I should probably start with my story of how I first came across SCM. I was a first-year undergraduate at the University of Bristol and I became aware of an SCM conference at Wick Court, entitled “Whose Side are You On?” The theme appealed to me, because (typically) I had a lot of questions about religion, about politics, about the world. Looking back, I probably was looking for some kind of direction, some kind of framework, in which to locate myself and my concerns: was I even, maybe, looking for something to believe in?
The conference title and theme came from a quotation from the Brazilian educationalist and Christian Marxist Paulo Friere, who once said: “Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” In other words, to do nothing is to take sides – because it is to support the status quo. So standing back is not enough: we must all take responsibility for ourselves and for the world around us, to work for justice and change.
That conference and that first encounter with SCM was terrific and terrifying; brilliant and bewildering; but I knew that even though it felt like a huge step into the unknown, it made perfect sense. Becoming a part of SCM did feel like drinking rocket fuel; after that, there was no stopping me – it truly changed my life. But I don’t think I would necessarily have chosen it, left to my own devices. It felt more like something that claimed me, invited me and called me: a summons to something at the time unseen and uncertain.
And I wonder how many of you had a similar experience: of being claimed or called by a vision that you realised was larger than yourself – that maybe in many ways went against your own self-interest, caught you unawares, or which required you to change your career plans, or took you to unexpected places. And when we think about the history of SCM, it is that language and experience of calling and being called that runs through the generations. A call to service, to work for justice and peace, a call to a larger vision of the gospel and of God that reaches out to claim us and to chart our course through life.
In the early days, people saw this call as primarily a ‘vocation’ to missionary work overseas. We may be ambivalent about the legacy of Western missions today: their uncomfortable associations with the imposition of inappropriate political, economic or cultural ways of life, and their tendency to suppress indigenous spiritualities and traditional wisdom. It is clear that the pioneers of the missionary movement, such as John Mott (1865-1955), writing at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, did regard the work of those early student volunteer missionary organisations as essentially about bringing people to a personal faith in Christ as their Saviour and forming them as disciples. But what Mott termed ‘The Evangelization of the World in this Generation’ was never exclusively about bringing people to conversion, or even of propagating one dominant triumphalist kind of Christian culture. Rather, said Mott, the work of evangelization was ‘literary, educational, medical and evangelistic’. In other words, it addressed the whole person: body, mind and spirit. It was about physical and material well-being, as well as the state of your soul. It was always a this-worldly gospel to be proclaimed.
And those who were part of that movement were inspired, through its calling, to lives of service, duty to others and a quest for human solidarity, peace and justice.
And that sense, of being called and summoned by and into a larger vision of ourselves rests deep in the DNA of SCM. It has always been a movement that has said to its members, ’your life is not just your own’. You have a responsibility, as disciples of Christ and citizens of the world, to offer your talents and energies to something that transcends your own self-interest.
I think we can see that summons to a wider vision, a calling to a larger, more expansive life in many of the core values of SCM.
One of the things I really appreciated as a new member of SCM was its intellectual openness and its valuing of an enquiring approach to faith. It made sense to me that students should be applying the same kind of rigour and curiosity to their beliefs as they would to their studies. I knew some Christian prayer groups that would gather to pray that their members would not be exposed to ideas that might challenge their faith – like Biblical criticism (well, pretty much the whole theological curriculum), or Marxism (these were the days when there were still Marxists in universities), let alone feminism or gender studies. This seemed to me illogical, because it seemed to regard Christian faith as a set of boundaries that one couldn’t cross; a series of propositions that one had to sign up to; whereas I was learning to see it as a constantly expanding horizon.
So that sense that there are no ‘No Go’ areas about faith was one expression of that sense of inhabiting a wide, generous and open faith.
Of course, SCM has been associated with the ecumenical movement, and here again there is that sense that no one group has monopoly on the truth; that the journey of faith embraces doubt as much as certainty. An early watchword of the ecumenical movement in the C20th was, ‘If doctrine divide, let service unite’: once again, reflecting that understanding that our primary calling rests in our responsibilities to others, that the ‘good news’ of the gospel is fulfilled in working for a better world; and that the true unity of the body of Christ is found when it rids itself of the temptations of self-preservation and loses itself in the life of that world. And how much the churches in our own country still need that spirit, still, when many denominational leaders seem preoccupied with managing their own internal affairs, rather than turning out to the world.
Kathleen Bliss was a leading member of the ecumenical movement from the 1940s to the 1960s. In her book, We the People, which is about the laity in the life of the church, she has a great phrase. She talks about ‘The whole church in the whole world.’
And what I take her to mean is that vision of Christians working together not in order to preserve their own particular denominational identity or ecclesiastical privilege; not in order to defend their particular version of the truth; but working together out of that common calling to achieve that wider vision to which they feel they have been summoned. And it’s the whole church because it’s in the lives and actions of all its members and not just its leaders that we see the Body of Christ at work.
And it’s the church in the whole world because there are no ‘No Go’ areas: so the worlds of industry, science, technology, economics, politics, education, all these were the fields into which SCM and movements like it were to be found. There was no distinction between sacred and secular; between the life of the spirit or mind and that of the body. And in fact there is no contradiction between being disciples of Christ and citizens of the world; for if this was God’s world, then Christians were called to immerse themselves in it unconditionally – again, no boundaries, just ever-expanding horizons.
And thirdly of course, the whole church in the whole world meant a global international vision: of SCM as a global fellowship; and also of the crucial importance of justice, in trade, politics and community development; and of reversing that missionary flow, so that the powerful West can learn from the global South.
When I joined SCM staff in the early 1980s I tried to continue with the vision that had originally inspired me: a community of people who listened to my questions; respected my intellect; encouraged and reassured my doubts; and invited me to embark on a journey that had no limits, only ever-widening horizons. To acknowledge that none of us is master of our own lives, but we find our true identity as part of that ‘whole world’ – which increasingly, we come to realise isn’t just the human community, but the entire planet; the sense that the scope of our horizons and our vision must always be rooted in our responsibilities to the integrity of nature and creation too, as the larger reality on which we depend for our very existence
But this vision of a calling and service to others is increasingly difficult in our present times, when education has become a commodity. When the ‘cash value’ of a degree comes to dominate our choice of subject and to determine our future. When any sense of learning for its own sake, for the greater good, of any sense of a community of learning, gets totally hollowed out.
Even though the market driven system of higher education dictates that students are consumers or customers, this experience of calling -- on which our movement is built -- tells another story. Perhaps we need to reclaim that original vision of the early student volunteers that education was not simply a personal ticket to the top, but something that endowed them with a responsibility, a duty, to dedicate their skills and privileges to the common good.
I want to finish with a poem by C19th (Bohemian) poet Rainer Maria Rilke, which expresses for me something of this sense of the nature of that calling. It may feel risky, it may mean living with doubt; it may take us into unexpected places and situations. But we can undertake this challenge in the confidence that the One who called us, in whose hands we put our lives, is also the One who will be journeying alongside us:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,Then walks with us silently out of the night.These are the words we dimly hear:You, sent out beyond your recall,Go to the limits of your longing.Embody me.Flare up like flameAnd make big shadows I can move in.Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.Just keep going. No feeling is final.Don’t let yourself lose me.Nearby is the country they call life.You will know it by your seriousness.Give me your hand.
Elaine Graham is Grosvenor Research Professor of Practical Theology at the University of Chester. She studied Sociology and Economic & Social History at the University of Bristol and was Northern Regional Secretary of SCM between 1981 and 1984. She subsequently went on to work as an ecumenical lay chaplain at what is now Sheffield Hallam University from 1984 to 1988, before moving to the University of Manchester as a Lecturer/Senior Lecturer and (between 1998 and 2009) Samuel Ferguson Professor of Social and Pastoral Theology.