A brief history of Christian student activism

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Renate Howe: A Century of Influence: The Australian Student Christian Movement 1896–1996. UNSW Press, 2009. ISBN: 9781921410956. 

Renate Howe:  A Century of Influence, 9781921410956Like thousands of others, my faith was challenged at university. The challenge came from two directions. Studying women's history and feminist legal theory had me wondering why I was still part of the patriarchal church. And the popular student Christian groups on the University of Melbourne campus dismayed me with their conservatism and intolerance. There seemed to be no middle way between atheism and fundamentalism.

Then I discovered the Australian Student Christian Movement (ASCM), a small group committed to an 'intelligent faith'. It was feminist and queer-friendly, dedicated to social action, determined to relate Christianity to intellectual life. For years, it kept me Christian. So I read Renate Howe's centenary history of the ASCM eagerly, wanting to know more about the history of this movement that has been such a vital part of my life.

In 1896, when the ASCM (then known as the Australasian Student Christian Union) was established, Australia had only four universities, which were strongly opposed to any religious activity taking place on their secular campuses. Yet those who created the movement believed that Christian students could be agents of change in the university, the nation and the world.

Howe tells the fascinating story of a movement that did inspire many people to be change agents. The ASCM encouraged Christian involvement in Australian and international public life by relating Christianity to the issues of the day. It fostered an ideal of public service that influenced bodies as diverse as denominational missions, the Commonwealth Public Service, university Labor Clubs, and Australian Volunteers Abroad.

It encouraged Australians to see themselves as part of the Asia-Pacific decades before the rest of the country explored that possibility; provided the leadership of later ecumenical ventures including the Australian Council of Churches and the Uniting Church in Australia; and debated issues of war, peace and internationalism, encouraging pacifism after the First World War and subversion of the Draft during the Vietnam War.

While the ASCM initially supported the White Australia Policy as a way of maintaining living standards, and did not officially repudiate it until 1962, it did develop into a movement that challenged Australia's insularity. Initially uninterested in indigenous issues, the ASCM supported the 1967 referendum and in 1988 'celebrated' the Bicentenary with the conference 'Strangers in our own land: Racism, Christianity, Justice'.

One of the most important contributions the ASCM made was as a venue for women to exercise leadership. Conferences were always co-educational, then, while men were absent during the First World War, women stepped into leadership positions and stayed there.

ASCM women led worship years before churches allowed it, and in early decades the marriages celebrated between ASCM members provided women the opportunity for ministry as the wives of ministers and missionaries. A few decades later, ASCM women were actively involved in the campaigns for the ordination of women.

The formation of the ASCM was inspired by the charismatic American evangelical ecumenist, John R. Mott. From the beginning the Australian movement had a tense relationship with evangelicalism, deciding not to adopt Mott's watchword of 'the evangelisation of the world in this generation'.

The ASCM refused to hold American-style university missions, encouraged liberal biblical interpretation, and supported the modernist side in the modernist-fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s. In 1930 the Evangelical Union split off from the ASCM, a division that has never been healed.

Since the 1960s the ASCM has been a movement in exile, unable to assume that the university is interested in anything that Christians have to say, instead needing to earn the right to speak through its actions. As the traditional churches head into a similar exile, the ASCM may have much to teach them.

Howe's history is primarily of the first 70 years of the ASCM, rather than its first century. The ASCM continued to change dramatically between 1968 and 1996, but Howe gives those decades short shrift.

There are questions I still want answered. How did the ASCM, which supported women's leadership but usually paid women staff workers less than men and did not have a female chair until 1984, become the strongly feminist movement that I joined? How did it become proudly queer-friendly, years before the Uniting Church's sexuality debate made the front pages of newspapers?

Howe describes Other Men Laboured, the ASCM's 50th anniversary publication, as not 'forward-looking'. Her own otherwise excellent history has the same flaw. There is little recognition that in the decades following 1968 the ASCM continued to support, nurture and encourage students seeking to live out an intelligent Christian faith.

Avril Hannah-JonesAvril Hannah-Jones is a Uniting Church minister based in the Macedon Ranges. She was a member of the Australian Student Christian Movement in the 1990s.

Topic tags: Renate Howe, A Century of Influence, Australian Student Christian Movement, UNSW Press, 9781921410956



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Existing comments

Surprised to learn that the ASCM supported the White Australia Policy for so long - up to 1962 - especially when Australian communists had started opposing it after their party's formation in the 1920s and, of course, the Liberals in power had started dismantling it from the 1950s (eg, Menzies government's reversal of Chifley's policy of deportation of Chinese refugees who had fled the Japanese during the War).
Barry York | 07 August 2009


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