Not Saussure

November 23, 2006

Students ban Christian Unions — I propose a simple solution

Filed under: civil liberties, Education, Religion, UK — notsaussure @ 1:01 am

Via James Higham and Iain Dale, the strange tale of the way various university Christian Unions (for which read Evangelical Protestant) are apparently finding themselves threatened with suspension from the Student Unions at their universities because they fall foul of various diversity policies. They, in return, are threatening legal action, as reported at some length in The Times a few days ago

According to The Times,

Christian unions claim that they are being singled out as a “soft target” by student associations because they refuse to allow non-Christians to address their meetings or sit on ruling committees.

As an example of this,

The 150-strong Christian union in Birmingham was suspended this year after refusing to alter its constitution to allow non-Christians to address meetings and to amend its literature to include references to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and those of transgender sexuality.

and apparently at Edinburgh University,

the Christian union has been banned from teaching a course about sex and relationships after complaints that it promoted homophobia.

This last, I learn from the website of The Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship, who are advising the students in their legal disputes,

is a course called PURE, which presents the Biblical basis of personal relationships. The University’s decision is based on its belief that PURE is in breach of its equality and diversity policy because PURE claims that any sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage is not God-ordained.

Further and better particulars of this exercise, which some might consider a tad quixotic, are available from The Telegraph;

An evangelical group, worried that Christian students are under enormous pressure to lose their virginity, has devised a six-week course to give them the moral strength to resist.

The course, called Pure, is to be launched nationwide in the autumn after being piloted on 15 campuses.

Thousands of students are expected to flock to the sessions, which will arm them with Biblical texts to help them ward off “evil thoughts” in a culture where promiscuity is rife.

Run by the evangelical University and College Christian Fellowship, it will offer 65-minute sessions led by students in the hope of spreading the gospel of sexual abstinence before marriage.

What are we to make of this? As I recall them from my university days (Cambridge in the early ’70s) the Christian Union were pretty much ignored as a bunch of crackpots, not unlike the various Trotskyite groupuscles that plotted world revolution from their rooms in Trinity Great Court. Why all the fuss? Surely they can talk whatever nonsense they want to; that’s part of what being a student’s about, to my mind, and since they appear to have forsworn another major student activity they must surely be allowed some outlet for their passions.

One of the posters to Iain Dale, Dan Smith, provides a reasoned case for the ban;

OK look we had something like this sort of happen at my uni when I was there a couple of years ago and I feel there is some confusion here.

The universities themselves shouldn’t be blamed for what is going on, these religious unions are running into problems with the students union at these unis, the students union is run by students who are elected by students.

Moving on. It is a fundamental point that all unions that want to be affiliated with the students union (this means they get funding from the students union, can use student union meeting rooms, stuff like that) should abide by the rules of the students union. One of these rules is that all students should be allowed to join any society they should so choose. By saying that only people of a certain religious viewpoint can’t join up they are breaking these rules.

As for your point about why a muslim (or any other non christian) would want to join up, erm why not? I had mates in the Christian and Islamic societies back when I was student and I would quite often pop along to their events (I’m an agnostic) and I had a good time for a number of reasons.

If Christians don’t want non Christians going to their meetings they are perfectly free to become de-affiliated from the students union and take funding from their local Christian organisation.

I’m in two minds about this justification, though. Certainly in my day, both the university Conservative Association and the Liberal Club had an open membership policy — they were more than happy to take subscriptions off anyone, and many people joined both, whatever their political sympathies, because they wanted to attend the speaker meetings (and, in the case of the Conservative Association, the extremely good parties). The Labour Students were a far more partisan organisation, and restricted their membership to people who were Labour activists.

No one complained, that I remember, about the Labour bods’ exclusivity, any more than the Conservatives and Liberal had problems — raised as hypothetical difficulties a Christian Union might face — of unsympathetic elements infiltrating them and electing, for example, a radical socialist as President of the Conservative Association. If that’s really a problem, I’ll draft them, for free, some articles of association that should guard against such an eventuality — something about the aims of the Union being actively to promote Christianity based on their doctrinal statement but being open to anyone who’s interested. As to militant atheists infiltrating them and staging a coup, cross that bridge when you come to it, I’d have thought; to my mind, the militant atheists must be pretty sad bunch if they want to devote their time and effort to such an end, but it takes all sorts.

Nevertheless, if the Christian Union want to maintain their exclusivity, I don’t see why they shouldn’t. My real problem with Mr Smith’s justification for the policy is the idea that a university students’ union should control the purse strings in the way they apparently do.

Seems to me that a students’ union has a valid political role in acting as a means of communication between the students and the university authorities. It can also perfectly properly organise and run facilities for all students, like bars, cafes, shops and so on, and, if it wishes, manage and hire out function and meeting rooms in which members of the university may hold meetings or birthday parties or whatever. But what’s it doing handing out money to clubs and societies, be they religious or political or the chess club or whatever?

I can maybe see a case for financial support for sports clubs and drama societies, who’ll have far higher expenses than other groups, but why shouldn’t everyone else rely on subscriptions? Effectively that’s the way things worked at Cambridge when I was there — we had a Cambridge Students’ Union (as distinct from the Union Society, which is a club) which was funded by the colleges’ Junior Combination Rooms (who ran their college bars and suchlike) which operated on a shoestring out of tatty offices in the town, but all the university societies and clubs, be they the Christian Union, the Labour Students, the student newspaper or the Chess Club, were self-financing.

Worked perfectly well and no one had any cause for complaint about their money being spent on groups they didn’t like.

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  1. I agree with Dan Smith that the blame belongs with the Students’ Unions rather than the Universities.

    You have offered to draft Articles of Association which would seem to be saying that Committee members must be willing to promote Christianity based on the CU’s doctrinal statement. As far as I can see, it is precisely this requirement which has resulted in Students’ Unions trying to use the Power of the Purse to implement their own agenda.

    You say that ‘the possibility of militant atheists staging a coup’ is a bridge which should be crossed when they come to it. Which seems to me to be another way of saying ‘Don’t shut the stable door until after the horse has bolted’. And as to whether there are such sad people around, your article earlier refers to the activities of the Trotskyists. As I understand it, these people did have a policy of ‘entryism’, or taking control of local Labour parties by making meetings last till everyone else gave up and went home. Otherwise known as Militant.

    And if you are suggesting that no society should receive any funding from the Union, I think that you will be less than popular with all of them, not just the CU.


    Comment by Graham Truesdale — December 9, 2006 @ 9:59 pm

  2. Articles of Association — I may well have misread it, but I thought the problem was that Committee members had to sign up to something saying the CU’s doctrinal statement represented their beliefs rather than that they were willing to promote Christianity based on it. The former requirement would, clearly, discriminate against an atheist (or a Roman Catholic, come to that) on the grounds of his religious beliefs or lack of them; the latter wouldn’t, so long as he was willing to compromise them and promote something in which he didn’t believe.

    You may well be correct, but I’d have thought any club or society needs something in its Articles of Association to say what its purpose is — otherwise there’s nothing to stop the committee of the Soccer Club deciding it’s going to use the members’ subscriptions to put on plays.

    Entryism. The Trots had a reason for their entryism, though; they were trying to manipulate the policy-making procedures of the Labour Party to influence policy and the results of selection committees and party elections in an attempt to get their policies put into action where Labour was in power. They weren’t trying to wreck the Labour Party (though that was pretty much the effect of their antics); they wanted, though, a successful Labour Party implementing their policies — which they thought were broadly in line with what the Labour Party should be about anyway, only more so — rather than a wrecked one.

    They didn’t try to infiltrate the Conservatives and commit them to socialist policies, which would be the equivalent of these hypothetical atheists infiltrating the Christian Union.

    No funding — I realise it would be unpopular, though I quite see why my taxes should be used to substitute for membership fees. I’d rather give the cash direct to the students themselves; that should prove popular. If they want to join the Christian Union or the Chess Club or whatever, then presumably they’re prepared to pay a modest suscription. If they want to spend the money in the bookshop or the bar, then let ’em.

    What’s the objection to treating students like adults, who make their own spending decisions and who need to be prepared to stump up a subscription if they want to get involved in a club or society? Or is it only Oxbridge students who’re thought capable of taking such decisions for themselves?

    Comment by notsaussure — December 9, 2006 @ 10:43 pm

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