Sexual morality, for want of a better phrase is something I believe is a completely private thing. Your choices on how you express your sexuality are between you, your partner and, if you’re of faith, your God. However if you’ve ever attended a university Christian union, you’ll soon discover that sex is constantly on the agenda and Pauline sexual morality and fundamentalism the order of the day. But beneath the abstinent façade there’s a strange irony about the sexual dynamics of most Christian Unions. In this article I’ll take a look at the odd sexual paradox of these CUs.
Some Christians believe sex outside marriage is wrong, others do not. The rights and wrongs of both positions aren’t something I have any intention of getting into here. On the whole you’ll find CUs in the “sex before marriage is bad” camp, and it’s the hypocrisy of this position, rather than the merits of either side of the debate, I want to address…
Christian youth culture is rather bizarre. You only need to visit a University Christian Union for evidence of that. It’s not really Christianity that’s the root of the weirdness of your average CU, instead it’s down to the strange mindset folks get into when heading off to Uni.
For many students it’s a chance to be master/mistress of their destiny for the first time, away from parental controls. You see this in many university subcultures, where suddenly a student is allowed to express themselves fully and in doing so often over compensate. So you get gay lads spending more time painting banners and haranguing fellow students about homophobia than going out and finding a nice boy to have a relationship with.
And applying this to the Christian kids, especially the ones that go to Christian Union, you see similar things happening. It’s all about cliques and social groupings, it may be dressed up with faith, and often people will try to fight their corners using the Bible to justify their actions, but it’s just another uni social society.
Let off the leash of parental control a lot of Christian students become rather scary zealots. Many CUs feel the need to be at war with their university chaplaincy, because it’s just too liberal for them, the CU are the hardcore, the paramilitary wing of Christianity. I once witnessed a Lancaster University Evangelical Christian Union leader tell a boy with Down Syndrome that he’d burn in hell if he didn’t go to church. Another member of the committee told a friend of mine who’d just become a Christian that “we don’t need people here like you.”
Don’t be fooled by the evangelism, missions and worthy causes being rallied at most CUs. Really it’s just another campus group, a way of meeting folks and especially members of the opposite sex. Yes the average CU meeting will seem like the centre of the universe, the leaders will lead you believe that the CU is the moral heart of your university and it’s the only thing that will save the place from fiery destruction. Sat there at the meetings you’ll feel guilty because you’re not as spiritual as all the others; you’ve come to the CU with the hope that you’ll meet a great girl/boy. There’s a good chance you may be thinking lustful thoughts about a fellow CU member while the leaders are rattling away through some awful Graham Kendrick song.
I’ve got news for you. Most folks at your CU are having sex. Yes sex, not just dating, flirting or whatever – they are having sex with their partner(s). This is one of the great paradoxes of CU life. On the face of things these young zealots who will lead you believe that they are the only hope for world Christianity, that their particular CU the heart of global revival, and that they are the most puritanical none-sexual beings on the planet. Don’t believe a word of it, I bet half of the folks in your CU are either having regular sex, or wishing they were.
Yet the public face is very different. If they catch you, if it becomes common knowledge that you’ve seen someone bare-naked, you’ll be on the receiving end of the zealots’ wrath. Either that or you’ll suddenly cease to exist – I discovered that for myself at Lancaster University in the mid-1990s. Folks will be friendly until you let out the secret of the great CU sexual paradox and then you’re out in the cold. Want to measure the real compassionate heart of a university Christian union? It doesn’t lie in evangelical missions, it’s seen in the way members are treated when they behave in a way, or express opinions, that are contrary to whatever moral guidelines that CU has carved into stone for itself. In my experience, and the experience of friends at other universities, this is a test usually failed.
But for all its similarities to the usual peer groups, CUs are a different type of entity, at times perhaps more akin to a business. The annual recruitment drives, the evangelical missions, are organised to tell people across the campus about the faith. If you’re a none-Christian on a campus with a CU attending acquaintance, during the mission you may find they’ve suddenly become your best friend. Gone will be their aloofness and distain for your record collection, choice of clothes or posters – they’ll now be the most caring compassionate person you know. If they are of the opposite sex you may think you’re in with a shot at them, if they are of the same sex (assuming you’re straight) then you may assume that you’ve discovered a great new long-lasting friendship.
You haven’t. They’ll drop you like a hot brick in time. It’s yet another of those Christian union paradoxes. During mission week this new best friend may get you to come along to some mission meetings. If you join the faith you may find this friend no longer seems very interested in you. Yes, you’re the latest victim of CU head-hunting. Once your friend has your scalp, you are of very little use to them, get used to it. If you don’t join the faith you may find they’ll stay in touch, often being very helpful, kind and considerate. It’s one of the ironies of campus Christianity, at least in the UK.
So what if you’re a Christian about to head off to university this autumn? Well I do have some advice for you. Visit the chaplaincy for worship or a local church – don’t rely on the strange zealotry of the CU, and its hatred for the chaplaincy and other Christians outside their circle. If there’s a Catholic society on campus, consider going to that, even if you’re not a left-footer. The CU culture vilifies Catholicism as the idolatrous work of the anti-Christ – so you’ll probably find a nice bunch of people there to hang out with.
If you’re going to hang out at the CU, then take things easy. You don’t have to take on board the tub-thumping fundamentalist face of the society. Use the CU for things that will aid your walk with God, through uni and after. You may enjoy some of the worship, make some good friends and enjoy the meetings. Great, good for you, but remember to keep some friends outside the CU, because once the CU finds out you’ve openly flouted their rules, you’ll need those friends. If you are having sex with your boyfriend/girlfriend, don’t flaunt it, keep it secret, just like your puritanical CU president is doing. And don’t feel guilty, after all, nearly everyone else at your CU is at it.