Christian Unions at University: an account

uccfThis email was posted to me a couple of days ago and, with the author’s permission, I have included it on the blog together with my response. It is interesting that our blog is the only online resource to comment on this issue in a UK context.

Dear Stephen,
I came across your site whilst searching for anything I could find on ‘damage caused by university Christian union involvement’. Your blog was practically the only result I could find, especially within a UK context.
I wanted first to thank you for sharing your thoughts and research on this subject. Secondly, I am hoping you might be able to point me towards a mature (i.e. not hate-filled online rants!) sharing/online supportive group or such like that you know of, that might help me to understand better and hopefully find some peace from my experience. I am struggling to find anything myself and wonder why there is not more on the net about this as I am sure now having read your blog that I am not alone.
If I may explain in short, my experience is not one of outright abuse but more emotional damage. I’m sure you have received many responses to your blog like my own, but I wanted to share mine in the hope it may continue to help your research.
In the late 1990’s I went to university and became involved in the UCCF affiliated conservative evangelical Christian union, having been placed on a residential floor with majority Christians of an evangelical persuasion, I presume because I happened to mention on my application that I had a Christian faith. At the time I tried to ‘fit in’ and be the right kind of Christian I thought I was meant to be – in fact the message was stronger than that – there was only one Christian – the one espoused by the CU and by UCCF. To say you were a Christian but not live by their ‘basis of faith’ and teaching meant you weren’t actually a Christian and therefore not acceptable.
During my time at university I became more depressed and anxious but didn’t know why. As you say in your post ’42 Students and Christian Unions’, at the time I was looking for a sense of identity and wholeness. The Christian Union seemed to offer absolute certainty and belief, but along with that came high expectations and an absolute commitment to live and ‘be’ a certain kind of person. To question or express doubt or live in a way that was contrary to this meant that you didn’t have enough faith or trust in God, or were not a ‘real’ Christian, and this was unacceptable.
It has been 15 years since I finished university and although I have completely separated myself physically from the evangelical Christian church, the emotional and psychological residue has remained. I have had many ‘laughing it off’ evangelical-bashing conversations with my partner, who has only experienced this strand of Christianity via an Alpha course in a conservative evangelical church (the experience of which he described as intellectually vapid and emotionally manipulative). Most of these conversations have been a way to try to make sense of my mixed feelings of sadness, pain and guilt around my involvement within this strand of Christianity, without any success of pin-pointing the foundations of these feelings or the ability to find any peace about this. Having lost touch with all my CU ‘friends’ and feeling decidedly uneasy about my feelings connected to them, I took to searching the internet to see if I could find anyone else who had shared my experiences. I was surprised to find so little, and then chanced upon your blog. When I read your post on Christian Unions, things suddenly clicked into place. I have felt stupid with having been unable to shake off the pain of those years, but realising that my experience wasn’t an isolated one and I wasn’t just ‘making it up’ – even maybe being able to call it by its displayed characteristics of a cult-like group – has helped me to bring some balm to the emotional residue left by those years.
So, thank you for your writing and thank you for allowing me to share my story. My experience does not go anywhere near the trauma of those who have been subject to physical abuse within the church, but the subtlety of emotional damage is an insidious one that I think goes un-heard and unexpressed, perhaps because people would rather forget and, as I have done, laugh it off, but possibly too because of shame within and around the context of involvement in conservative evangelical organisations like the CU I experienced.
Please feel free to share my story if you think it would help. And if you do know of any groups or online support groups that I could link into to help me put this finally to rest, I would be grateful.
With thanks,

Dear Kirsty,
You may be surprised to learn that the issue which you have so eloquently described from your time at University is not more talked about or covered. The topic is one that has bothered me right back to my own student days in the 60s. I was never a member of a Christian Union but they could not be ignored as they loomed large in the university Christian scene in Oxford.

There are several aspects that I want to comment on. First of all I want to draw attention to the way that you were socially and physically trapped among other ‘Christians’ in the Halls of Residence. This was a bit like the social and physical isolation practised by cultic groups the world over. It would indeed hard for you to have done anything else but ‘fit in’ and it is difficult to know what to have advised you to do except get out of the situation. That might have been difficult or impossible on the practical level.

You are absolutely right to recognise that abuse is not always physical or about sex. The kinds of teaching that are peddled by earnest evangelical groups often focus on the parts of Christianity that will render the listeners submissive and receptive to authority. The Christian faith should be about teaching people to discover the meaning of life in all its fullness. What is actually taught in many places, including Christian Unions, is that we must wallow in an awareness of sin, guilt and shame. You speak very well about the emotional residue that remains after so many years. You are describing the personality that has been battered constantly by teachings which seek to undermine healthy self-esteem and self- love. I am glad that my comments on Christian unions have helped you to understand better the problem of what took place in the 90s.

I would love to be able to say that there are numerous places, people and institutions who understand the problems which you have so well outlined. I regret to say that this is not the case. Even though you have found this blog you are communicating with a tiny number of people through the arena of this discussion. I sometimes feel very isolated in this effort. The wider church does not discuss this issue and even among university chaplains, there is no attempt to recognise the toxic effects of the wrong kind of Christian teaching on vulnerable young people. What my blog can offer, and this is something I think you are already beginning to receive, is a fresh understanding of what you have had to experience and have suffered. What a blog cannot do is to deal with your painful memories. There are sadly, precious few psychotherapists who understand this area of issues. But just because there is so little understanding of these problems in the UK does not mean that you should suffer them in silence. If this blog can make you more articulate about this whole aspect of your past, then it should be possible to search out a professional with a clear understanding of what you emotional needs might be. Humour, sadly, will help but it will never heal the assaults on your personality that were made in the name of Christian truth.

After writing over 200 blog posts, I am hoping that there may be for you on this site some helpful resources for helping you to understand something more of what took place when you were a student. Meanwhile it is a letter like yours which gives me encouragement to believe that what I am doing is important and worthwhile. I dedicated the blog at the beginning to victims of Christian abuse. Very few of these have in fact found their way to my twice-weekly reflections on the subject. Next year I propose to give a paper to a conference in the USA on the psychological vulnerability of young people of student age to the blandishments of the cults and extreme religious Christian groups. Your letter is an encouragement to the work that I am putting into this paper.

Thank you for writing and I hope that you will continue to follow this blog and the small community who are concerned for these important and neglected issues.
Best wishes, Stephen.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

7 thoughts on “Christian Unions at University: an account

  1. Interesting, Kirsty. CUs at universities can be very cliquey. I was in one of the cliques, had my social life all sewn up, probably oblivious to someone like you back then. Do you think it has anything to do with middle class Christianity dominating most university campuses?

  2. We sang from the same hymn sheet, feeling very comfortable and at home with our surrounding. In the case of Peniel – feeling very proud of ourselves, protecting what we have for our children and children’s children. Anyone who was different was a threat, partly because we don’t understand and did not seek to try and understand. Too comfortable, too proud, too fearful of losing our stuff.

    Along came the Master, everything was thrown into disarray.

    With so many points of view and varied dispositions, the only safe bet is the Bible.

  3. May have something to do with Sunday school resources – basically monochrome. Having said that, I’d rather see biblically monochrome materials than watered down versions particularly when it comes to teaching young minds. Once they learn the genuine stuff, they will be able to spot counterfeits that are so prevalent these days. That said, I am not knocking liberal Christianity. The liberal view can be acquired later in life – when children grow up and see injustice and pain in the real world. Hopefully, by then, assuming that they have been taught right and are prepared to keep their eyes opened and be obedient, they will be able to differentiate between what is true Christianity and what is the arrogant strand and the counterfeit. What is required of us? To act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

    The above is my current opinion – my own view is not fully settled.

  4. Should Christianity transcend socio-economic classes? It ought to be able to if it is biblically based? Why did Jesus favour the poor and the outcasts more than the middle and upper classes? The pharisees did not have time for Jesus, did they? They were too busy inventing their own religion.They were not interested in the genuine stuff.

    Where are we today? Did Jesus really favour the poor or is it because the poor have more time for him? If we are middle or upper classes, are we not favoured by Jesus? Perhaps it has nothing to do with socio-economic classes.

    Forgive my rambling.

  5. Kirsty, I think just about every Christian group thinks that what they think is right, and you’re not a proper Christian if you’re different. I’ve come across among people who speak in tongues, where you aren’t a real Christian if you don’t. Obviously, you’re not a real Christian if you don’t agree on homosexuality! And, being female, I’ve experienced prejudice all my life. Even in secular terms, as in, I’m not a real woman because I’m tall (and rather plain!) and strong and sensible. (Real women are small, submissive and a bit useless in many men’s eyes, in case everyone else out there is wondering) And, I have to say, the Church is like that, too, because the church is old fashioned. I’m so sorry you have had such a hard time, it’s awful. Time helps, and other people’s sympathy helps. You will find that here, I think.
    A quick plea. Would those who prefer to hide their identity please choose a nom de plume as I have done? If there are several posters, it’s impossible to tell whether it’s the same anonymous or a different one.

  6. A distinguished cleric who at one time was Vicar of a University Church kept a notebook of all the leading members of the CU in his time. When he looked at it years later he saw that most of them had nothing to do with Christianity any more .It is a type of religion which ends up putting people off the faith for life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.