Back in my own university days, pretty much the only attention that the Student Union paid to its various clubs and societies was to use them as a means of exercising their slightly perverse sense of humour during Fresher’s week.
Fresher’s week, of course, meant the obligatory ‘Fresher’s Fayre’, where the Union bars would be temporarily turned into an kind of jumble sale for interest groups trying to attract new members from the naive and newly unwashed ranks of new entrants, which amounted to little more than give each of the clubs and societies a table to decorate as a ’stand’ and leave them to get on with it.
The humour in this half-arsed ritual lay in the perverse pleasure that whoever was responsible for allocating these stands took in allocating them in such a way to accentuate the various natural rivalries that existed between certain societies.
So it was that, as a matter of course, all the political societies would be grouped together, with the Tory club flanked on either side by as many hard left groups as humanly possible, leaving the various Trotkyists and Communists with the dilemma of not knowing quite whther they should be arguing with each other or joining forcing to give the Tories in-between a hard time.
Similar arrangements were made in relation to the relgious societies, which inevitiably resulted in the Pagan Society and the Christian Union being parked next door to each other. Chuck in the little matter of putting all the music clubs in the same bar, much to the chagrin of everyone by the Rock Society who were the only club to ever figure out that they could easily dominate proceeding by the simple expedient of hiring a sizeable PA for the event, when all the others relied on whatever portable system one of their members had managed to buy from Dixons over the summer, and you should get the general picture - the purpose of the Fresher’s Fayre was less about recruiting new members to societies and more about building up a nice solid reserve of friction and resentment to take the various clubs through the upcoming year.
I mention all this only as preamble to the latest apparent addition to the annals of ‘it’s political correctness gone mad’, the decision of the Birmingham University Guild of Students to disavow its Evangelical Christian Union and freeze its bank account after its apparent refusal to open up its voting membership to people of all religions.
Now, at other times this might create something of a dilemma - what with me being a committed atheist and no great lover of religions in general. But this is not an issue I find particularly difficult, for as much as I have no particular time for religion, I have even less time for idiotic bouts of hypocritical authoritarian bullshit, which appears to be what’s going on here.
Still, before going off the deep end I thought I’d see if I could find out in more detail what’s actually going on an unearthed this from the Guild’s minutes:
â€śThe Evangelical Christian Union has been derecognised as per TITLE H Appendix VIII Mandatory Clauses of Standing Society and Society Constitutions.
1.3 If there are any contradictions between a Society Constitution and any of the mandatory clauses, the Society shall cease to be recognised by the Guild.
The Evangelical Christian Union constitution limited membership by requiring all members to sign a doctrinal basis and explicitly the mandatory clauses (because the Guild constitution does) require that a society be open to all members of the Guild (i.e. they cannot be prohibited based on gender, sexuality, ethnicity, beliefs etc). Secondly they did not allow all members to run in the elections for their committee, but rather the current committee nominate their chosen successors (and have the capacity should they choose after 2 weeks of advertisement to allow nominations from the rest of the society at their discretion). Again this is significantly different from the clause saying all full members are eligible to run for committee positions in an AGM. Therefore the Evangelical Christian Union (BUECU) was derecognisedâ€?
Now there are two points raised here which merit consideration. First is the matter of membership being open to all Guild members regardless of gender, sexuality, etc. Looking through the Guild’s own constitution and related documents, it certainly does appear that it operates an unnecessarily severe and proscription regime, one that is lacking in simple common sense.
Societies that wish to apply restrictions to membership have to obtain an exemption from the Guild - only two such exemptions are in force at present - yet common sense dictates that a Christian group should be able to restrict its voting membership to Christians, much as a Muslim group would restrict its voting membership to Muslims or a political club would not giving voting rights to people who are not members of the political party to which it relates.
As such this argument is absurd because it creates conditions in which the Christian Union could be taken over and run by non-Christians, just as if applied to the letter, you could have a Labour club runs by Tories and a Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Society where none of the members are actually Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual.
The only justification I could see for citing this a grounds for derecognition is is the ‘doctrinal basis’ cited is unnecessarily proscriptive and discriminatory - i.e. it specifically and unreasonably excludes people from membership for reasons other than their faith or puts unnecessary constraints on legitimate religious beliefs, i.e. if it excludes Catholics, Methodists or Non-conformist Christians.
Unless this is what’s happening here then in this respect the Evangelical Christian Union have good reason for complaint as it represents a triumph of the rule book over common sense.
The second point, regarding the Christian Union’s particular version of ‘democracy’ has altogether greater merit - a system in which the outgoing committee is permitted to annoint its successors and only open itself up to selection if it’s short of bodies to fill all the avaialable places, and then only when it feels like it, is not a democratic system at all, and as the Guild insists that its societies should operate on a genuinely democratic basis this point clearly justifies their decision to derecognise the Christian Union.
On that basis, there is rather more to this story than simply ‘politial correctness gone mad’ although if one is honest, the Guild can have no real complaint about getting bad press over this issue due to its failure to apply a common sense approach to the matter of membership, which has clouded what should otherwise be a strightforward issue of a rule breach on the matter of internal democracy.
If Birmingham’s Student Union has any sense, which remains to be seen, it should revisit its own rules and put in place regulations which allow for a little more common sense latitude in the matter of restrictions on open membership - i.e. it is entirely reasonable for a single faith religious group to restrict membership to believers provided it makes no other discriminatory restrictions, much as it is reasonable that political societies should restrict membership to those who share a particular political outlook, or women’s groups should restrict membership only to women.
Clubs and societies are, after all, only a formalised expression of the concept of community and like all communities their are times when what the community needs is space to debate issues and make decisions for the community without having the rest of the world looking over its shoulder. The sensible solution, if the Guild wished to retain the principle that membership of societies should be open to all is to permit societies a form of associate membership without voting rights which allows those ‘outside’ the community to register their support and participate in the soceity without inhibiting the ability of the society to confine matters solely to voting members where it is necessary to do so. All the Guild need to then is monitor societies to ensure that such privileges are not being abused in a discriminatory fashion.
It’s not difficult if you think things through and take a reasonable, common sense view of things. It also avoids being caught out indulging in hypocrisy when, at the same meeting which remitted the appeal against the derecognition of the Christian Union back to for further consideration by committee, motions such as this are passed:
Motion: suspension of students from Matthew Boulton College
Guild Council Notes:
1. On Friday 6th January two students at Matthew Boulton College in Birmingham, Assed Baig and Darrell Williams were expelled for distributing a student newsletter they had produced.
2.The newsletter contains the students’ views on the war in Iraq, student apathy and several criticisms of college policy. It is in no way offensive.
3.They have been given one week to appeal. A protest has been called for Friday 13th January 8.30-10am and statement of support has been launched.
Guild Council Believes:
1. Students have a right to organise, to express their views on political questions and to criticise their institutions policies and practices.
2. These students were acting within their rights ad should not have been expelled
3. The expulsion is jeopardising their academic progress as they are unable to obtain a college reference necessary to complete their UCAS applications and will not be able to sit their exams.
Guild Council Resolves:
1. To support the protests on Friday 13th and 27th January
2. To sign the petition in support of the ‘Matthew Boulton Two’ and encourage students to do the same.
3. To send a letter of support to the students.
4. To write to Christine Braddock, their college principle, to question their expulsion.
5. To assist their campaign for re-instatement in other practicable ways.
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