I’ve now managed to track down a copy of the Birmingham University Evangelical Christian Union’s constitution and, quite frankly, I really can’t see what the Birmingham University guild of Student’s problem is.
It is a perfectly legal consitution, to start with, and contains nothing that would be impermissible in Charity Law.
As far as the issue of the group’s doctrinal basis is concerned, this is stated in the consititution but members are not required to sign-up explicitly to to it, the membership clause stating:
5.1. Membership of a Society shall be open to all Guild Members subject to:
5.1.1. Subscription to the following declaration; “In joining the Christian Union I declare my faith in Jesus Christ as my Saviour, Lord and God. I understand and commit to the four aims of the CU.”
5.1.2. Specific exemptions as provided in the Guild Constitution and Bye-laws.
5.1.3. The discretion of the BUECU Executive Committee where it is believed that admission to membership may result in the Society’s disrepute. Such a decision is subject to appeal at Guild Council.
5.2. Membership of the Society shall itself not be deemed to confirm membership of the Guild or any of the privileges pertaining thereto.
5.3. Membership is to be renewed annually.
So what it actually asks for is for that members aign-up to its objectives, which are:
3. Objectives of the Society
3.1. The objectives of the Society shall be:
3.1.1. To proclaim Jesus Christ as God Incarnate, Saviour and Lord to all students at The University of Birmingham, and to seek to lead them to a personal faith in Him
3.1.2. For members to grow in their spiritual life by Bible teaching, Bible study, prayer and fellowship
3.1.3. To obey God’s commission to make disciples of all nations, by praying, giving financially and going out to proclaim the gospel in all the world, in the short and long term
3.1.4. To help members and other students to explore, assert and apply biblical truth to every issue of private and working life and public concern
3.2. All activities of the Society must be related to these objectives.
So clearly it is a proselytizing organisation and one which sets, as an objective, the goal of converting other students to its beliefs, which may not go down to well with some, but as long as the group’s members aer not aggressive in their approach to the point of harassing other students, then this presents no real problems.
The worst that could be said here is that if these objectives are followed by its members to the letter, then they may struggle to make friends along the way, as there as few things more irritating than a one trick pony with only one topic of conversation but as I’m assuming that the group’s members are not a bunch of complete social misfits with no capacity for understanding that harping on about god constantly while in the company of people who don’t share their beliefs is going to prove intensely irritating, there are no real problems with these objectives in the wider sense of them being the aims of the group.
To prove my point here, what follows are the charitable objects of the Banstead Community Church, registered charity number 1110667, who were registered as a charity on 1 August 2005.
To proclaim, advance, practice and teach the Christian faith and in particular:
a) to worship god;
b) to make known the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ alone;
c) to teach Christian truth and doctrine as found only in the bible and to refute error;
d) to encourage those who turn to Christ in repentance and faith to become his faithful, worshipping and obedient disciples;
e) to equip Christians for ministry and encourage them to use their talents and spiritual gifts for the glory of god;
f) to express Christian faith by all means consistent with bible teaching, including social action and community involvement.
Now there really is nothing too different between this Church’s objects and the objects of BUECU, is there?
The Guild of Student’s other objection is to the method by which BUECU’s exective committee is elected, which is set out as follows.
12. Executive Committee selection
12.1. The BUECU Executive Committee shall have the responsibility to propose people for the positions on the new Committee, and pray for them.
12.2. Between the end of week 6 and the end of week 8 of the Autumn term nominations for the BUECU Executive Committee may be invited from members of BUECU if the Executive Committee wishes to do so. Each nomination should be seconded by another BUECU member, with the nominee’s permission. Alternatively, the executive committee may invite members of BUECU to suggest suitable candidates without the candidate’s knowledge.
12.3. At least 4 weeks before the AGM the list of proposed people shall then be communicated to all BUECU members and displayed on the BUECU notice board.
12.4. BUECU members who are not proposed by the BUECU Executive Committee and wish to be considered may have their name displayed under the title ‘Independent Proposals’.
12.5. Up to 2 weeks before the AGM members who have any difficulties concerning the people proposed should approach any BUECU Executive Committee member. The Executive Committee has responsibility to deal with these problems as and when they arise.
12.6. A ballot will be held at the AGM in the Spring term to determine the new Executive Committee members. A simple majority of the members voting will be required for each position.
Now to translate that from legalese to English, the process is as follows:
1. The outgoing Executive Committee may either openly invite nominations from members, which must be seconded, or invite nominations from members without those nominees being told that they are being nominated.
2. From these nominees, the Executive Committee draws up a list of nominees that it is happy to support, which is issued to all members, four weeks before the elections at the AGM.
This is what we call in politics ‘drawing up a slate’ and is pretty much standard practice in political parties.
People who don’t make the slate but wish to stand for election can also add their names to the list of candidates as ‘independents’.
Up to two weeks before the AGM, members can raise any problems they might have about a particular candidate with the Executive Committee, just as before an AGM in any other democratic organisation, members may object to a candidate being put forward if there are questions about their eligibility.
At the AGM the Executive Committee, which appears to consist of 10 members, each of which has a specific role, are elected by simple majority vote of the members, and it is being on elected to the Executive Committee that a requirement to sign-up explicitly to the doctrinal basis of the group applies.
Now is this so very unreasonable? In my estimation, no it isn’t.
Electorally, all the group are doing is being open about a practice – putting up a slate – that goes on semi-openly or privately in many elections. The fact that are open about it makes no difference to whether the elections themselves are democratic or not, the members of the group still have right to reject the outgoing committee’s preferred candidate in favour or an independent on a majority vote.
As for the matter of committee members being required to agree formally to the doctrinal statement of the group, well isn’t that to be expected. This is a group with a specific take on Christianity that its leaders are expected to agree to an uphold – you may not, even if you are a Christian, agree with that take, but can anyone really say that unreasonable for the group to insist on this, anymore that it would be unreasonable for the Church of England to insist that the Archbishop of Canterbury is an Anglican or the Catholic church insist that the Pope should be a Catholic?
It is not, to my understanding, the case that this is the only Christian group operating on campus or that it is trying to exclude other such groups from affiliating to the Student Union, so where’s the problem? If you a Christian and their particular brand of Christianity doesn’t suit you, then go find another group with a view of relgion which does fits your personal beliefs.
And if you don’t take their view of Christianity, then why should you want to be a member anyway?
If I have any criticism of BUECU’s constitution at all, it is a minor one and easily remedied. The group could incorporate a form of open associate membership, without voting rights or the right to stand for election, for those who may be interested in joining the group with a view to learning more about them and their view of Christianity, but without requiring them to formally sign-up to full and absolute agreement with the group’s doctrinal statement – this would require a minor change in wording of the statement signed on becoming a member (clause 5.1.1) replacing the word more directive term ‘commit’ with the less-loaded term ‘support’.
This parallels the practice in the LGBT association which allows associate membership for those who are uncertain, on joining, of their sexuality.
The only other minor criticism I can level at BUECU lies in their efforts to move changes to the Guild’s ‘mandatory clauses’ to seek a specific exemption for themselves from those terms which are being used to justify their disaffiliation, why I consider that it would have been much more useful all around had they moved more general amendments which would have permitted all groups to apply reasonable constraints on membership, in line with the same principles in charity law, where there is good reason to so do – not least as this would potentially have gained the group support from other societies, not least of which other religious societies but also those representing other minority groups, in their efforts.
I can well understand why BUECU took the approach they did. They, after all, were responding to a specific situation which directly affected them, but a more a global approach would have both avoiding creating the impression that they were in it only for their own interests and would benefit a wide range of groups by challeging a regime which, so it seems to me, desperately needs to be challenged.
That being said, I remain of the view that Birmingham University’s Guild of Students are clearly and unequivocally in the wrong in this matter, hence the blatant sophistry of their efforts to pass the buck and blame the law rather than take responsibility for their intransigence and unreasonable conduct.