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.