University College London (UCL) has two Christian societies, namely the main Christian Union (CU) and the Christian Medics (CM) group. Historically, we have worked closely together to bring people to Christ, with the CU catering for most students and CM having a more medical flavour. We hope that this testimony is of some use and encouragement to other CU and CM groups!
Into hot water
Our CU is affiliated to the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF). We held a mission in January 2004, when UCCF gave us plenty of ‘Life’ gospels (John’s Gospel with helpful notes for non-believers). As the booklets were given to us for free, CM tried to donate an appropriate amount back to UCCF to thank them, plus any costs they incurred. After the mission, an article in Pi, the university student magazine heavily criticised the CU and CM for misappropriating funds from the student union’s bank account: this presumably referred to our attempted donation to UCCF. It also summarised the groups as intolerant and ‘fundamentalists spreading bad vibes among UCL’s diverse populace’.
The writer of this letter appeared to have had bad experiences with Christians, and has misunderstood the message of the gospel, as well as our financial affairs. A membership fee gives us most of the money we have; the medics’ group have also had generous donations from former RUMS graduates, though all money must be kept in the student union’s bank account according to the rules for societies at UCL. The money we attempted to donate to UCCF was not student union money, but rather our own funds.
It was surprising how the opposition built up so quickly. The author of the article in Pi managed to table a motion at the student union’s annual general meeting a month later to ban all religious societies from the campus, a motion swiftly voted down by a large majority from all religious beliefs. However, the student body took the CU/CM to task on the basis of the questionable accusations regarding our finances.
In April, those determined to see off the CU and CM found technicalities that enabled them to suspend both groups on the basis of their affiliation to UCCF (an unprecedented move). As a society in the student union, it was suggested that affiliating the CU to UCCF meant affiliating the whole student union to UCCF: UCL does not permit association with any religious or political body; this was contrary to its constitution.
Suspended, but strengthened
The student union sought advice as to whether the suspension was legally sound. In the meantime, we weren’t allowed to advertise for any events, use any of the meeting rooms previously available to us, or use our funds in the student union-held account. In spite of this, UCCF and CMF supported us well spiritually; through them, we were given contacts with the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship (LCF), and they investigated the matter for us. God provided a room for us to meet: this was done through CM, who booked rooms through RUMS, as they have a different societies policy. In the final term of the year, we actually had record numbers of students attending events. We learnt to pray more over the year, and heard many encouraging reports about families, friends and even those whom we’ve never met petitioning God to help us in our predicament. While financial resources dried up, more donations began coming in so that the work of the CU and CM was not disrupted. In the end, we were informed both by LCF and the student union’s societies board that the student body had ruled illegally by suspending us, and we were immediately reinstated to our previous status as fully-fledged societies, with no effect to our UCCF affiliation.
This last year has certainly had its challenges for us; we have also learnt how essential it is to follow exactly the regulations set out by the student union, making sure that all matters, especially financial, are carefully and openly dealt with. We were reminded about Jesus’ words to his disciples just before he was betrayed:
If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.
These words of Jesus seemed more of a reality than they had been in the past; we hope that through the events at UCL, we have emerged strengthened in our relationship with God. The persecution from all quarters has made us take our faith more seriously and, repeatedly, we have come back to the Bible during this time. Certainly, God has made things work for his own end, seeing our groups increase in number and making an impact at the university.
This academic year, it would be tempting to do things differently or retaliate against the student union. However, Peter reminds us about speaking the gospel at all times, with gentleness and respect; foolish men will be silenced when we do good and submit to the authorities, in this case, the student union. While this particular difficulty is past, it is unlikely to be the last time that we face opposition. However, confident that we are in God’s hands, we plan to be even more evangelistic and open than we have been over the last twelve months!
Advice for CMF groups facing opposition from student unions
From time to time CUs and CMF groups face opposition from over-enthusiastic student unions who want to limit their activities or evangelism. This can be quite intimidating, but group leaders should know what the student union can and cannot do, so that they will be able to stand their ground and if necessary challenge unreasonable or illegal behaviour. The following is some basic advice from the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship:
- In the UK there is both freedom of expression and freedom of religion; the courts will protect these rights.
- Freedom of expression means that Christians are free to express their views on important issues; for instance, that homosexuality is a sin, abortion and euthanasia are wrong and other religions are invalid means of getting right with God.
- Language by Christian students must be moderate, but this applies to non-Christians as well (and offensive attacks on Christianity are not permitted).
- The Education Act 1986 provides that universities and colleges must allow full freedom of speech, freedom of religious speech and access to all university facilities (rooms, minibuses and noticeboards) to registered societies.
- University authorities may make reasonable arrangements for the well-running of the campus, but these must be ‘reasonable’ and ‘non-discriminatory’; if they are unreasonable, or directed against Christians, the courts would strike them down.
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom (CVCP) have advised that:
…vigorous debate is perfectly proper and acceptable and universities must therefore be tolerant of a wide range of views and opinions on social, economic, political and religious issues, however unorthodox, unpopular, uncomfortable, controversial or provocative.
This basic advice may well need clarification in specific situations. If you require further information or assistance, contact email@example.com