Peculiar People


Who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.
Titus 2:14

In my first week at College, I joined the Christian Union, and spent a considerable percentage of the next three years giving out leaflets and asking people if they'd like to come to an evangelistic barbecue. I started attending a House Church and even spent part of a summer vacation 'doing evangelism' on a rough housing estate in Liverpool, where, remarkably and somewhat disappointingly, no one beat me up.

I don't find any of this particularly easy to explain. I was a well-brought up Sunday School boy who might have been expected to gravitate to MethSoc, CathSoc, AngSoc, MethAngSoc or, more likely, to give up religion altogether. And I certainly didn't have one of those dramatic conversion experiences that CU members talked about in their testimonies. (Indeed, for a long while, my inability to say 'I became a Christian on such-and-such a date' made me deeply suspect) I just sort of drifted along to one of their meetings and never left.

I half-suspect that it was an oblique act of rebellion. Sussex University in the early 80s was still convinced that it was Sussex University in the late 70s, which was in turn convinced that it was Paris in 1968. There had been a Nelson Mandela hall before they were fashionable; a 'no platform for Fascists' policy even though it was strictly speaking illegal, and regular occupations of the Admin. Block in order to force Mrs Thatcher to end her imperialist occupation of the Malvinas Islands. Barclays Bank was being boycotted by the Student Union and by all right-thinking students due to its shameful policy of investing in the utterly unacceptable and abhorrent fascist regime in South Africa. From time to time, the Socialist Workers would say 'There's been enough talking, it's time for a bit of action'. This action would involve sitting down by the door of bank and chanting political slogans. I never quite worked out why, if everybody was boycotting it, there was always such a long queue by the cashpoint.

In such an environment declaring oneself to be a Christian was the worst thing you could possibly do. Worst, that is, from the point of view of the in-crowd of twenty seven beret wielding socialist workers. The other 99% of the students couldn't have cared less.

Of course, there was more too it than that. I remember that first meeting I went to; I was expecting, I don't know, a talk about peace and love from a kindly clergyman, a free cup of tea, maybe a card telling me what services there were at the University Chapel. Instead, Alex, the CU president; his guitar draped around his neck in readiness for the first round of 'chorus singing' stood up and said. 'Well, hi. This is the first meeting of the Christian Union. We're all, well. Christians. Hey, no surprise there. We all know Jesus and we want to, you know, tell everyone on campus about Him. We're not a Student Union group so we don't charge you to join' polite laughter 'but we've got a little declaration of faith. If you can sign that, you can join. If you can't, you can't, but you're still totally welcome at all our meetings. Okay, that's enough of that. Let's pray....' I understood 'let's pray' to mean 'bow your head politely'; but everyone else in the room took him literally, and started to talk loudly and colloquially to God, as if they actually thought he might be listening. Probably half my friends at home had a church background, and I'd been going to Church socials and mid-week youth groups all my life, but I'd simply never seen anything like this before. If nothing else, I was fascinated by it. And there was something about the word 'evangelical' and 'statement of faith' which called to mind crusaders, knights in armour, people in togas being thrown to the lions. These deeply untrendy people in their neon-lit lecture theatre had succeeded in making religion seem exciting, even glamorous.

I decided to go along to their next meeting; I started reading the New Testament writings of St. Paul for the first time, and discovered that although they had little to do with what I had heard in Sunday School, they made a great deal of sense. By the end of the term, I'd signed the Statement of Faith. I never did get the hang of praying out loud, though.

CU members didn't entirely conform to the media-image of the happy-clappy evangelical. They were certainly very happy; Alex was notorious for his sprayed-on (but perfectly sincere) grin. On one famous occasion a corridor mate staggered past him at breakfast.

'Why are you looking so happy' said the bleary eyed student.

'Because I'm saved!' grinned Alex

'Oh. Right. Good for you.'

There was quite a lot of clapping as well, although I am glad to say that I never saw a tambourine.

But the group wasn't really fundamentalist. You certainly weren't obliged to be a creationists, although you were expected to respect those of your brothers who were. In fact a disproportionately high number of members were doing science degrees. 'Well, that's what you'd expect,' said Alex. 'Science is all about looking at God's creation, but art...well, that's mostly about false teachings created by men.' Pause. 'Which is why it's so good to have godly people like you doing arts degrees so you can be, like, salt to the world.' A more plausible explanation was that once you've managed to believe in Quantum Theory, the Holy Trintiy is relatively straightforward; and scientists, unlike liberal artists, are still allowed to believe in absolute truth.

But fundamentalist or not, everything was centred on a fairly uncritical reading of the Bible, things were judged scriptural or unscriptural, churches praised or condemned on whether or not they were 'Biblically based.' Everyone was well versed in its minutiae; a preacher could say 'You are all little Nehemiahs', and everyone would know what he was talking about; although I did have to ask the meaning of the hymn (sorry, chorus) beginning 'Pierce my ear oh Lord My God.' (A reference to Deuteronomy 15:17, should you want to look it up.)

We felt a great sense of continuity between the Biblical characters and ourselves; we thought of them as mates of our. The difficulties of being a disciple must have been very like the difficulties of running a Christian Union; we had awkward characters like James and John in our group as well. More than one clergyman pointed out to us that the disciples, before going out into the world to preach the good news to all nations, spent three years with Jesus--the exact length of university course. Of course, Peter failed his final exam; but he got through after that special personal tutorial on the beach.

Miracles were, of course, commonplace. I happened not to be at the service where the guy with the gammy leg was healed, but I heard about it afterwards. Steve told me that he'd been introduced to a man who had been cured of blindness, and a preacher referred to 'having met the man in America who was raised from the dead.' But somehow, I always managed to miss the services where these things happened.

I did see a reasonably large number of demons being cast out; you couldn't go to a Charismatic church for long without this happening. The preacher was in mid-sermon when someone suddenly stood up and let out a loud, long drawn out scream--a genuinely disturbing sound, not at all affected. The preacher hardly missed a beat, 'Could one or two of the brothers help our sister....? Thank you. Now, lets pray for a moment...and then focus our minds back on our text. We were thinking about Hosea's children, weren't we...' This may sound rather sinister, the sort of thing you'd expect in Salem rather than Hove, but I never saw a clergyman preaching hellfire and brimstone or otherwise trying to induce this type of hysterical reaction. And when there wasn't screaming, there was speaking (or rather singing) in tongues, and a certain amount of shaking and quaking. I waited hopefully when people in the front row started falling over rigid. They called it 'being slain in the spirit'; a good Biblical phrase which I later found out isn't actually in the Bible. Why did God never do anything dramatic like that for me?

At times, our enthusiasm made us deeply irritating to everyone else on campus. There was an occasion when some of the sisters from my church asked if they could use my bed-room as a venue for a prayer meeting. They were concerned that the university was Satan's dominion: they had heard rumours that there was a Gaysoc and that one or two people approved of abortion, and thought that they should pray about it. There was a theory going around in evangelical circles at the time which said that God didn't pay any attention to prayers unless they were said in the place which you were praying for. They called it spiritual warfare or power-praise evangelism. (This is why you see people with guitars marching through town centres singing 'Shine, Jesus, shine'--in order to make the powers of darkness go away. It certainly makes everybody else go away.) I left my bedroom door unlocked, and went off to my 10 o clock lecture on 'Deconstructing Webster's White Devil', and the rest of my corridor, trying to have a sensible art-student lie-in till lunch-time were woken up by a group of total strangers enthusiastically strumming their guitars. I never really lived that down.

We also used to irritate people by knocking on their doors, although this particular part of our witness was never very successful . When you knock on a student's door, smile sweetly, and say 'We wonder what you think about Christianity' they are rather over-inclined to tell you.

But at times, it got completely out of hand. Peter was one of our more enthusiastic members. He played the guitar well, and actually wrote his own choruses. 'This song is about the Lord's disciple and how God forgave him when he failed. But it's also my personal testimony. It's called "Peter".' He told me that he had come up with a new idea about witnessing on campus. He was going to form a group of CU members, people who had been Christians for a long while, mature in their faith, and who were prepared to be committed to one another and pray together. 'And when there's a really challenging time on campus; when the occult society is holding a meeting, or there are people talking about the right to abortion, then we can go along and take the opportunity to give them the gospel. I'm going to call it the Commando Squad.'

Then there was the mission to overseas students. We hard core-Christian unionists would turn up to college at week before term started, and make ourselves available to carry suitcases and run coffee bars for the several hundred foreign nationals arriving on campus for the first time. In itself, a perfectly laudable and charitable gesture--but we thought of it as a form of missionary work. In the past missionaries had to travel to foreign countries to preach the gospel; but nowadays, God had cleverly arranged to send lots of foreigners to us so we mustn't miss the opportunity to share the gospel with them. I don't mean that we gave them leaflets or did any other sort of religious hard-sell; the idea was simply to make friends with them, so that you could talk to them about God at some later date. 'You have to be friends with a Moslem for at least a year before you can talk to him about Jesus' said the speaker at our 'international evangelism orientation day'. The intention may be have been admirable, but the hypocrisy is nauseating.

During one of our 'mission weeks' an unholy coalition between the House Church and the Commando Squad decided that the best place to sing a lot of loud hymns to drive out the devil was outside the library. This was a magnificent effort, since it succeeded in alienating every single student who wasn't already actually a committed CU member, and a good many who were. The Socialist Workers decided that there had been enough talk, and that it was time for a bit of action. They put up anti-Christian posters all round campus, holding the CU personally responsible for the Spanish Inquisition and the accords between the Pope and Mussolini. They met up in the Mandela building, and then made some purchases at the small student Tescos. They then marched to the library, and pelted the worship group with half a dozen free-range eggs.

I saw Peter shortly afterwards, with a slight trace of yoke on his denim jacket.

'Isn't it great,' he said 'Persecution!'

The great redeeming feature of the Christian Union was that they knew what they believed, and they really believed it. But when people really believe in something, they can end up doing very silly things, whether that means holding evangelistic jelly parties or chanting loud slogans outside Barclays bank. There is, perhaps, only a small step between a Commando Squad and a cult.