Head of Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowships on Christian Unions Bans

The decision by university authorities at Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt, Exeter and Birmingham universities to either ban the Christian Unions or severely curtail their privileges has led to an outpouring of criticism not only from Christian leaders and institutions but also from leading academics and the media.

The bans and curtailments follow complaints from students that the Christian Unions are too exclusive, promoting homophobia and discriminating against people who are transgender.

The Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowships (UCCF) - the umbrella organisation which runs the Christian Unions - has defended the right of the Christian Unions to be run by Christians and teach an orthodox Christian perspective of relationships and sex.

The Rev Richard Cunningham is the Chief Executive Officer of the UCCF. He spoke to Christian Today about the current legal struggle facing the Christian Unions.

CT: Were you surprised that some university authorities had gone so far as to ban the Christian Unions?

RC: Yeah, I think so. I think it was an extreme act. And while we are aware that Students' Unions have made noises and some of them don't like the activities of Christians and don't like the view of Christian Unions on some issues like homosexuality, we also felt that their responsibility to provide resources and services to those prospective interest groups should always overrule any personal agenda that they may have. I think this is why there has been so much outrage in the country. They've stepped over a line. They've got an agenda of disliking the orthodox Christian view.

What they've done is they've essentially reformulated their constitutions so as to decide what equality of opportunity looks like and what it looks like is that there can be no insistence by a society as to who should run the society. Of course they're not going to action it across the board; they're not going to insist that Jews run the Muslim society.

But because they know we're not going to back down on this they are going to set us a trap that we are going to fall into and say to us, as Birmingham did, that we need to be willing to have atheists running the Christian Union.

But as far as Christian Unions are concerned they have a responsibility to ensure that their societies are open to all people who want to investigate what a Christian Union is about and everyone is welcome to their meetings. But they need to, like trustees of a charitable trust, ensure that the funds given to a society and the aims of that society are properly used, maintained and all the rest of it.

So it is unlawful. What they have done, we're convinced, is unlawful and they are not fulfilling their own duties of actually providing the goods and services that taxpayers and students are paying for the Students' Unions to provide.

Their complaints were centring on the Christian Unions being too exclusive and not including non-Christians, which we've just touched on. But they also included accusations of promoting homophobia and excluding transgender sexuality. What do you have to say about these complaints?

The transgender issue came from the Birmingham Guild. They looked at our constitution which said that all men and women are welcome to come to any of our meetings and what they said is that there is nothing in here to say that people of transgender are welcome to our meetings. So the CU there said they would change it to 'all people'. They made a big deal of that but that was literally all that was about.

They behaved very badly in Birmingham. A little cohort decided they were going to discuss the CU constitution and asked the CU to come to the meeting but they posted the invitation in German in the corner of the SU website. Fortunately one of the CU committees was studying modern languages and read it and the CU turned up, albeit a little unprepared. So they used dirty tactics.

With regard to the homophobia issue, the UCCF has set up a course called PURE which is a peer-led course over six to eight weeks. It is not a campaign but just an opportunity for Christian students to look at what the orthodox biblical teaching is on relationships and sex.

The Edinburgh Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Society noticed a quote from the book for PURE in which there is actually not a great deal written about homosexuality. It just states that it is the orthodox view that heterosexual marriage is the place where God blesses sexual activity. It is not that we have come up with something new.

The Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Society noticed that the book for Pure contained a quote from another book - which was not homophobic - and this quote made reference to certain homosexuals being healed from their inclinations. But we know in academic sources that if you weren't allowed to quote a primary source for fear of being held to agree with absolutely everything that is found in the rest of that book then you would never quote anything. So it was a nonsense again.

There was no homophobia. We don't discriminate against anyone coming to our meetings based on their sexual behaviour let alone their orientation. So it was really a way of stirring things up. So the course was banned from happening on the SU property in Edinburgh.

Then the chaplaincy got cold feet because we were going to run it in the chaplaincy anyway. But they under pressure said we think in the circumstances that you better not have it here.

How do you feel about not receiving the support from the chaplaincy?

It was profoundly disappointing but what we were most concerned about was that then the University of Edinburgh banned it from happening anywhere on the campus. So what they are really saying is that a bone fide group of full time students studying at the university who want to look at a biblical orthodox Christian perspective of sexuality can't.

It is a total stifling of freedom of assembly and speech. And it is unlawful. We believe it is unlawful behaviour. We do feel that we have to explore legal action just because it is not about whether the individual students are feeling discomfort, because part of the gospel is that we do suffer discomfort. But it is a matter of the freedoms for other students, for other Christians, that are actually being eroded.

Paul the Apostle was happy to suffer personal difficulty but when it came to him being arrested and the gospel being impeded he squared his shoulders and said, 'Get your hands off me, you can't touch me, I'm a Roman citizen, I'll take this to Rome.' For Christian readers who might have a problem with threatening legal action, there is a biblical precedent for legal action. Anything that is within law that protects the rights for the proclamation of the gospel needs to be appealed to.

Turning now to the Christian students who are running the Christian Unions on the ground and are having to face this situation, how are they feeling?

I have just spent three days with Matt Tindale who is the staff worker at Edinburgh University. They started off nervous and wondering if legal action was really the route they wanted to go down. But as things have just transpired, as they have looked closely at the issues, and just the overwhelming support from the media, they now feel really privileged. They feel this is really good and really important and they haven't been distracted from getting on with their normal activities. Of course the PURE course is having to take place off the campus. But they haven't been distracted and they are really up for it.

So it has actually worked as a motivator?

Yes, and also for our staff.

Why do you think these problems have now arisen?

I think there is a general trend within the wider secular society where people like Richard Dawkins are wanting to marginalise all Christian and religious activity to the private sphere and don't want Christianity to be in the public square.

There is an intolerance. I have started calling it a secular fundamentalism which is trying to drive religious belief into the private realm and not allow it to intrude into the public square. I think the BA issue with the cross is a case in point.

Do you expect to see more struggles of the kind the CUs are facing now?

If there is a pattern it is that Student Unions, because they have changed their own constitutions to be able to discriminate against particularly a Christian Union for asking that its officers believe in the central tenets of the Christian faith, then they have created their constitution in order to be able to ban and discipline the Christian Unions.

That is a systemic problem that they have created which we are going to challenge; their intentions and the actual constitution itself. Because there are prior commitments they have to allow which include freedom of belief and expression and association. That's what the SUs have to do. The SUs have deliberately changed their constitutions to try and enable them to discriminate against the Christian Unions and tell them that they can't insist on having Christians running it.

Pod Bhogul (head of communications at UCCF) said the Christian Unions are often the largest and most vibrant of the student societies but there seems to be a considerable number of people who have a negative impression of the Christian Unions. Is this something you are going to tackle?

Well, I think there is a sense that this always goes with the territory. If you are big and you have a high profile then there is the tall poppy syndrome. And I think there are some smaller societies which have decided that they are going to take a more liberal view of what the Bible says. But the result is always without fail on the campuses that they are small because liberal Christianity doesn't ever persuade unbelievers of the truth and the relevance and the vitality of the Christian message. The only true mission field is that of the evangelical Christian to try to dissuade them from being so sure.

There are inevitably some on campus for whom the gospel makes them feel uncomfortable. They're surrounded by all these bright, intelligent Christians. There are some other secular and religious people who again feel threatened by the vibrancy and the scale of it so it is just not surprising that they feel antagonistic against something they've often never been to and have no real experience of.

So as far as you are concerned there is nothing the CUs need to change?

I don't think there is systemically anything that needs changing. But when there are a few hundred 19 to 20-year-olds who are being really enthusiastic about their faith they're going to tread on some toes. They're not always going to be discreet or as sensitive as they could be.

So we've always got to ask, 'Are we being as inclusive as we can be?' 'Are we being as winsome and circumspect as we could be?' So we can always look to improve how we are doing things and how we are behaving but one could say that of almost any group of human beings in any context so we're not trying to pretend they are perfect. But I don't think there is any systemic problem with the CUs at all.

If the Christian Unions are reinstated with their full rights do you think they might feel rather vulnerable after this debacle?

The perception on the ground is that the attitude of the vast majority of students is, 'What's your problem. The Christian Unions should be run by Christians. If you are atheist and you don't like it then set up your own society.'

I think there is a greater degree of intolerance on campus from rogue Students' Union officers who are thinking of their own political agendas and careers and are using time and money which should be devoted to fulfilling their duties to the students and running their societies to actually pursue their own often colourless and humourless, politically correct agendas and that also irritates non-Christians more than anything.

So as far as the Christian Unions are concerned, we would greatly welcome a change of heart. And we hope that everyone will be wiser as a result of this slight rush of blood to the head.

So there will be no embarrassment for the Student Unions, no awkwardness for the CUs, because they've been operating for 70 years. The oddity is them being thrown out so the most normal thing in the world would be for them to be restored.

Do you think this episode might have worked not only in your favour but also in the favour of many more organisations like the Christian Unions? We have seen the backlash against the BA decision on the cross and the huge media outpouring in support of the Christian Unions. Do you think this might change the current pro-secular climate we are in?

I think what is happening is that the secularising agenda will continue apace. But it has given people who are fed up with it the opportunity to express that and I think it will be a warning to those who would impose a secularising agenda on what has been hitherto an unsuspecting electorate and I think they'll realise now that they have to go about their agenda with persuasion and not with coercion.

And I think in terms of who is going to gain from this, my great desire is that in the first instance the university will gain because a university ought to mean unity in diversity.

And so I hope that the upshot of this is that if there really is a proper capitulation by the SUs, and the CUs are reinstated, then the lesson we can learn from this is that no matter how comfortable we may feel about another group's views we need to, as Voltaire said, defend the right to hold them because that is essential for civilisation and essential if we are going to have conditions whereby people can thrive and develop.

So it will be good for education; it will be good for the universities; it will be good for society. And yes it will be good for the church because if this continues unchecked, this discrimination against one particular group, then it is only a matter of time before the agenda comes to the churches and says we are offended by you being in this town centre; we're offended by you reading Romans 1 on a Sunday; I am offended by your notice board when I drive past; you must not have text which says things I don't believe in; you are offending my sensibilities.

Once we concede ground to this intolerant secular fundamentalism it has an unquenchable appetite; it will now allow compromise. It wants to be the totalising worldview. It does not want a climate in which there is a liberal exchange of different religious and philosophical and ethical viewpoints. It doesn't want that; it wants to be the only worldview.

And if the Christian Unions remain banned, what then?

If they remain banned I think it will be a very sad day for the universities and for the CUs to have to be outside of the main student society body and to then have to seek venues and publicity outside of the Student Union. Of course it can do that and because Christians are really passionate and intelligent and courageous they'll find a way and they will survive and they will thrive. But it will be harmful for the university and disruptive for the Christian Unions.