Thank you again for inviting me to the opening of Oasis. I enjoyed the experience.
I have just watched the DVD – it shows what a great venture Oasis is and so important to students. A comment on the DVD suggested the founders of the Religious Centre could not have imagined that it could have developed in the way it has. I can assure you that is right. That is what happens with vision.
In reply to this email and FaithI suggested that perhaps it was not that I had vision, this transition from Religious Centre to Oasis, of chaplaincy intent on serving the adherents of the appointing body to one of a community of chaplaincy colleagues intent on serving the whole university. Rather, for me it was more mundane, though nonetheless an outcome of hoping to be faithful to the two great Christian commandments, to love God and Neighbour, within the rubric of a vision of the Kingdom of God as revealed to us in the Christian Scriptures and exemplified in the life of Jesus. That all sounds rather grand, but I assure you it was just a day to day response to what was put in front of me.
When I first started at Flinders, there were three Christian societies who used the Religious Centre – the Flinders Christian Fellowship (under the auspices of the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students – AFES), the Student Christian Movement (SCM) and “Universe’, a group associated with independent and pentecostal churches.
The Flinders Christian Fellowship (FCF) was by far the largest group with the highest profile.
One day I had a conversation with the FCF staffworker who said that his primary role was to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I agreed that we shared that aspiration, but only now, looking back, can I see how we had a fundamentally different view of faithfulness.
For him, it was primarily a matter of conservation. It meant maintaining the tradition he had inherited, the same organisational structure, and the same methodology – exposing students to a literalist reading of Scripture that justified an exclusivist ethos.
I remember several students who were deeply disturbed by this aproach. Their identity as Christians was threatened because they did not give the “correct” answer to the questions being posed by FCF leaders. Being “faithful” meant sticking to a very narrow way – and of course we know that Jesus said something about “narrow ways” – which would support their position! So, by FCF definition, they weren’t “Christians”.
Yet what I observed seemed to me a form of spiritual abuse, perpetrated by the leaders of this group, consciously or unconsciously, to maintain their power and control over the group. “The first thing I decide about chaplains”, said their leader to me, “is whether a chaplain is a friend or an enemy”. Well as far as I know, AFES has never befriended a University Chaplain, so I guess my evangelical credentials would never be sufficient to be welcomed onto his side of his line. I was not needed for them to play their game.
I had myself been a member of such a group when I was an undergraduate; and a supporter as a graduate.
Some years ago, I hosted a meeting of evangelical graduates in my home in support of the General Secretary of AFES based in Sydney, who would visit the various groups around Australia to give support to their leaders. He told of some disturbing research: if I remember rightly, that over 80% of graduates from AFES groups had left the church within 5 years. (In those days “leaving the church” equated with renouncing faith.)
As I look at AFES today, it seems that nothing has changed.
My attitude to FCF is one of sadness. These students are being let down badly because they are not being given the theological tools to deal positively with the realities of life. I can only pray that they will one day break out of the closed theological circle into which they are being indoctrinated. I hope that as I try to be faithful to those two simple commandments to love, that love is enough to communicate the Good news of Jesus. Two Presidents of FCF, having graduated, have later apologised to me for their behaviour. What a pity that they have to look back on this time of their life, thinking that they were being faithful, when they were actually being conditioned to prejudice and judgementalism.
Being faithful to one’s tradition is of value when one sees that the tradition is a means to a much bigger end, rather than just an end in itself.
Within my tradition, I don’t think that vision is being able to see the way ahead clearly. Faith is not about certainty. Faithfulness is believing that what is needed will be given as you take the step into the path that love demands.