from Spring Harvest condemning the talk – without having read it. However this takes on a more interesting twist with the news that the UCCF are withdrawing from Spring Harvest because of the involvement of Steve Chalke as a result of his beliefs first mentioned in his book The Lost Message of Jesus and which Chalke himself summarises online. Whilst the UCCF believe that Chalke has diverged from orthodox Christian teaching – the same accusation that has been levelled at Jeffrey John – Bishops Benn and Broadbent are happy to work with Chalke, but are releasing press statements criticising John.

Needless to say, this can lead pretty easily to the conclusion that John is being attacked because of who he is, rather than what he is saying – so Tom Wright talks about Chalke in the article too. However, having read the relevant passage:

Now, to be frank, I cannot tell, from this paragraph alone, which of two things Steve means. You could take the paragraph to mean (a) on the cross, as an expression of God’s love, Jesus took into and upon himself the full force of all the evil around him, in the knowledge that if he bore it we would not have to; but this, which amounts to a form of penal substitution, is quite different from other forms of penal substitution, such as the mediaeval model of a vengeful father being placated by an act of gratuitous violence against his innocent son. In other words, there are many models of penal substitution, and the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story is at best a caricature of the true one. Or you could take the paragraph to mean (b) because the cross is an expression of God’s love, there can be no idea of penal substitution at all, because if there were it would necessarily mean the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story, and that cannot be right.

where option (a) is the acceptable interpretation of the Chalke statements, whereas (b) is the interpretation that UCCF and most other people have taken. Tom Wright and I assume Bishops Benn and Broadbent take the view that Chalke meant (a).

From my point of view, looking at what Chalke himself says he says the following:

In my view however, the real problem with penal substitution (a theory rooted in violence and retributive notions of justice) is its incompatibility, at least as currently taught and understood, with any authentically Christian understanding of the character of God or genuinely Christocentric worldview…

which strikes me that Chalke is saying that he has the same issue with the traditional understanding of penal substitution as John, but that Tom Wright is doing some fairly subtle theological hoop jumping to argue why what Chalke says is acceptable and John isn’t.

Tom Wright doesn’t help with drawing conclusions that this is personal either. During the course of the nearly half the article where he picks the John talk apart, he at one point uses an example that focuses on Jeffrey John’s sexuality, and alludes to the title of his well known booklet on the subject. Jeffrey John’s letter to the Church Times mentions that much of the hate mail related to the talk focused on his sexuality – when Tom Wright mentions John’s letter he brushes it aside with a ‘we all get hate mail’ type comment, totally ignoring the sexuality aspect, before going on to make comments that could be considered in the same vein. When he starts talking about Chalke he notes that he knows him personally, indeed he got a pre-release copy of the book. He also highlights that the book may be unclear over what Chalke believes, but then says that he has had a chat with Chalke and is happy that he does believe in penal substitution but under another name. He finishes the section on Chalke with this statement:

And this leads to the key point: there are several forms of the doctrine of penal substitution, and some are more biblical than others. What has happened since the initial flurry of debate about The Lost Message of Jesus has looked, frankly, like a witch-hunt, with people playing the guilt-by-association game: hands up anyone who likes Steve Chalke; right, now we know who the bad guys are.

Unfortunately, as with anything with such subtle differences for those of us without doctorates of Theology it really isn’t that clear what the difference is, between what Chalke believes and what John has said. In the book, Chalke states this:

If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil. The truth is, the cross is a symbol of love. It is a demonstration of just how far God as Father and Jesus as his son are prepared to go to prove that love.

He then uses Elie Wiesel as an example to make the point.

Jeffrey John says this in his talk:

Because he is Love, God does what Love does: He unites himself with the beloved. He enters his own creation and goes to the bottom line for us. Not sending a substitute to vent his punishment on, but going himself to the bitter end, sharing in the worst of suffering and grief that life can throw at us, and finally sharing our death, so that he can bring us through death to life in him.

As with Chalke, he then goes on to use Elie Wiesel as an example to make the point. Both Chalke and John are disagreeing with penal substitution and saying that it is about love, not vengeance, yes there are differences in what they are saying, and how they say it, but they are largely coming at it from the same direction. The difference between the two is that Chalke has a quote from a certain Tom Wright on the cover of his book commending the scholarship, whilst Jeffery John gets Tom Wright criticising him in the Sunday Telegraph, he then gets Wright producing an epic critique of the talk on Fulcrum.

Ultimately it stinks of being theological sleight of hand buried in pages and pages of exposition to try and avoid accusations of hypocrisy that can be levelled at those involved, Tom Wright especially. Finally, what about the UCCF and their Spring Harvest walkout? Much as I don’t agree with the beliefs of the UCCF, and probably would object to what they are teaching, at least they’re actually being consistent between what they believe and their behaviour, which is more than can be said for certain bishops.

(Thanks to Dave Walker for keeping track of the debate.)

Bishops Try to Stir Up the Christian Union Row

cartoon from www.weblogcartoons.com

The Christian Union Row that I’ve previously discussed rumbles on, with Ekklesia reporting that a number of Bishops have intervened.

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?

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

Simplification and Confusion

Last month I commented on the ongoing disagreement between the Exeter University Evangelical Christian Union and the Student Guild. At that point they were still arguing over being forced to change their name, however since then the story has moved on somewhat, with the Guild having partially suspended the ECU under their equal opportunities policy, since all members were required to sign up to the doctrinal basis, and this contravened the policies of the Student Guild. The ECU are now talking about taking legal action under human rights legislation.

Unfortunately the news items don’t help with clarification by simplifying it down to a disagreement between Christian and non-Christian, whilst in actual fact a number of Christians object to the doctrinal basis – take this discussion of the document by the Anglican Chaplain of Kent University. This quite clearly explains why many Christians take issue with the document, particularly clauses three and six. More importantly that same document explains how those clauses of the doctrinal basis especially diverge from Biblical teaching.

Not surprisingly, the Heaven and Earth show picked it as their panel discussion, so alongside representatives of the Student Guild and the ECU they had Nick Ferrari an outspoken radio presenter on LBC, and Jonathan Bartley, founder and director of Ekklesia, a Christian Think Tank.

What was quite a surprise considering his usual theological positions on a number of matters, and is rather important for the discussion this morning though was that whilst he was a student, Jonathan Bartley was president of the Christian Union at his University. Whilst you can find the same doctrinal basis as all the others on their current site, Bartley didn’t sign the basis, and whose vision of a Christian Union is that it should be broad based and welcoming to all Christians.

It has to be said, during the discussion was not helped in the least by the presence of Nick Ferrari who fairly obviously didn’t have a clue about the underlying basis of the discussion, but as would be expected of someone of his reputation, still waded in with an opinion. The sole basis of his contribution seemed to be that the ECU representative ‘seemed like a nice bloke’ and the rest of them should leave him alone. It has to be said that the ECU did come over as a generally nice bloke, and made a lot of noises about everybody being welcome at their meetings. Again, the discussion didn’t get into much detail of the subtleties, and since Ferrari decided to harangue Bartley when he was trying to make a point querying how the ECU would treat, for example a member of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, it didn’t go much further. In general though I don’t think that there is enough time in this sort of slot to discuss the issues, and all that results is a significant simplification of the issues, and in the end confusion for the viewer. I mean unless they knew more detail, I doubt a viewer would understand why Bartley was backing the Student Guild position.

Interestingly, whilst I can see the point of view of the Student Guild, the ultimate result of the process is going to be even more of a quagmire, as the ECU opinion that this will affect other societies is absolutely right. Looking at the religious societies the same arguments being used against the ECU could equally apply to other religious societies, indeed even political societies would run into problems. To my mind the equal opportunities and anti-discrimination policies have to be operated at a student guild level, but as long as their is balance across the whole guild. For example it should be acceptable for the Conservative Society to insist that all members must be Conservative, and not allow Labour party supporters to join, but there should be a Labour Society to balance it. In terms of the situation with the ECU, as long as they are not denying the rights of other Christian societies to exist, then they should be left to get on with it. Rather than trying to remove the ECU by legal means, those against it should be arguing against what the ECU is representing through arguments such as those in the document from Kent University. Certainly so far they have done so, shown by the fact that the student body has twice voted for the name change to Evangelical Christian Union. Unfortunately if the ECU looses their legal proceedings I suspect that it will be the end for certainly any religious, and probably many political University societies.