“So why won’t you sign the UCCF doctrinal basis?”

by Richard on December 8, 2006

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 consitutional 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.

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dave williams 12.08.06 at 10:03 pm


I think the problem is a severe misunderstanding about what the doctrinal basis is about. Christian Unions are not ecumenical chat groups -there’s plenty of opportunity for that -and personally I’d encourage people to get to hear some of the people you mentioned -I did listen to Polkinhorne do a series of lectures in Sheffield -must be 12-14 years ago now and found him interesting and very listenable to -but it’s difficult getting people to all sorts of things these days -any maybe they are memers of other societies.

There’s evidence of Christians giving up faith after University -but that includes CU and non CU. There’s also evidence of people growing in faith and finding faith through CUs -going on strong today -people now in Church leadership -even the odd Chap Ass! Christians serving God overseas as missionaries, aid workers, nurses etc. Christians in business etc.

Anyway -a bit off my point. When you think that CUs affiliated into UCCF also have aims/ a mission then you can understand the purpose of the statements.
1. Some clarity in terms of Evangelism -what exactly is it that they are offering
2. Clarity in terms of teaching -so in order to speak at a Christian Union event, I’m asked to sign the DB as well. It’s a way of showing responsibility. The meetings in that respect are not debates -they are teaching events.

Sure -no problems if you don’t want t sign the document -and my kettle will always be on too!


dave williams 12.08.06 at 10:11 pm

It is interesting that you’re limplying that we’re looking for some magical original document Richard….I’m not. You would never know what the original was would you!

This seems such an odd objection -because I’m sure you and Kim are well aware of the background behind that statement. Your comments are playful but not a fair representation of the on infallibility and I’m sure that you will want to spend some time engaging with the real arguments rather than the paper tiger you keep buldozing!


dave williams 12.08.06 at 10:13 pm

Again -on the topic of Christ’s death -sure the UCCF statement isn’t all there is to say on the topic! The point is there the understanding that there is sin, it needs to be forgiven, God deals with sin through the death of Jesus as opposed to human works etc…going to church, because he felt like it etc….


Kim 12.08.06 at 11:00 pm

Thanks, Richard, for a superb post - even if I would say that! Superb.

I think the only thing I’d want to pursue is the idea of how “doing” relates to our salvation” (it’s a Reformed/Wesleyan thing!). I think I’d rather say, and quite germanely, that the place of “believing” in our salvation is often the culprit, deployed in a pelagian, or even gnostic way, as if adhereing to any doctrinal basis were what is meant by sola fide, such that faith becomes a kind of intellectual work that one must get “right”. And here also is the fatal hermeneutical blow against inerrancy: an inerrant text requires an inerrant interpreter, but sin makes sure there ain’t no such animal. But I digress. Thanks again.

By the way, I’ve learned a new word: “nasturtium”. I went to the OED. It says: “South American trailing plant with round leaves and bright orange, yellow, or red flowers, widely grown as an ornamental.” Though if you’re looking for the word as it is “originally given”, it denotes any plant of the genus Nasturtium. It sounds to me like casting nasturtiums would be a nice thing to do! Go on, correct this American’s ignorance about a Britishism he doesn’t know!


Pam 12.08.06 at 11:14 pm

Your comments are playful but not a fair representation of the on infallibility

Well, to me, the whole problem with biblical infallibility and verbal inspiration is the epistemology that undergirds it - an epistemology which is totally modernist. To use David Buttrick’s words, the problem is “the notion of truth as objective facticity”. I presume that inerrantists sincerely believe that this way of seeing truth reveals the truth of the bible. I and many others sincerely believe that “objective facticity” effectively handicaps readers in seeing much of the truth that the bible reveals - partly because objective facticity is an incredibly impoverished concept of “truth”.


Kim 12.08.06 at 11:33 pm

Hi Dave.

Foreseeing a possible discussion about penal substitution, can I direct you to a “Ten Propositions on Penal Substitution” at Ben Myers’ blog Faith and Theology. Again, I don’t do “links”, but if you go to the website’s sidebar under “Popular Posts” you will find a series that I’ve done on certain “propositions”: it’s in there.


Admin note: Link added


Richard 12.08.06 at 11:51 pm

Playful? of course. It doesn’t do to take blogging too seriously. But while I was playful, i was also being serious. Of course I’m aware of the Chicago Statement. I find it entirely unhelpful. ‘Infallible’ is not a difficult word to understand, and it has a very natural meaning. Show me in the Bible where it claims infallibility, or anything like it, for itself.

I’m glad that you accept that the UCCF statement doesn’t say all that needs saying about the death of Christ, Dave, but I’m afraid that many Christians come theough CU believing that ’substitutionary’ theory is the only way of understanding the Passion of Jesus, which is an offense both to scripture and to the Tradition of the church.

I’d like a conversation about”doing” in relation to salvation, Kim. But not tonight! I’m not sure of the origin of the phrase “casting nasturtiums” — except that it is a playful (that word again) deliberate substitution of the name of the plant for the more usual “aspersions”.


alice 12.09.06 at 12:04 am

Kim, it’s a corruption in common usage of “casting aspersions”… look that one up!! “Asperge” is to sprinkle; “aspersion” - calumny, slander. Shakespeare used it as both: a sprinkling of slanders! Sometimes even “sprinkling with holy water” in rc contexts. Nasturtium is, yes, a bright trailing flower - ornamental, but edible (quite peppery, a bit like rocket, sometimes in salads); and i tend to malapropism, and therefore find it far too easy to substitute the flower for the slur (friendlier that way too!)


James Church 12.09.06 at 1:52 am

Kim and Richard, quit whining about what the statement doesn’t say- you are here to level your objections to what it does say surely (as no one believes that the statement as everything the bible has to say about everything)- three suggestions:

1. an inerrant text in no way promises the inerrancy of the interpreter
2. discussion about intent is unhelpful- as we all have different intentions
3. you can believe in inerrancy without holding a modernist understanding of epistemology


Richard 12.09.06 at 9:00 am

Who’s whining? I was attempting to answer a question that had been raised. You can keep your nasturtiums in their flowerbed. On your specific points:

1. Of course it does. An inerrant text without an inerrant reader leaves us with a Bible that’s as theoretical as that mythical “Bible as orginally given”.

2. The intent of the db is explicitly stated. It is to be “the basis of the fellowship”. By all means disagree with my objecting to that. But I do object to it.

3. You wouldn’t care to explain how, would you?

Let me give one simple example of why I suggest words such as ‘infallible’ and ‘inerrant’ are very unhelpful in relation to the Bible. Nark 2:26 reads; “He went into the house of God (during the days when Abiathar was High Priest), ate the shewbread reserved for the priests and gave some to his companions.” (Jesus is talking about KIng David.
There are 2 inaccuracies. First, there was no ‘High Priest’ in the time of David. This office came later. Second, in the story that’s referred to (1 Sam 21:1-6), the priest is not Abiathar but Ahimelech. It’s a simple mistake and makes no difference to anyone much. But there it is. (I know, determined inerrantists try to claim that Abiathar and Ahimelech were both names of father and son. This is a minor example of making ‘the text jump through hoops’ that I mentioned above. If you look at the parallels of this verse in Luke and Matthew (matt 12:4 & Lk 6:4) the mistakes are removed.

I look to the Bible as “the supreme rule of faith and practice”. But to force inerrancy upon it is simply wrong. Once again: show me in the scriptures where inerrancy is claimed.


Dave Warnock 12.09.06 at 9:16 am


Equally consider these

1. Many Christians do not interpret the Bible as claiming inerrancy. Indeed we find such claims very troubling.

2. Given we all have different intentions then mandating a very specific declaration which fixes elements (such as exactly how atonement works) about which the Christian Church is not of one mind is unhelpful.

3. You can be an Evangelical without being a believer in inerrancy (the Evangelical Alliance statement does not require inerrancy, it is also less specific on the function of the cross).

Now I might accept your 3 as allowing shades of opinion with Evangelicals who believe in inerrancy. However, they do not support the shades of option within the wider Evangelical community, nor within the wider Christian Church.


Dave Warnock 12.09.06 at 9:25 am

Dave Williams,

“The meetings in that respect are not debates -they are teaching events”

This is distinction I have never understood:

1. How can it work? Why can I only teach you if I agree with you, in which case what can I teach you and how can I challenge you. How could you describe a lecture by someone like Rowan Williams as including no teaching.

2. Why is it needed? What are you protecting people from?

3. How can it be effective? Unless you believe in brain washing how is protecting people from different view points going to help them in a world where they will be challenged on all sides.

4. How is it effective in helping people beyond university? It has not taught them how to function in a Christian community with shades of opinion. That will be the case in most churches, particularly when they are made up of a wider age range and education experience.



Kim 12.09.06 at 9:52 am

Hey, James, you should read before you type: Why the “Kim and Richard”? I haven’t said anything here about the UCCF’s statement on atonement. But if you insist . . .

First, there is no need to cast nasturtiums about “whinning” (unless they’re the flowers). Nobody is whinning. At least not yet!

Second - now that you mention it, regarding objecting to what the UCCF statement doesn’t say: of course that is a relevant point: sins of omission can be just as heinous as sins of commission. Nor is “intention” irrelevant (ironic that you should align yourself here with literary postmodernism), unless it is irretrievable. And in this case it is not. The intention of the statement is evident: to make penal substitution the controlling metaphor of the atonement, not to mention a badge of orthodoxy. And it is not the one and should not be the other. But that is cetainly the way it goes on the CU ground.

Third, your point about inerrancy is (again, ironically) absolutely right - which is precisely why inerrancy is, practically, an otiose doctrine: “correct” readings are never guaranteed, interpretation is always provisional, there is never any closure. And - I should have added above - not only because sin is an epistemological as well as a moral matter, but because of the crucial importance of the Holy Spirit in the practice of reading - and the Holy Spirit is Lord, not a yes-person who simply confirms our pre-judices. Of course you don’t need a theory to see that this is the case - all you’ve got to do is to look at the plethora of interpretations, sometimes around very important texts, and the fissiparousness of non-mainline conservative evangelical churches based on this confusion of tongues. And speaking of theory, there lies another important point: inerrancy is a theory which is not derived from the Bible but is imposed on the Bible. And as Stanley Hauerwas said in another context, “If you need a theory, worship the fucking theory.” Which, alas is what some folk seem to do.

And fourth - regarding your denial of Pam’s point - I have yet to see an inerrantist who doesn’t elide meaning with reference in a way that could survive the fires of post-critical thought, even realist post-critical thought, let alone the critiques of philosophers as different as Wittgenstein and Derrida.


dave williams 12.09.06 at 10:00 am


I don’t think it was whining -but I do feel there is a point in getting to the nub of what tthe problem is with the wording as it exists. Part of the problem might be that you get confused with those who have been attacking a PSA paper tiger -as in lets pretend it’s something mean and nasty and attack it.

Secondly, I think you know well the infallibility argument -Scripture is God breathed (2Tim 3:16, 2 Peter 1:21) -the character of God is that he tells the truth and -does not lie -that is consistent.

Thirdly -so the word infallible doesn’t appear in the Bible -nor does the word “Trinity” The question then is how does the Bible present itself -and it presents itself as the truth, perfect and pure (see Psalm 12:6, 119:96, Proverbs 30:5)

Fourthly -we agree that the Bible is authoritive -in what sense then is it authority? If we sit in judgement on its truthfulness then we are claiming to have authority over it. Note that even the Catholic view does not claim that -it puts the Church between Scripture and the individual as interpreter and it puts oral tradition alongside it -but it is not free to come up with new alternative truths that contradict it.

Fifthly -given the consistant acceptance by people in the Bible and since then through the Church that the Bible is reliable and true, the onus is then on people to say where it is not true. It seems to me that the areas usually targeted are where it claims something miraculous, where it appears to say something that current, popular scientific theory disagrees with, or where it says something that archeologists haven’t yet got data for. It seems at those times that

a. Either the anti -infallability camp are expecting to read the Bible in quite a wooden way -so for example, the possibility that God could inspire a play on the Babylonian creation myths -and that not be true (presumanbly Jesus parables that tell the history of Israel are untrue as well when they fail to supply the correct number of prophets etc)
b. and/or there is a slightly over heavy trust in what the scientific community pronouce, ignoring the fact that they are not uniform in their views and that they change their mind from time to time -they too are interpreting data.

I am not sure why you say that the 1Samuel example is a good one. Firstly there is a role that Aaron takes on that is the High Priestly role -so why do you say this role did not exist in the time of David. If the other NT writers had considered Mark in error -and had not considered God’s word infallible then they would have corrected it. Abiathar were around at the same time. Jesus doesn’t here say that David went to Abiathar but rather that he went in his time. The point is that Abiathar is there in the next chapter he is the significant character of the story of David -whereas Ahimelech is in effect only the bit player. So we may have a question about why Jesus refers to the one rather than the other which I think is answered by the point that he locates the event by the major players rather than the bit part players in the story -but we don’t have an error here.

By the way -it is interesting that we have stepped over into the inerrancy debate -which is not the word UCCF use -and is the one that receives the most objection as the tighter definition of without error.


dave williams 12.09.06 at 10:02 am

Oh crumbs -if we are arguing on the basis of Derrida then….we might as well give up now!


Kim 12.09.06 at 10:04 am

Regarding Dave Warnock’s last comment, damn, I meant to say that myself! Thanks, Dave. The notion that teaching can proceed without debate - unless we’re talking about a lecture with no possibility of subsequent questions - is positively Soviet. Responsibility? It is the height of theological irresponsibility. Imagine if the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) were constituted on such a basis (”Now listen up, Paul”) - we wouldn’t be here!


dave williams 12.09.06 at 10:05 am

By the way folks. The UCCF statement does not require inerrancy either!


dave williams 12.09.06 at 10:09 am


Come on -of course there is room for debate and discussion within teaching -but you and I both know that there is a huge difference between debating and discussing with the teacher who is on the same page as you and going to debate with someone who is not. And of course you can learn from the latter! But presumably you acknowledge a pastoral role that includes caring for, protecting from error etc.

The Jerusalem Council is such a poor example for your argument because I’ve not said that there is no place for discussion -just that there is a place for teaching that is different from that. And essentially the UCCF point is that those who come will come to teach Scripture -not to attack it.


Kim 12.09.06 at 10:18 am

Dave Williams.

Surely you are aware that many contemporary theologians - and not all in one stable - have found Derrida to be at least a worthy conversation partner and even a thinker whose work bears theological fruit. In any case, Derrida is but one voice in a whole chorus which has rendered naive realism (Pam’s “objective facticity”) completley untenable.


Richard 12.09.06 at 10:46 am

I didn’t introduce ‘inerrant’ dave. I stuck with the UCCF’s ‘infallible’. Mind you, I’m not convinced that the two terms are not synonymous to all intents and purposes.

Of course there is a pastoral duty to protect from error. But we are talking about university campuses here. Places of learning. Institutions where ideas are wrestled with. It just appalls me that our brightest young people are being encouraged to disengage their intellects when it comes to their faith. And, trust me, they are.

I chose the 1 Sam/ Mark 2 example specifically because it is, despite what you say, a clear example of a very simple mistake. To make it anything other than that you have to go beyond the plain meaning of what Mark 2 says, that the incident of the shewbread happened when Abiathar was high priest. I suggest that Matthew and Luke’s correction is good evidence of this. I accept that you don’t accept this, and that’s fine. I’ll live.


Pam 12.09.06 at 10:54 am

3. you can believe in inerrancy without holding a modernist understanding of epistemology

Yes, one can. But it seems to me that to be the sort of “campainging inerrantist” who de-churches other Christians for not believing the bible to be inerrant requires a particular kind of epistemology - label it what you will (but I think that stems from modernist ways of seeing truth, and I doubt any of us can be totally free of modernist epistemology, no matter how hard we try).

Why are those who hold this view always so darn certain that non-inerrantists are not “real Christians”?


Pam 12.09.06 at 11:05 am

The notion that teaching can proceed without debate - unless we’re talking about a lecture with no possibility of subsequent questions - is positively Soviet.

One thing that I never understood as a child, a teenager, and an adult was that inerrantists would always say “Feel free to ask any questions you like, no questions are off-limits”.

Then I’d start asking questions and after only just a little while, people would start getting angry. It was only as an adult, on an internet newsgroup, that I realised that one is not supposed to ask the questions: “Why do you believe that?” “Isn’t there an inconsistency there?”. One is supposed to ask the question “What is the right answer to my question?” Then one is supposed to accept the answer and keep quiet.

If one’s model of teaching is that the teacher has the right answers and will fill up the buckets of compliant students then of course the teacher must be 100% “sound” and have all the right answers. It’s a religious system where leaders dare not be wrong (and most followers should try hard not to get things wrong).


Richard 12.09.06 at 11:11 am

Oh — and if you “didn’t think it was whining”, why invite me to “quit whining”? I’m a simple fellow, an it helps me when people say what they mean.


dave williams 12.09.06 at 5:46 pm


I wasn’t the one who used the whinin g phrase.

Kim, I’m very aware that some people are going down the foolish path of using Derrida as “a conversation partner.” Just typical of theologians to be all excited about the guy just as those in linguistics and literature are recovering from his nonsense.


Richard 12.09.06 at 6:46 pm

My apologies.


Kim 12.09.06 at 7:46 pm

Hi Dave.

As long as you know that these “some” people aren’t just “any” people, they are signifcant thinkers in their own right - people like Rowan William, Graham Ward, Kevin Hart, John Milbank, et. al. And this isn’t just to drop names, it’s to say that if you really think such theologians are also talking “nonsense” - then I guess that you must think that I talk nonsense too! Which is fair enough.

But might I persuade you to try a new book of James K. A. Smith, the American Reformed theologian who is sympathetic to Radical Orthodoxy (or is that another no-no, even as a “conversation partner”?), Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (2006). Keep your friends close - but your enemies closer.


dave williams 12.09.06 at 10:38 pm


I’ll put it on my to do list!



James Church 12.10.06 at 10:26 pm

ok, the whining comment may have been below the belt but i will argue that inerrancy in no way presumes the inerrancy of the interpreter (and i am aware that there are christians who do not accept inerrancy- even evangelical christians… i may be one), you can hold a postmodern understanding of epistemology and still believe in biblical inerrancy.

1. inerrancy: just because a christian may believe that the bible is inerrant doesn’t ensure that the interpreter will be inerrant. our own desires and inadequacies cloud our vision- we do not read as God intends, although used in the perfect will of the Father scripture may be inerrant. indeed many christians have come to this conlusion because they have found to many so called ‘mistakes’ in scripture have been later explained- therefore they see a commitment to believing in the inerrancy of scripture as a commitment to endevouring to understand how scripture functioned in its historical context. in other words- they are saying the bible is without error but our understanding of the text in context and our application of the scripture does contain errors (surely, that keeps us humble when we come to the text) - the text inerrantists appeal to is 2 timothy 3:16 - yes the word ‘god-breathed’ is open to interpretation no it does not say inerrant but there is surely room for such interpretation in a ‘generous orthodoxy’ (someone quoted Frei earlier).

a case study:

as Jesus approached Jericho a man was sitting by the roadside begging (Luke 18:35)

as Jesus was leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him
(Matthew 20:29)

clearly, this appears to be the same story the healing of the blind man but hang on a minute it says Jesus leaving and approaching Jericho - surely there must be some mistake. certainly many people had thought so but not so, why? because there were two Jerichos (the ruins of Jericho just outside the city itself). you see inerrantists can look to human folly and argue that a commitment to the inerrancy of scripture is a commitment to further study and the search for greater clarity (also richard - i think inerrant is less offensive than infallible as i think infallible suggests that scriture can never deceive but in the wrong hands it can most certainly be used to deceive - i.e. the south africans who used scripture to justify aparthied).

2. having written all that i’m not sure if there is that much to say about this- you can see why some people claim inerrancy pretty much based on a postmodern understanding of epistemology (because we do not have direct access to the reality through words but only to constructions and because some language is local and situated and not totalizing) - because the reality of scripture and its truth is often only understood when it is experienced in our lives (hence, abstract discussions like this may not be very helpful and our evangelism is often unsuccessful).

note: kim, i think derrida and european postmoderns in general are better than the yale school as they tend to unsettle the text and read against the received ‘grain’ for serious social or theological reasons, where the americans seem to be playful for the sake of being playful (part of a pretence to being agendaless perhaps?).

also note: pam, i’m not de-churching other christians, nor am i justifying everything that comes out of uccf, nor am i campainging for inerrancy, but i do think uccf have a right to hold their particular beliefs and to exist as a ‘plausibility’ group that affirms certain truths.


James Church 12.10.06 at 10:41 pm

and dave is right: there is a place for discussion but to argue that it is within the broad context of uccf meetings and gatherings is wrong

and richard i hope that you are not saying that either dave or myself are afraid of engaging intellectually?

nor do i think it neccessary for all christians to ask themselves the questions we have been debating (or nothing would ever get done)- and i believe most people here have had some sort of theological training. plus, surely the postmodern turn away from liberal modernist epistemological questions towards questions of hermenutics and interpretation is a welcome a timely change.


Richard 12.10.06 at 11:48 pm

James - I don’t have a problem with anyone holding an inerrantist view of scripture. It in no way prevents me being in fellowship with them, breaking bread with them, acknowledging them as brothers and sisters in Christ. Put a mug of coffee and a slab of cake in my hand (or a pint and a cheese roll) and I’ll argue the toss for sure — I just enjoy an argument — but it will be a family discussion. My problem is that I’m sorry to say that in my experience of UCCF campus groups (25 years now, on and off!) is that students do seem to be encouraged by their leaders (within UCCF and the local churches that support them) to ‘unchurch’ those who are unwilling or unable to sign the doctrinal basis.

On the campus where I minister, the chaplains consistently and continually offer friendship to the CU group. If anything is requested we will always do our best to help. I’m not complaining, because that is exactly as it should be. I just can’t help noticing that this is not reciprocated. I could give many examples from every campus I’ve ever been on: those Christians who don’t sign up to the db are treated as sub-standard and, if in leadership, actively dangerous. I’m not trying to pin this on you, but I do ask you to accept that it has been my painful experience.
Similarly, of course I’m not suggesting that you are afraid of engaging intellectually. But I have met too many Christian students in all kinds of disciplines who tell me that there studies have no ‘interface’ with their faith to believe that this is not an attitude (maybe unconciously) encouraged within CU. And I do find that tragic.


dave williams 12.11.06 at 1:45 pm


I can assure you that the idea that studies should not interface with faith is certainly not an Evangelical or a UCCF position. I do know that there are plenty of Christians who run from such discussion. In Evangelicalism that can be seen in a retreat to “God, me and the Bible, a simple faith” -it’s a distortion of the evangelical position -but we humans end up with distortions all the time. I see it as well in a liberalism that hides behind a “reason” that in fact is not reason at all but simply the current popular ethic and avoids letting Scripure speak to us because we are too busy speaking to it. No doubt you will have seen versions of both.

Certainly the UCCF approach can be seen in its publications such as Themelios and From Athens to Jerusalem. You can see it in the work of previous RTSF co-ordinator Dan Strange now Tutor in Public Theology at Oak Hill with a strong emphasis on engaging in and interacting with the culture. You can see the approach of conservatives from Frame back to Schaeffer who have been influential on the CU movement as well. You can see it in Sheffield’s CU winning a recent award.

On the other hand I do know that some people have “shut down” as far as their subjects go -it’s easier than the sarcasm and general nastiness from lecturers and teachers who start back in Junior school abusing their position to mock and isolate Christians with a different worldview to theirs.


James Church 12.12.06 at 12:42 pm


the same could be said of some more liberal organisations that are intolerant evangelicals often hiding behind imprecise language (throwing words like “fundamentalist” around) – it is the right of uccf as an organisation to set up the parameters under which discussions take place within its meetings.

in no way do i condone unchurching other christians, though i find it surprising that you complain about uccf warning of the dangers of those without a commitment say to the inerrancy of scripture whilst you are warning of the dangers within their organisation (which must surely reflect back upon their leadership). also, you have spoken much about intention but i no longer see your fundamental issues with the uccf doctrinal statement.

you have failed to convince me that you are not committed to the inerrancy (or infallibility) of scripture- albeit correctly understood. surely, you could sign this agreement understanding it in its broadest sense? think of the good you would be doing by bringing a broader perspective to the cus, and though i am not naïve enough to assume you will be welcomed with open arms i am sure that your persistence, willingness to listen, and readiness to support the work of uccf will win your critics over. on the other hand may be your role is else where within the university context and if so i suggest you don’t try to change uccf by undermining them or encouraging the unwise student union action against them (this will do nothing for christian unity, it may result in funds being suspended and uccf being restricted from using student union facilities but it will not change hearts and minds).

just some quick thoughts-


John Cooper 12.12.06 at 3:18 pm

A fascinating discussion really. As someone who has sat and watched all this happen, just a few months after being a society sabbatical officer it has provided mute pause for reflection.

Two or three things

1) The main reason this is an issue at all is that the name is Christian Union yet it is a specific type of christian that is embraced by the statement - all others are rejected. This has been many peoples experience around the country and that rot needs to stop now. Either that or all need to take (and insert) the word evangelical… before the words Christian Union. That clears up one of the problems.

2) How does the issues of the accuracy of the Bible sit square with the fact we are reading a book in English that was often a transcribe of oral tradition into a language which was read outside the country is was written, as was the case with some books. Or is that bridge crossed by claiming all translators were God inspired? I am intreigued and fascinated.

3) No one group on campus can present the “true” way as all have failings, yet when one claims to be the true (as the title suggests) greater scrutiny is required. The doctrinal statement is not a paper tiger, indeed it is the opposite. All statements by societies are ways of guaging what the belive in and what their aims are. Therefore it is a paper tiger to claim they are an irrelevance (as was inferred at some points during the discussion)!



Lucy Huber 12.12.06 at 7:41 pm

First of all greetings to everyone, especially to Richard and Kim who I know through Chaplaincy.
I’d just like to add my take on some of the things discussed, and add a few personal experiences.
(and just so everyone knows, i’m no theologian, i’m a law student!)

(Dave Williams Dec 9th):
“Secondly, I think you know well the infallibility argument -Scripture is God breathed (2Tim 3:16, 2 Peter 1:21) -the character of God is that he tells the truth and -does not lie -that is consistent.”

This quote stood out for me. In my very humble and probably ignorant view, I’ve never once considered that the Bible is infallible. In fact, as useful and valuable as it is to us, I think it would be very blinkered to believe that, (although I can understand why some Christians would wish to).
I’ve had a very mixed Christian upbringing, from birth I attended a Methodist Church (and still do), from 12 I attended a Brethren-run (Gospel Hall) bible study youth group (and still do), I’ve attended many Anglican services, I’ve attended out-reach events by various Evangelical Churches back home, and for a short time in my first year at uni attended the evening services of a VERY Evangelical Church, with my previous boyfriend. So I feel I have enlarged my experience of different forms of worship and different views of the faith. So please bear that in mind when reading my next statement:

My previous boyfriend was very heavily involved with the CU at this uni (which Richard and Kim have dealings with now) and encouraged me to go along to their meetings, and being an open-minded person, I did so. I have never questioned my reasons for being a part of the Christian faith so much as I did after those meetings - and not in a way which reflects well on them. When I told them I was a committed Methodist, most of them turned their backs on me, and when I said I didn’t agree with their view that the Bible was ‘infallible’ and that ‘God-breathed’ meant something different, I heard mutterings about me not being a true Christian, and even of possibly being possessed by a demon. I speak the truth. I’m still quite angry over this, and as far as i’m concerned, I have good reason to be.

I could go on about unpleasant experiences I have been put through by this particular CU, and I’m sure they’re not all the same, but I have to say that I hold the same views over the UCCF db that Richard expresses at the beginning of this debate. Completely independently I gave a similar response to members of the CU when I was invited to sign it.

As far as I’m concerned, I interpret the Bible rather in a similar way that Judges in the UK interpret and apply the law. It’s a very comprehensive and important set of guidelines and a valuable record of Jesus life etc (obviously there’s more to it than that!), but it should be looked at as having a profoundly good and ‘God-breathed’ purpose, but that the actual words and phrases used, in all translations, need to be analysed to discover that true purpose, and not to take it simply at face value as saying such-and-such, being ‘God-breathed’ and therefore must mean that exact thing. Many people talk about the Bible with such reverence as if it were actually written by the hand of God himself. It wasn’t (and I’m sorry if that offends some people), it was written over many centuries by many people who all considered different things as being worthy of recording - hence the contradictions found and the differing accounts of events. Yes those people’s purpose in writing it down was God-breathed, but their actual ink on the paper and the actual words they chose to express it wasn’t. It’s like when students are taking notes in lectures, they’re not attempting to write word for word, often you listen to the whole sentence then put in down in your own words, but the meaning is the same.

*rant over*

(John Cooper 12th Dec)
“The main reason this is an issue at all is that the name is Christian Union yet it is a specific type of christian that is embraced by the statement - all others are rejected. This has been many peoples experience around the country and that rot needs to stop now. Either that or all need to take (and insert) the word evangelical… before the words Christian Union.”

- precisely, and I’m one of those people whose experience corresponds with that!



Chris Stacey 12.12.06 at 9:21 pm

Having followed this discussion for a little while, I thought I’d throw in my 2 centimes worth. First a little bias declaration - i’ve been involved in SCM at campus and national level as a student and would never feel able to sign the UCCF doctrinal basis.

I’d like to add the experiences of Richard, Kim and others of CUs as not only exclusive in their membership but dismissive of the faith of others who do not share their version of christianity. CUs are often the biggest obstacles to any form of christian unity on campuses (from stories shared by fellow SCMers accross the UK). Before this gets jumped on as a liberal denouncing obstructive conservatives: 1)many of the people i’m talking about are far from being typical liberal SCMers, many just prefer the forum provided by SCM for discussion rather than ‘teaching’ and 2)it appears to be a problem specific to CUs - other evangelical groups are easier to work with and engage with their christian brothers and sisters.

The very existence of this discussion shows that it is possible to dispute the doctrinal basis and to mount an intelligent critique of certain elements of it while remaining a committed christian. (I’d happily join in this dispute of the finer points of inerrancy/infallibility for days, given a large enough mug of tea) This is at odds with the image portrayed by CUs up and down the country, that the CU is The Christian Union - i.e. Student Christianity is represented by us. This often leads to it being the only recognised student voice of christianity (outside of chaplaincy).

In response to James’s latest post - and not wanting to pre-empt Richard’s response! - i’d say you’ve missed the point. At the end of the day people will disagree with the letter and spirit of the doctrinal basis. A chaplain who doesn’t really agree with it, in the sense it is understood by many, signing it would actually be a destructive step. Being able to find a way to technically agree with it is different from signing it as a declaration and affirmation of your faith - it would destroy their credibility with both those involved in the CU and those who are unwilling to sign it.

In response to John’s post and the current debates surrounding renaming of CUs, I have to say I’m less than comfortable with the an enforced name change or the accuracy of the proposed addition of Evangelical. Having said that, i think it would act as an appropriate counter-measure to the asumed monopoly of CUs.

Though I disagree with elements of the the doctrinal basis, I would welcome the chance to work with the CUs i come into contact with. Until they feel able to recognise and respect me as an equal christian, that is hard to do with any integrity. Whatever UCCF’s position, this is the reality experienced by many christian students accross the country.



Richard 12.12.06 at 11:57 pm

John, Lucy & Chris - I’m particularly grateful for your contributions to this conversation because they offer current experience from a broad range of UK campuses. I get no pleasure from recognizing that your experience echoes mine both as a student and now as a chaplain, but it does.
The simple fact is that many committed Christians do find themselves ‘unchurched’ by their campus CU or equivalent. I wouldn’t want to say that this is inteentional, except that the doctrinal basis does declare itself to be he basis of *fellowship*. This ought to be a serious issue for UCCF. If any of UCCF’s leadership should read this conversation, I’d be glad to hear their reaction to these painful experiences of students past and present finding themselves ‘cast out’.

James - if you can’t see what my problem with the doctrinal basis is, i obviously haven’t expressed myself very clearly. I’m glad you think I could sign it, but I couldn’t with any integrity. I have a pretty good grasp of what the words ‘infallible’ and ‘inerrant’ mean. they aren’t difficult words to understand. If you’re saying to me that UCCF has defined the words so that the doctrinal basis means something other than it appears to mean, I would urge them to express it in clearer language. The Plain English Campaign would no doubt be pleased to help. The Bible is extremely important to me. Much too important for me to sign declarations about it with my fingers crossed. That really would be bad form.

Dave - Once again, i’m not in any way suggesting that ‘evangelical”=’anti-intellectual’. And you may be right that the main UCCF meeting is for teaching rather than debate. I could live with that, were it not for the fact that the refusal of fellowship is not confined to the meeting itself. Just to repeat myself, the chaplaincy where I serve now continues (and will continue) to offer support to our campus CU by freely sharing all the resources we have available. But I’m sorry to say that this has rarely been reciprocated in the 8 yrs I have been here, and never in the last 2 or 3 years that I can recall. Whether it is invitaions to share in worship, join together in fellowship or a request for some little practical help, such invitations are aways turned away. I don’t take it personally, and i continue to offer my hand, but I see no sign of it being taken.

Incidentally, I do understand why students would not engage their lecturers in conversation about faith. But when, for example, I hear a student who is reading philosophy tell someone that his studies have no bearing on his faith, I am brought close to despair.


James Church 12.13.06 at 12:07 am

I’m sorry to say Chris, that you have missed the point- this discussion thread started off as a critique of UCCF doctrinal basis but when people failed to show how the UCCF statement is fundamentally wrong people started to complain about the behaviour and practice within CUs (and I sympathise with your experiences but that is not something inherently wrong about the doctrinal basis)!

Moreover, similar complaints can be mounted against SCMers - who have in the past told friends of mine God does not intervene in creation, prayer is connecting us with our true self, christians should not engage in evangelism, reading your horoscope and getting your palm read is fine (all of which I contend are harmful to the church and also to the individual).

Lucy, if you have read my posts on inerrancy and the postmodern epistemological approach to the scripture- you may find some of the answers to your questions there (my definition of postmodern epistemological understanding is taken from Polkinhorne just incase some of you are interested in the source). As for your personal experience I would put it down to a lack of evangelical teaching on discernment (but that certainly doesn’t excuse it).

Let me say it again I am not discounting your personal experiences- I just think your issues are not with the doctrinal statement but with your experiences of the CUs.


John Cooper 12.13.06 at 12:59 am

“In response to John’s post and the current debates surrounding renaming of CUs, I have to say I’m less than comfortable with the an enforced name change or the accuracy of the proposed addition of Evangelical. Having said that, i think it would act as an appropriate counter-measure to the asumed monopoly of CUs.”

I was not saying a forced change (ie from outside sources) was required but more that the doctrinal statement was from such a particular viewpoint that it needs to recognise what it is and not claim to be anything else. Why then does the evangelical alliance feel the need to call it’self such when it could just call it’self the Christian Alliance?

James Church, most dissapointed you didn’t comment on anything I have said. I think the point being made by some of those writing comments (and this is how I have read it) is that the doctrinal statement has caused attitutudes and actions within campuses that have had a negative impact. Therefore it was trying to link it into this statement of beliefs being the problem. Or that would be my interpritation…


Richard 12.13.06 at 7:31 am

James - John C is right. I set out a critique of the doctrinal basis. I accept that you aren’t convinced, but I don’t know what else I can say to make it clearer. Your position seems to be that, although i say I don’t accept the doctrinal basis, if only I understood it properly I’d find I do really. Which, you’ll forgive me for saying so, is patronizing nonsense.
But as I made clear, my chief objection to the doctrinal basis is the sort of behaviour in which it issues. Others have added their experiences. So what you have heard is experience from a number of different people gathered from different situations over, in my case (cos I’m old) over a long time. And your response to each is to dismiss it as an aberration.

Let me set this out as simply as I can. Even if I were to agree with every statement in the doctrinal basis, I would not sign it because it unchurches those faithful Christians who don’t feel able to commit to it. They hear their faith being dismissed as counterfeit. This is not the isolated experience of a few but, I contend, the everyday experience of young Christians on campuses up and down the UK. That alone ought to give the UCCF leadership pause.

You’ve missed a crucial distinction between the experiences descibed here and your irritation with some SCMers you have met: I doubt very strongly whether any of them would have said, for example, that if you believe God intervenes in the world or fail to read your horoscope in the newspaper then you are not a real Christian. Have they?


Chris Stacey 12.13.06 at 12:17 pm

James - “people failed to show how the UCCF statement is fundamentally wrong” - this is where your perception of what people are doing differs from mine. People are explaining how it does not reflect how they understand their faith, not saying it’s false. This is the crucial thing about a doctrinal basis, there will always be some people who don’t agree with it.

To dismiss the collective experiences of many people as somehow being not related to the db is naive. I am not so much talking about experiences of individuals attending CU meetings , as difficult as they can be, because I’d admit that individual SCMers could say things that would offend too. The difference is in the attitudes of the people who run them. Whilst individual SCMers might make statements that would be contrary to your beliefs, the leadership would appreciate them as adding to the diversity of the discussion. Richard is right that I couldn’t think of an SCMer (and I know a fair few of them!) who would suggest that those opinions were un-christian.

Contrast that with the attitudes of CU leaderships, on advice from UCCF… They often refuse to engage with chaplaincies or other student groups in any attempt to something as “united christians” and are often dismissive of other christian groups. This problem, in my opinion, stems from the doctrinal basis. It creates a limited view of christianity that only those who sign it are realchristians who can be dealt with. This is what leads to the dechurching. As much as you can argue that it shouldn’t be like that, that is the impact of the doctrinal basis on real situations.

Just before this gets dismissed as just my ‘personal experiences’ again… This comes from my knowledge of the experiences of christains accross the UK, through those i’ve met and the work of the SCM staff in supporting groups and individuals that find themselves dechurched by CUs.


kim fabricius 12.13.06 at 12:24 pm

Many thanks for the students who have have chipped in their tuppance about their personal experiences of CUs (especially Lucy and Chris), which would seem to be the rule rather than the exception.

James, you miss the point with inerrant accuracy. As I have said, I myself find much of the theology that comes out of SCM often thin and sometimes abysmal, but one thing you will not find there is the experience of being unchurched. Surely you must find it disturbing, indeed outrageous, that Christians like myself, brought to faith through the literary ministry of Karl Barth, and nurtured in the faith by the likes of Rowan Williams (oops, sorry about the name-dropping again!) - but the point is that here are outstanding Nicene Christians, and yet folk who would appeal to them as mentors find themselves excommunicated (I do not use the word lightly) by self-appointed conservative evangelical ecclesiastical border guards.

We could debate many things about NT theology, but the ecumenical imperative is absolutely crystal; yet, I’m afraid, it is more honoured in the breach than the observance by too many CUs to make their apologists easily say their prayers at night that we may be one. Breaking fellowship with other Christians on the grounds of anything but clear and obdurate heresy is a grave sin, otherwise one should never make the first move - and certainly not with the spite and alacrity that is clearly too often the case.


Chris Stacey 12.13.06 at 2:25 pm

“I have said, I myself find much of the theology that comes out of SCM often thin and sometimes abysmal” - Kim, the first time you posted something simmilar I was intruiged, now i’d like you to explain it. I know it’s a tad off the topic being discussed… but what do you mean the theology that comes out of SCM? It’s unusual for SCM to produce anything that could be described as ‘Theology’. And for that matter would you care to expand on thin? (and i’ll ignore abysmal… cos quite frankly i’m only really interested in constructive criticism!) Sorry to sidetrack…


Kim 12.13.06 at 3:12 pm

Hi Chris.

I’m thinking of some of the kinds of stuff that James mentions in his last post as having heard coming from SCM groups (e.g. evangelism as negotiable, prayer as connecting with your “true self”, and though I’ve never heard of the horoscope and palm-reading nonsense, that would be truly beyond the pale); but, more specifically, some of the stuff in Movement coming from the stables of liberal and non-realist thought, from the likes of John Spong and Don Cupitt, whom I consider to be theological menaces: e.g. the resurrection of Jesus was “spiritual”; Nicea and Chalcedon represent the thinking of a by-gone age that we can now jetison; all religions are like tracks up a mountain merging at the top; “God” is just short-hand for the best of human values, etc. Barth called such theology “flat tyre theology” - and I agree.

Does that help? As you can see, conservative evangelicals and liberals - I say “a plague on both your houses!”


JamesC 12.13.06 at 4:28 pm

well, having written a response to Chris, Kim, and Richard my computer has just crashed- the conclusion i have come to is i do not have the time to respond to all your comments adequately.

so, let me just say i will continue to read your comments but shall not feel the need to have the ‘last word’ so to speak. and to Kim you and me are not so theologically different as i have said all along i am not defending every action of the uccf, nor am i in the habit of boarder policing the kingdom though i argue for the tolerance of more conservative groups. at the end of the day, i am not the person to separate the wheat from the chaff, to decide who is saved and who is condemned. however, i know my own beliefs and why i hold them and at times protect others from the more extreme rants of liberals like cupitt, spong, funk etc.

i see the existence of an organisation like uccf, with a docrtinal basis as an anchor, essential to clarity and ongoing ministry of the gospel in universities. that said let it be known that i in no way condone the ‘unchurching’ of christians (though i think the word christian needs definition my preference is for a slightly broader definition than the uccf doctrinal basis).


Chris Stacey 12.13.06 at 4:43 pm

I consider my house plagued, many thanks Kim.

I’d actually possibly agree with you on Cupitt, Spong and the centrality of evangelism. However, I’d disagree that they are menaces and with you and Barth that they are ‘flat tyre’ approaches. Though I would disagree with them, i’d say they were valid and coherent approaches to faith… just not correct! One of the (many?!) reasons i love SCM is that it provides the opportunity for these alternative voices to be heard. I’d distinguish them from coming ‘from’ SCM, it is presented to SCMers as something to think about. This intelectual challenge to student christians can only enrich their faith. It’s the approach of treating students like adults, able to read and disagree with differing approaches to faith, gaining strangth in our own faith by knowing what we cannot agree with.

This would be my approach to exploring faith as a student and perhaps goes some way to explaining why any attempt to limit the frame of what can be discussed as christian (i.e. a doctrinal basis) makes me uncomfortable. Thanks again Kim for explaining your one-liners!


Kim 12.13.06 at 7:28 pm

God, do I HATE it when you type a post and then it xxxxxxx disappears down a blog hole!

So briefly:

Spong et. al., despite our disagreements, would always be welcome at my - and, I’m sure, the Lord’s - table. (Indeed I once spent several days with Spong - great gut, great company.)

On most ethical issues, including human sexuality, you couldn’t get a hair between my views and those of Spong et. al. - but we get there via very different routes.

I wish conservative evangelicals would take the NT more liteally when it comnes to ecumenism - and pacifism - and the two, in my view, are inextricably connected.

Finally, if theological discussion isn’t free, then it isn’t theological discussion.

Got to run - Coronation Street is on - an ethicist’s dream!


Kim 12.13.06 at 7:30 pm

Ooops - Spong does have a great “gut” - but I meant “guy”! Sorry about the typos.


George Quin 03.02.10 at 1:00 am

Thanks for your article Richard, very thought provoking and written in a way that cannot be seen as destructive in anyway. I have similar reservations about the document, and given the fact that incoming speakers have to sign it, it also only allows speakers that UCCF want to speak rather than having a wide range of speakers who are just as sound but may give a healthily different perspective


Tom 05.25.11 at 4:27 pm

I spent three years in a University Christian Union which was heavily influenced and overseen by the UCCF. I’m sad to testify that Richard’s article is an accurate and wholly fair assessment of what life under the UCCF is really like. Their heavy-handed approach turned away non-believers and believers alike at the time and has left me with many problems and doubts in my own Christian walk. The real tragedy is that I’m sure UCCF would be grieved to hear me say this. They do not mean to alienate people.

Aside from the age-old theological issues raised by Richard, I found the following paragraph particularly insightful:

‘(The doctrinal basis) 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.’

Richard is spot on. In my Christian Union, the doctrinal basis was used to exclude genuine Christians with genuine doubts and elevate the more forthright, self-consciously ‘sound’ believers. I happen to agree with the basis and signed it myself but I fully acknowledge that it represents a very narrow stripe on the whole Christian spectrum. In short, the doctrinal basis, when not used simply as a guide, can be about control. It can be and often is used to pressurise young Christians into conservative evangelicalism.


Richard 05.25.11 at 6:06 pm

Thanks for your comment, Tom.

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