To try to understand the issues involved in the standoff between the Sydney University Student Union and the Evangelical Union, we asked Andrew Katay for his thoughts. Andrew was President of the EU in the late ’80s and served as Anglican Chaplain to the campus from 1998 to 2005. He is currently Senior Minister Christ Church Inner West, and CEO of City to City Australia.

I don’t imagine that anyone at Sydney University is enjoying the ruckus that has emerged around the University of Sydney Union’s (USU) move to deregister the Evangelical Union (EU) on anti-discrimination grounds. 

The main consequences of de-registration for the EU would be the removal of funding from the USU for its activities (not so important) and far greater difficulties in accessing room bookings for meetings (much more important). 

The media attention has spanned the mainstream papers, blogs and social media. The background is that after years of negotiations, in February this year, the USU issued an ultimatum to the EU: remove the declaration of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour as a requirement of membership as stipulated by the EU’s constitution, or be struck off. 

And, as I say, no one will be loving the controversy. Certainly not the USU, whose Vice-President is repeatedly reported as responding to the argument that the USU’s action would contravene the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights with the howler – “The USU is not a signatory to that document.” Hardly a confidence-building stance for an organisation seeking to uphold human rights!

The University itself will be unhappy. Many observers will fail to distinguish between the Student Union at the centre of the dispute, and the University proper – which, until recently, has not been involved at all. An indication of this unhappiness might be seen in the University’s move to provide the USU with independent legal advice – an offer which has prompted the USU to reconsider its position, which it will do on April 1. 

I suspect equally the Evangelical Union would rather not be at the centre of this storm. Their way is much more focussed on simply getting on with their mission. 

Beyond the Question of Rights

Much of the coverage is highly critical of the USU, especially in light of what its policy says about basic human rights like freedom of association and freedom of religion. That critique is understandable, but I suspect that it misses a more fundamental issue.

Taken on its own terms, it can be argued that the USU has legitimate grounds to insist that the EU change its constitution or be deregistered. Let me explain.

The USU is essentially a funding funnel. Sydney Uni students can join the USU as members and pay a membership fee each year. Part of that income is then recycled to student clubs and societies in the form of grants and subsidies of their events. Almost all of those student groups also charge their members a membership fee – and only provide the benefits of membership to paid-up members. The USU’s funding of those clubs and societies helps to keep membership fees and event costs to a minimum.

From this economic and contractual perspective, the USU is attempting to provide a service which is non-discriminatory. It wants to make its funds available to all students equally.

Yet the EU operates on fundamentally different terms. Its modus operandi is grace and truth, not money and quid pro quo. For years now, the EU has declined Union funding, and at the same time, makes all of its activities available to signed-up members and non-members alike without distinction in any fee charged – except that unbelievers are often given substantial subsidies to attend conferences!

All of this is done on the principle enunciated in 1 Corinthians 9.18: “What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge”. 

In other words, what’s happening underneath this stoush, is a fundamental clash of values, a collision of world views. And there is a delicious irony here, for the EU is fulfilling the USU’s basic goal of being non-discriminatory, precisely because of its membership-clause conviction that Jesus Christ, the gracious Saviour, is Lord and God! The EU’s allegiance to a gracious Master compels it to be more than fair. In practice, the EU actually goes way beyond what the USU wants, as grace always will.

And that makes this dispute a moment of evangelism at its best and deepest. Not only does the EU proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in many and various ways. But its whole framework for that proclamation constitutes a fundamental challenge to the un-grace and financial terms on which the USU conducts itself. 

How will it turn out? My guess is that some reasonable compromise will be reached. What I’m sure of is that the EU won’t compromise its stance for the gospel but will keep seeking to proclaim it, and live it out, as an expression of grace.

Andrew Katay

See our interview with current SUEU president George Bishop here.

Photo: Tina Reynolds, flickr