This is the title of a conference I have just returned from in Liverpool – and also, I would say, the result. The Hope Ecumenical Network was launched last week with a two-day international meeting that brought together representatives from at least fifteen universities and colleges with Christian identities, and I certainly came away greatly inspired by current initiatives, ideas and future possibilities.
I’ve written about the idea of a Christian university before, and we’ve had a series reflecting on this concept. But last week’s event was not about principles, definitions, philosophy or theology. Rather, it was a showcase of what is already happening and a space to reflect on how God’s Spirit might be at work, and particularly about what might be possible in the UK. We heard delegates speak about Christian universities and colleges in the Netherlands, India, France, the Philippines and the USA, sharing successes and challenges, threats and opportunities in their various national contexts. We delegates from about six British universities had valuable discussions among ourselves and will, in most cases, report back to governing bodies and other campus groups. As well as TFN, I was privileged to represent the University of Winchester, which as one of the Cathedrals group of universities has a Christian foundation. Each of the fifteen members of this group has a unique story of its church connection, and even those not represented last week are, I understand, supportive of the initiative. It appeared to me that any joint statement about the nature, goals and importance of Christian higher education would have been difficult to extract from the assembled company, even after our two days of warm fellowship, enthusiastic exchanges and shared meals. But perhaps this last thought misses something crucial.
The strongest message from Liverpool came in the form of a warm ecumenical welcome. Liverpool Hope University has a remarkable foundation story in the public fellowship of the city’s Catholic and Anglican leaders and the coming together of 19th-century colleges in the 1980s to form the only ecumenical university in Europe or the USA (and possibly anywhere). The opening and closing addresses by the university’s vice-chancellor, Prof. Gerald Pillay, set before us an inspiring vision of unity in Christ for the common good. Yet it was not a rallying cry for uniformity or even collaboration. True, the conference is intended to launch a new Hope Ecumenical Network (and this page invites you to sign up, if you’re supportive). But ecumenism is an affirmation of diversity within Christian mission (indeed, its roots lie in missions, as Prof. Pillay informed us). I don’t want to attend an ecumenical church on Sundays, but I do want to be part of Christian mission in a very broad sense. That is, I want to work for and support redemptive transformation in education, the sciences, business, politics, the arts, and so on, drawing inspiration from the Protestant Reformational tradition that I believe to be nearest to God’s truth while collaborating with fellow Christians of any stripe as far as possible. Moreover, I believe that Christ is honoured when his people respect the civic freedom of every person and community to respond to God’s call in their own way, including through non-Christian religious expressions that are (I’m convinced) ultimately misguided. This is the position sometimes called ‘principled pluralism‘, which I accept from the biblical exposition of Abraham Kuyper (something similar also appears in some other traditions!).
What, then, is the hope for the future of Christian higher education in the UK? First, I’d like to think that last week’s delegates would agree that there is a place in our pluralistic culture for at least some universities to acknowledge (overtly or subtly) their Christian heritage, and that this might even help attract good students and staff, nationally and internationally (I take the national success of Liverpool Hope as encouragement in this regard). Second, reminding us of tectonic changes in society, technology and demographics, more than one speaker saw Christian universities offering spaces for contemplative learning in which anxious nineteen year-olds can be nurtured to break addictions to devices and seek wisdom in a community that holds out the hope that comes from the Gospel of Christ the coming King. (We needn’t settle the secularist question of how well institutions that have abandoned, or never had, a Christian heritage can provide such spaces: if we believe that our own traditions can, we owe it to students to try.) Thirdly, the conviction that wisdom is vindicated by her children (Luke 7:35) gives me a simple hope that seeking, maintaining and discussing Christian insights in universities will, on balance, lead to long-term success. This is no guarantee of the future of universities that refer to Christian roots, but for me, they are some of the most promising places to work.
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Shirley Roels · November 14, 2022 at 8:19 pm
Thank you, Richard, for writing this reflection about the Hope Ecumenical Network and its first U.K. symposium. As you observe, ecumenical efforts in Christian higher education are robust when participants have deep and particular sources of identity and formation in following ourTriune God. These specific articulations provide substance for our teaching, scholarship, and service in Christian higher education. We should not endorse a bland spirituality in their place. When we compare such varied but substantial perspectives on the nature, goals, and practices of Christian higher education, our efforts can be better together. The symposium last week at Liverpool Hope University created a rich, valuable space in which to learn from and with each other across a wide-ranging ecumenical network.
Richard Gunton · November 24, 2022 at 12:33 pm
Thanks for your comments, Shirley. I do agree (and I did appreciate your keynote talk at the conference). We must draw from the ecumenical vision with wisdom. In a context where one’s Christian vision has a substantial devoted following – as I understand was once the case with Dutch Reformed settlers in Canada – it looks much more straightforward to envision an institution that will be a beacon for that approach – and also, one hopes, a beacon of success (“a city on a hill”). (I think this is what Mike’s helpful comment below is calling for.) In contexts – probably like ours in the UK at present – where this devoted following is not at hand, it’s much more complicated to know what faithfulness to Christ in academia looks like. Is it worth seeking small steps towards reform? I think so, but we need great wisdom as to how to proceed.
Mike Viccary · November 21, 2022 at 8:24 am
I can’t help thinking that Christ’s exclusivity is being missed here. Christ calls us to leave all in order to follow Him. His call is freely open to all but His requirements for life do not allow us the freedom to link with any who may claim the title christian’. The story of Jehoshaphat is pertinent I believe. His link up with Ahab introduced some disastrous consequences. I have always wanted to see a true Christian university here in the UK. I still do. But I do not want one where compromise is the opening standpoint.
Nevertheless it is nice to hear what you are up to !@
Richard Gunton · November 24, 2022 at 12:51 pm
Thanks for your comments, Mike – it’s good to hear from you. I think it’s significant that Christ’s call to follow Him, in the Gospel accounts, was different to different people. We’re surely called to have our lives turned around, but not all are called to leave families and communities, are we? I’m seeking to be faithful to Christ in a community that calls itself a university with a Christian foundation. If He calls me to leave it, then I must – but I find more freedom to explore Christian perspectives with people here than I’ve had in other universities – let alone in a business workplace. Wouldn’t you agree that a “true” Christian university (if this can be defined) is not very viable here at present? As I said in response to Shirley above, it’s not easy. I would love to be part of something better!
Mark Roques · November 22, 2022 at 10:26 am
Thanks Richard for this very helpful and informative article. Keep up the good work you are doing!
Chris Stoneman · November 25, 2022 at 3:11 pm
Nothing to intellectual about this response Richard, but I really enjoyed reading this article and the clarity that you wrote it with, and to let you know it was a pleasure knowing you while you were in Leeds!
Richard Gunton · November 29, 2022 at 10:45 pm
Thank you, Chris! I was really blessed by the time I spent in the WCF young people’s fellowship all those years ago.
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