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Christian Unions: Sons of God?

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With society elections just round the corner, Flora Carr asks if university CUs are ready for a female ascendancy.

It’s a Sunday morning. For most students, this is usually the cue to engage in some kind of leisurely activity, for example sleeping, browsing Facebook, sleeping, eating leftover cheesy chips from Saturday night and, if they can squeeze it in, more sleeping. But not today. Today, over breakfast, I’m mid-way through a religious debate.

It’s the kind of debate where both parties hurl quotes at one another and you only realise you’ve been at it for an hour and a half when you vaguely notice your porridge has gone cold. Suffice to say it’s heated (unlike my porridge). And it’s not as though this hasn’t happened before. This friend and I live in the same set of halls, and so often see each other at mealtimes. Only our friendly discussions will often, without either of us really meaning them to, turn into full blown debates, where audiences gather to watch us and water breaks are required half-way through. In the blue corner is my friend, an Evangelical Christian who enjoys answering my questions about his beliefs. Rather, at least I think he does. In the red corner there’s me. I’m a solid, dependable agnostic; but I also grew up in a church. As a chorister from the age of eight to 13, I essentially lived in York Minster Cathedral, simply down to the number of services I sang in. Looking for a psalm? A nice Bible passage to read this Easter? I’ve got you covered. My friend and I had already discussed his and the Bible’s view on homosexuality; gay marriage; sex before marriage; Hell and even Satan. All interesting stuff. But the topic we talked about today somehow felt even more relevant to us. We were talking about sexism in university Christian Unions.

Image credits: ell brown
Image credits: ell brown

Let me backtrack here. Earlier in the week I had had a conversation about ECU, Exeter’s Evangelical Christian Union – of which my friend is a member – with another friend visiting from another university. As she is a member of her own university’s CU we were discussing committee membership, and essentially she explained to me that a woman wouldn’t have a chance of becoming President at her CU. Walking ahead of me, it took her a while to realise that the thud she’d heard behind her had been my jaw hitting the ground. Although I had read about how legislation to create women bishops didn’t get through in the General Synod, the church’s legislative body, in November 2012, I hadn’t given much thought about it in relation to the beliefs of student Christian bodies.

Somehow, I had pictured groups of young, cool Christians shaking their heads at the decision, saying, “We’ll do it differently when our time comes.” I had, perhaps foolishly, associated the Synod’s rejection with age and an aversion to change, rather than the most crucial thing of all for a Christian: belief. Which is why, on a quiet Sunday morning, I spent my time questioning an Evangelical Christian’s belief on female leadership in the Christian Church. He explained to me that certain passages of the Bible, for example Paul, explicitly state that women should not take on roles of leadership within the Church. We then talked about gender roles in Genesis, my friend reminds me how Eve, the first woman, gave in so easily to temptation, and led us all down the path of sin.

“Wait a minute!” I butted in. “At least Eve weighed up the pros and cons. In the Bible we actually look at her thought process – on the one hand there’s disobeying God, on the other there’s becoming more intelligent, more like God. With Adam he just accepts Eve’s judgment blindly! In the case of Genesis, surely it’s Eve, the woman, who displays more leadership-like qualities!”

In the audience watching us there was some nodding of heads. I was sure I’d won some small victory. But my friend then went on to say that after this God specifically gives Adam the task of leadership in order to make up for both his and Eve’s actions, and this is echoed throughout the rest of the Bible. It’s a belief he shares with many members of Christian Unions throughout the country. In fact, in 2012, there was plenty of media coverage of the decision made by Bristol’s Christian Union not to have visiting female speakers unless a male speaker accompanied them. This was described as ‘outrageous’ in one Guardian article: “It is apparently still deemed acceptable to treat women as inferior under the banner of ‘inclusivity’”. The article also talked about “the unbroken lineage of male Presidents (in BUCU)”. I couldn’t help but wonder: not a single female President.

Intrigued, I decided to find out how many female CU Presidents there currently are. The task wasn’t easy. With no official statistics on the matter published on the website of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (the mother ship of CUs), I narrowed my search to Russell Group universities. After trawling through websites, sending emails and asking around, the results I found were conclusive, to say the least. Out of the 24 Russell Group universities, of which Exeter is a member, there are only two stand-alone female CU Presidents, at Birmingham and Cambridge, whilst both Cardiff and York have sets of two presidents, one male and one female. As a young woman living in today’s society, my experiences with school, magazine articles, books and parents have conditioned me to identify moments of sexism. And, looking at these figures, the word my mind is screaming is “discrimination”.

But is it discrimination? My Evangelical friend also told me that he was all for equality for women outside the church, just not in it. Apparently you can find female feminists in CUs, passionately advocating the importance of a female presence in government, who at the same time disagree with women becoming church leaders. While it may seem sexism in practice, it is down to faith. In a ‘Comment’ piece during the media backlash against Bristol’s Christian Union in 2012, Beccy Smyth, then News Editor of Exeposé, wrote that, “these news reports encourage people to attack perfect strangers’ integrity for making a decision based on what they honestly believe is right according to their faith, according to what they truly believe God is saying, which, as Christians, presumably is the most crucial part of their identity”. If, then, this lack of female leadership – not only in the higher rankings of the Christian Church, but in Christian Unions as well  – is all down to faith, what exactly are we dealing with here? Is this sexism at all? Is it theology? Or is this some religious, hybrid form of sexism? And if so, is sexism in the Church a monster that can never be slain?

Then again, to try and clump all Christians and all their beliefs together, to casually refer to ‘Christians’ as one homogenous mass, would be just as discriminatory. That isn’t to say that all of today’s ECU members are against female leadership in the Church. Jessie Toohey, a first year member of ECU, says “I believe in [supporting women] in and out of the Church… personally, I believe times have changed and that God looks at men and women equally!” The idea that ‘times have changed’ is an important one here. Those who support female leadership within the Church often talk about how many of the Bible’s teachings lose their religious significance when looked at in context and from a modern perspective. In Leviticus, for example, one passage tells us not to mix wool and cotton. It may seem ridiculous to us but, in fact, it violated the Israelite prohibition against mixing things. Times have definitely changed, for both mixing wool and cotton and, surely, female leadership. Amy Oxenham, another first year member, agrees: “I believe that God loves every one of His children equally and unconditionally, so there is no way that He would refrain from giving half of them the gift of leadership – I know so many amazing woman leaders in church”. In fact the Bible actually talks about several early female leaders of the Christian faith: Dorcas, Lydia and Phoebe, the last of whom reportedly served as a deacon (Romans 16:1-2) and a benefactor in the Church. Can the monster really be slain by something as simple as context?

However, Amy also told me, “I haven’t come across many churches that still hold true to the whole women-not-leading-thing, but have noticed the slight lack [of female leadership] in university CUs.” Amy seems right about the Church itself becoming more flexible; in November 2013, the General Synod backed revised proposals for the possible consecration of women bishops. While it had been thought they could not be voted on until July 2015 at the earliest, on 11 February the Synod approved a hastened timetable, which could allow the proposals to be voted on this July. If it is approved, the first women bishops could be appointed this year.

The question is, then, if the Church itself is responding to calls for change, why are CUs not? It occurred to me to look into leadership amongst other religious societies at Exeter. MethAng (the Methodist and Anglican society), Exeter’s Catholic Society and J-Soc (the Jewish society) all have female presidents whilst NOOMA (which describes itself on the Guild website as a Christian group of the ‘charismatic’ persuasion) and ISoc, the Islamic Society, are led by males. Indeed, I later spoke to Emma Lauren Rosen, president of J-Soc, and Mohamed Mohamed, president of ISoc. Emma told me that “Jewish Societies across the country are lucky not to have that issue (of a lack of female leaders) – currently there are 32 male J-Soc President’s and 33 female”.

When I asked for Mohamed’s thoughts on female leadership he was happy to tell me that he’d recently encouraged a female member of ISoc to run for President during the next committee elections. When I asked why, he told me, “she’s got the experience and the qualities to lead the Islamic Society… and on an ‘Islamic’ level, there have been many fantastic female role models and leaders in Islam”. When I mentioned the lack of female CU leaders he said, “I won’t deny it, Islamic Societies across the UK also go through similar patches of sexist behaviour, but at Exeter we know from Islamic understanding that such matters should never be an issue. I don’t know why Exeter particularly, but I guess we’re just laid back young Muslims living in the ‘West’. We try to leave our cultures from our countries behind (like Islam encourages us), and only live by Islamic teachings. All misogyny and sexism comes from male indoctrination of how they view women in their given societies”.

Perhaps there is something to learn from the Islamic Society’s attitude. I asked my Evangelical friend to picture a scene: there are two candidates for ECU President, a very qualified woman and a less qualified man. Who would he pick? Although he eventually chose the woman, the length of time he deliberated, eating his (stone cold) bacon, scared me a little. And the many articles about the BUCU Watergate-moment of 2012 make, I must admit, depressing reading. A Christian Union is, after all, different from a church; a simple fact that can’t be overstated. Although one can respect someone who believes that women cannot lead in Church because, despite its questionable context, it undeniably says so right there in the Bible in black and white, where in the Bible does it say that a group of Christian students can’t be led by a girl?

However, at Exeter at least, there are some hopeful signs. Whilst many of the Christians within ECU hold varying views about the role of women, ECU as a group does not have any specific policy on the matter, and this is seen through many of the activities and meetings run this year. For example, ‘Love at the Lemmy’ was entirely organised by female members, whilst girls regularly run prayer meetings. Indeed, of all of the guest speakers this year, over half have been women – without any male speakers to chaperone them. This is on top of other fantastic schemes such as ‘Text a Toastie’, which has been held on average once every week across the halls, and has proved immensely popular. So, although not everyone enjoys two-hour-long religious debates, and CUs indeed have a rocky path ahead of them on the uncertain road to female leadership, it is beyond dispute that everyone loves a toastie.

Flora Carr

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