Birmingham Christian Union suspended

The Times today reported that the Birmingham Guild of Students (the student union at the University of Birmingham) has suspended the college’s Christian Union because its constitution forbids non-Christians from joining. The people in charge of the CU, which “has more than 100 members who attend meetings regularly and has been functioning at the university for 76 years”, are taking legal advice. I came across this by reading of it at Harry’s Place, which gives it the rather melodramatic title “Christians Persecuted”.

The reason for the CU’s suspension is that it does not admit non-Christians as members and because they refused to make “politically correct” changes to their Constitution on religious grounds, and because the use of the words “men” and “women” could be seen as “excluding transsexual and transgendered people”. The problems arose when Christians in Sport attempted to book a room in the name of the CU, which led the Guild to examine the CU’s constitution.

Now, the CU is an evangelical Christian organisation, as its membership size might indicate. One commenter noted that Christian Unions also have a record of refusing membership to some Christians, including Catholics, and the Aston CU’s website, while it gives a list of local Protestant churches, everything from the Church of England and the Baptists and Methodists through to “New Frontiers”, the Pentecostals and “Vineyard Church”, whatever that is, but no Catholic church. (Aston is a town near Birmingham.) “Christian” is being used to mean a particular brand of Christianity, much as certain sects in Islam insist that they are “just Muslims” rather than accepting the label which is rightfully theirs. On the Christian Unions website, one might notice that they do not seem to accept any denominational label.

It’s also common for student unions to insist that affiliated societies which receive funding, including religious societies, must be open to all students, regardless of their actual religion. Some would say “fair enough”; others, including me, would disagree. I would say that some societies need to be able to restrict their membership in order to protect themselves from infiltration, and this goes for religious as well as political societies. For example, a society of any sort of activists may want to keep out hijackers (environmentalists or socialists keeping out Trotskyites, or conservatives keeping out fascists), and religious societies may want to keep out sectarians who want to distort the society’s activities to their own ends.

And as for it being “reasonable” that societies in receipt of “funding” open themselves up to all students, the question must be asked: why it this reasonable? “Funding” is nothing other than tax money: it is money from college funds which has been set aside for the union’s purposes. It is not in general raised from the fruits of students’ own work (unless the college caters entirely for mature students). The fact that some of this money will be used to fund activities some people might not like (indeed, there are some who might wonder why their tax money is funding student leisure societies at all), and while unions may have policies protecting women, gays and lesbians and the like from hurt feelings and exclusion, the fact that a religious society may choose to exclude members of other religions for reasons which would not occur to the cycling club certainly should not preclude them from having the same funding opportunities as everyone else.

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