Bristol Christian Union – or what I like to call ‘doing it wrong’

So I was hoping not to have to get on my feminist Christian high horse again in such short order following the Church of England rant. However, after reading an article on the Bristol University Christian union’s policy to bar women from teaching or speaking at their events, the rage got so great that I have felt compelled to take to my keyboard in anger.

I will first of all outline the news story as I saw it unfold. First off, a friend sent me this HuffPo article on how Bristol University Christian Union (BUCU) had banned women from speaking at Christian meetings. I cannot account for the veracity of the internal email communication they obtained, so rather than paraphrase I will quote what I read from the article directly:

The Huffington Post UK has seen the email sent out by president Matt Oliver to all BUCU members which said: “It is ok for women to teach in any CU setting… However we understand that this is a difficult issue for some and so decided that women would not teach on their own at our weekly CU 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.”

It seems as though this is actually the communication that was sent, but I’d hate for you to think I had been the one paraphrasing and potentially misrepresenting what had been said. This is all I have to go on.

HuffPo quickly revised their initial article, stating that this ban was not new, but in fact a long standing policy. Revised article here. I’m not sure that this actually constitutes a defence of the BUCU policy, but it does (to an extent) exonerate the individual who sent the email. He was just following orders, not making them (if you think that’s much better).

Since that shitstorm was unleashed, several things have happened. The first is that BUCU have released a statement (which you can read here) ‘[deploring] the recent exaggerations and misrepresentations in some parts of the media of its position on women’s ministry in the church’. I have some sympathy with them here, because what the news media have failed to do is make a distinction between a church and a christian union, and it certainly makes them come off a lot worse than they would have anticipated. This view is backed by the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (read here). I will explain why although I still think BUCU give me rage, this distinction is very important.

A church is an organised body which by its nature has a commitment to being theologically ‘right’ (whatever their interpretation of that may be) and serving the needs of people who align themselves with that theological outlook. They have to make distinctions about things like women bishops, because a church is pretty much required to take a theological standpoint, which will in turn, directly affect how it operates. The CofE have fucked this up beyond all recognition, but we get what they were trying to do.

A Christian Union is not the same thing. It’s a glorified social club. It’s a place where people who share something like approximately the same faith, or at least would describe themselves as as Christian, can meet, discuss ideas, worship, and feel part of a community without actually being a church. It is first and foremost, a service. This means that it has to be as neutral as possible in its official policies because it caters to a diverse group of people. It is reasonable for it not to have policies on anything which is considered secondary to the key tenets of the faith, because once you do that, you start dividing and excluding people.

As I have promised to propose the defence for BUCU, I will also state that joining is not compulsory, and there is always the option if you don’t agree with its operations, not to join.

However, as the main focal point for Christian students to meet and socialise and have discussions about their faith, there may not be many alternatives that provide a similar service, so many women who feel left out by this policy may still attend an institution for its other perceived benefits – as I am sure many still do at the CofE. Shouting them down by saying ‘if you don’t like it why don’t you leave’ is not productive. Because frankly if women deferentially left everywhere they were treated as inferior we’d have to leave planet fucking earth, and it is the bosses who stay behind to change things who make the world an awesome place. Sure, pick your battles – not every perceived injustice is worth your precious time and energy – but telling people to leave doesn’t improve anything.

And this is what I think is the essential problem. BUCU have had this policy for a long time in the name of not causing offence, or upsetting those misguided individuals who really believe God made women in his own image only to be second class – an afterthought. They haven’t tried to produce an effective solution or improve the agreement that have that fundamentally doesn’t work – they’ve just placed a blanket ban on women speaking for themselves. Allowing them to talk only with their husband is not a compromise – it’s an insult. It cements the idea (whether they meant it or not) that women require the permission and authority of a man for their words to be acceptable and worthwhile. In trying to produce a policy to cause least offence, BUCU has hamfistedly catered to the needs of the few and sacrificed the rights of the many.

Imagine you are a woman whose religious beliefs are that you are an equal in Christ as it SAYS IN THE BIBLE (Galatians 3:28). Have your beliefs been catered to? No. You have been met with the same kind of opposition you will find to a lesser or greater extent everywhere else in your life. You’re good enough to help out, maybe be treasurer or something – but not good enough to lead. If women were allowed to speak – as they are by the overarching Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, then those who didn’t like it can either provide some sound theological reasoning that makes it a discussion not a dictatorship, or choose to attend meetings where men speak. Excluding women is not, and never was the answer. In fact, to state that they have an attitude of tolerance to ANY Christian background rightfully should involve allowing women to speak, and equally tolerate that some Christian groups may not wish to attend.

So BUCU have now released a statement saying that women will be permitted to speak on all occasions (they haven’t said if this will be with or without their husbands – let’s hope there are no lesbians in BUCU) but the fact that it took being reported on international news sites for them to decide that what they were doing was wrong doesn’t suggest a healthy change – they’ve just been forced.

I am not afraid of any misogynist ‘Christian’ who thinks he is better than me. In fact, I am not afraid of any arsehole who thinks that possession of a penis represents a god-given right to superiority. I just don’t understand why Christian organisations have this fear of offending these inherently offensive people. The only way forward is to stop acting like the submissive little wifeys these people seem to want us to be and start raising hell. Whatever its intentions BUCU has been actively promoting the idea that women don’t get a say, don’t get to speak for themselves, are nothing without a man, and are second place in the eyes of God. And they can fuck right off with their excuses about ‘inclusivity’ and start getting on with being an institution that doesn’t need to justify its poor behaviour.


Having had my suggestion of raising hell quoted on facebook by a fellow blogger I thought it was worth qualifying quite what I meant about raising hell.

1.) Start thinking. And start thinking for yourself. Things aren’t always the way they are because that is the best way – sometimes it is just the status quo, and sometimes that needs changing. The church’s attitude to leadership is one of those things that needed review. Attitudes to gay marriage and equality is another.

2.) Get educated. READ! Pretty much the sum knowledge of the human race is at your fingertips. I know this because you’re reading my blog, which is on the internet. Read the opinions of others, read the facts of the case, and start applying point 1. You could do worse than to start here for a bit of casual feminism:

3.) Decide on what you want from life. Decide on what you think constitutes an argument worth having

4.) Fight your corner. Know your principles. Listen to the opinions of others and review them where you are persuaded that’s necessary. Be brave, but not rude.

5.) Take action. Write a blog. Start pointing other people in the right directions. Sign petitions. Talk to people. Discuss ideas. Stand up for yourself.

At all times be a good human being. There’s quite a bit to be said for that.


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