There’s been a bit of fuss in the Methodist corner of the socialmediaverse about Bristol University CU’s attitude toward women speakers at its meetings. It’s almost impossible to discuss a CU or its parent body (UCCF) without thinking about the doctrinal basis of that body, so here’s my reflection on just that first written a few years ago.
“So why won’t you sign the UCCF doctrinal basis?”
That’s a good question. Thank you for asking.
First, let’s make sure we know what we’re talking about. UCCF is the ‘parent body’ of Christian Unions on British university and college campuses. Members of affiliated CUs (and any speakers invited to address the CU) are required to sign up to its core beliefs, or doctrinal basis.
And before I go on, I need to make it clear that I think that UCCF and CUs around the country do some great work and are generally great people. I’m in no way casting any nasturtiums or questioning their right to exist. I welcome them as my brothers and sisters in Christ, whatever may sometimes be said.
That said, why wouldn’t I sign the statement? Two main reasons: the content of the doctrinal basis and (more important) its intent.
Item (f) on the atonement says “Sinful human beings are redeemed from the guilt, penalty and power of sin only through the sacrificial death once and for all time of their representative and substitute, Jesus Christ, the only mediator between them and God.” That’s OK, as far as it goes, but it in my view it goes too far in attempting to tie down the way that our salvation in Christ “works”. It isn’t that Christ’s substitutionary death is untrue, just that it isn’t all there is to say on the subject. Furthermore, our salvation is not bound up with Christ’s death. The scriptures are clear that his resurrection is also crucial (pun intended). Of course I accept completely that we are saved by the grace of God (I’m a good Wesleyan, me!) but this can be overstated to imply that what Jesus’s followers do has no bearing on their salvation. Again, the scriptures would argue.
On the scriptures, the doctrinal basis says: “The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God. It is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour.” If the statement were confined to the second sentence, I’d have no problem, but as it stands I could never assent to it. What does “as originally given” mean? It implies that somewhere a copy of a ‘primitive’ Bible might be found, pure and unadulterated by the deliberate and accidental influences of human beings. But anyone who has done any study at all of the history of the Bible knows that any such idea is nonsense. The Bible as we have it is good enough for me. And this word “infallible” is deeply problematic. I know what it means — “incapable of error” — and that is a far greater claim than the Bible makes for itself. To make the claim of infallibility stick, believers are required either to do violence to the English language, twisting words so out of shape as to render them meaningless, or to the scriptures themselves making the text jump through complex hoops that make my head spin. Sometimes, both things happen at once. I could write alot more about this, but perhaps a seperate post on the whole ‘infallibility thing’ is called for. For now, suffice to say that its inclusion fatally holes the UCCF doctrinal basis as far as I am concerned.
But even if I agreed with every word of the basis, I still would not sign it. As I said before, my greatest concern is not with its content but its intent, which is that it should provide the basis of fellowship. It is an attempt to put rigid bounds on those who can be included which seems to me to be antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If the CU were a church, there might be a case to be made for this (though, as you’d expect, I’d still be wanting to argue for very fuzzy edges), but it is not. CUs are ecumenical groups operating on college and university campuses. It seems to me self-evident that they should be encouraging conversation and learning across different disciplines and between people of different understandings. To rule someone else out as “unsound” or “apostate” before you have even spoken with them, to refuse to listen to anyone who has not provided evidence of their doctrinal purity, to deliberately disengage one’s academic studies from one’s pilgrimmage of faith is tragic — and it is behaviour seen routinely among CU members in my experience. To give just one example, the university where I work hosts a series of public theological lectures by speakers of world renown — normally 2 or 3 a term. We’ve had D.Z. Philips, Nicholas Lash, Morna Hooker, John Polkinghorne, I. Howard Marshal, George Carey, Frances Young and many others. Solid scholarship. Thought-provoking. And how successful do you think we’ve been at persuading the CU to support them? On a practical level, it doesn’t matter. We can fill the lecture theatre as it is. But he thought of young, intelligent Christians deliberately depriving themselves of these opportunities (which may never come again) makes me very depressed.
Of course, it is not simply the doctrinal basis which drives this kind of behaviour. The attitude taken by some church leaders feeds it too. But it is the doctrinal basis which provides the constitutional foundation for CUs to cut themselves off from fellow believers. And it makes me sad.
One of my concerns is what happens to christian students when they graduate. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that many CU members, even those who have held positions of leadership, simply give up their faith when they leave university. The reasons for this are bound to be complex, but I’d be very surprised if the principle of exclusion which undergirds the doctrinal basis were not at least partially to blame.
So I won’t be signing it. And if that makes me unsound in your eyes, I’ll have to live with that. But the kettle is always on if you want a chat anytime.