Last night's big news came courtesy of Bristol University Christian Union, which has caused uproar by stating that women may not teach at some of their events and meetings.
The issue is not that the CU previously allowed women speakers at main meetings and has now put a stop to it - what's happened is that they have clarified their position that women cannot teach in certain situations, but have conceded that they may do so at other times, outside main meetings and weekends away. A move towards an egalitarian position had led to resignations from complementarians. An email to members stated:
"...we understand that this is a difficult issue for some and so decided that women would not teach on their own at our weekly Equip meetings, as the main speaker on our Bristol CU weekend away or as our main speaker for mission weeks, but a husband and wife can teach together in these. This means that women are able to teach."
Single women are therefore excluded altogether from teaching in main meetings, in a move that appears to legitimise the theologically suspect position that women can only exercise authority if they're under the "covering" of a man, often used to mean husbands and therefore prevent unmarried women from doing much at all.
The reaction has been as predictable as you'd expect in the wake of the debate on women bishops. It's no secret, however, that individual Christian Unions have always held the view that women cannot teach men - but this is the first time it has been reported in the mainstream media. This is not an issue exclusive to Bristol University, but one that has caused a lot of hurt to many people over many decades. When I was a student, my CU did not permit women to teach in main meetings, nor did it ever have a woman president. The same is true at several other universities.
Something I think is always a major issue here is immaturity, spiritual and otherwise. These societies are generally run by young people aged between 18 and 21. That's not to say I'm being superior about it - I was certainly no different when I was a student - but I think there is often a lack of awareness and overly zealous attitude that can cause problems in all student movements, not just religious ones. One thing I would hope is that the committee at Bristol are seeking support and wisdom from others rather than just trying to work this out among themselves, as emotions are no doubt running high.
What worries me about all this is that decisions are being made - not just at Bristol - that lead to confusion and disillusionment among young people, who in turn might feel as if there is no place for them or their gifts and possibly, that there is no place for them in the church.
Despite the presence of other Christian socieites, Christian Unions tend to do a pretty good job of positioning themselves as the Christian group on campus. Their activities, for better or worse, become representative of what Christianity is, and they become a main focal point for many young Christians trying to live out their faith at university. Over the years there have been numerous disputes involving Christian Unions and conflicts of opinion on gender, on spiritual gifts, on other aspects of doctrine. Often there has been an attitude that places them above other Christian groups in terms of who the "real" Christians are. All of this does a lot of damage to what Christian groups at universities aim to do and has the potential to make plenty of student Christians feel very unwelcome. You don't have to dig much to find the stories of Christians who felt very hurt and excluded by CUs during their time at university.
I've seen comments from some people that the decision at Bristol CU was made in the spirit of unity, a measure to prevent division. This is an explanation we see repeatedly in response to issues of gender in the church and is, in my opinion, really problematic. Jenny Baker summed up the problem with this stance in a Sophia Network blog post last year:
"My concern is that the ‘centre-ground’ for shared worship and mission will end up being complementarian by default, not a place that genuinely accepts the beliefs and practices of all sides of the conversation.Let me explain. If you are a complementarian man or woman in an egalitarian space, then you might feel uncomfortable when you hear a woman preach or see her lead, but your practice – the way you are obedient to what you believe God is calling you to – does not need to change.If you are an egalitarian man in a complementarian space, then again you may feel uncomfortable that women aren’t allowed to lead or preach, but your practice does not need to change. You can lead, preach, teach and innovate to your heart’s content. You’ll be listened to and welcomed round the table, wherever that table might be.But if you are an egalitarian woman in a complementarian space, then your practice is restricted."
The so-called middle ground that's supposed to prevent disunity always ends up excluding women in an attempt to keep those who want to restrict their ministry happy. And funnily enough, this doesn't exactly instill in women a sense of unity and grace. It makes some of them feel as if they can't do what they feel called to do, what they are gifted to do. One committee member at Bristol CU has resigned because he felt women should not be allowed to teach in any capacity. That doesn't exactly say "unity" to me. As I've written about in the past, restrictive policies and teachings on women in ministry are having a genuinely damaging effect on young Christian women and the way their feel about their faith. Many who cannot reconcile these teachings with their gifts and passions end up leaving the church. Is there any wonder, when they just want serve in the way they're best equipped to do and end up getting called "Jezebels", with the importance of male headship at all times being underlined?
On the subject of grace, there have already been comments to the effect that more people displaying a gracious attitude is what this situation needs. It's predictable that yet again, as with numerous debates on women in the church, "grace" is being used as a silencing tactic. I agree that's what's unhelpful at this point is further speculation about the situation when Bristol CU have yet to make any clarification on what's happening. Neither is a general pile-on in the direction of UCCF useful. It may be the case that many CUs hold a restrictive position on women's roles (thanks to the "middle ground" principle detailed above), but they operate as individual groups united by a doctrinal basis that does not include a position on gender equality, even though it's well known that UCCF has historically tended towards a more conservative position on women.
Last night's news has served to highlight to a more general audience a major area of disquiet within student Christian movements, although it's worth pointing out that it has nothing to do with the Church of England or women bishops. As with the issue of women bishops I'm not sure the best course of action is to demand that a secular body gets involved in sorting it all out. I hope Bristol CU will move to correct any inaccurate reporting, rather than declining to comment on the situation at all, and I hope that it will prompt more reconsideration on the way CUs in general restrict women's ministry.
Danny Webster - Bristol CU and finding grace in hard places