Bristol Christian Union and the "ban" on women speakers

Wednesday 5 December 2012

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.

Further reading:


Claire said...

Your reflection resonates with me a lot. There needs to be some serious thinking about what 'middle ground' actually means. An ongoing and difficult story......

Yewtree said...

It's a pity that the Bristol CU (and other CUs with the same policy) have not read these two articles by John Walker.

Why the argument against women in church leadership is theological rubbish and
The Bible on Women in Church - an update

The Students' Union at Bristol should follow the precedent set by other SUs and bar the Christian Union from membership. This has happened at other universities where the CU is blatantly homophobic, for instance.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this well thought through response. It is sad that most reactions are not well balanced and only polarise the discussion.


Unknown said...

This was one of two major issues that convinced me that while I may have a place in the love of Christ, I definitely was not welcomed or valued in His church. I don't think I'm alone.

Akela said...

OK, take 2 at this!

Anyway, long time no comment. I do actually read this blog quite regularly and just don't comment very often.

Anyway I wanted to comment on this from my particular perspective, ie as a Christian who feels generally disconnected from organised churches and Christianity in general.

I agree with much of what you say here and I think that the line BUCU have taken reflects the very insular view taken by many CUs. It was the same when I was a student in Durham. There was an active failure of those that ran DICCU to recognise that they were a coalition of members of different churches. How many churches can you name? Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Southern Baptist Orthodox, Unitarian, Christ Scientists, Mormons, the list goes on and on. And many will have differing views on different aspects of Christianity.

Yet the CU leadership fails to recognise it. Back in the late 90s the issue was homosexuality. DICCU proclaimed it to be sinful as an official line without ever once acknowledging that actually no, there were Christians of many demoninations, who simply did not agree. It wasn't that they acknowledged this and disagreed. It was simply ignored.

In this case they claim to have recognised the differences on women is similar. I am not familiar with BUCU so have no idea what they publically acknowledged historically. However that a ban on women speakers existed until recently is testament to the fact that clearly, once again, a very conservative view has been allowed to dominate. At the idea that allowing women to speak if they are married is some kind of concession is laughable nonsense.

If BUCU was a church my view would be slightly different. If they are a church set up by like minded individual who wish to worship in a certain way then they are welcome to. I would still totally disagree with their views but frankly let them get on with it.

But that is not what they are, they are a Union. They are a coming together of members from different churches. And if that is what they are they MUST recognise and make REAL provision for those with differing views. And yes, that does include providing male teaching to those of a conservative view point who want it.

And if what they intend to do is evangelise then they MUST look at their image and how they will be portrayed in the eyes of those to who they seek to bring their message. To be so completely at odds with how the rest of society has moved will do precisely zero to do this. All they will do is continue to turn off the likes of me and others off of organised Christianity.

In short BUCU have failed on pretty much every level.

Hannah Mudge said...

Akela, based on my experiences with a CU I agree with you. It's clear that in many cases but not all, a conservative evangelical viewpoint is dominating and being seen as the correct way to do things which is hardly representative of Christians in general. There have been numerous disputes with people and groups who don't sign up to everything the conservatives believe in. It's really problematic. Evangelising is their main priority and as you say, incidents like this one don't help.

Unknown said...

This will not acceptable, please dont do any thing against for women speakers


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