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In Conversation with Peter Haresnape


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/06/22


Peter Haresnape is the General Secretary of the Student Christian Movement of Canada. He discusses: religious teachings in upbringing; the ecumenical movement; finding and join the Student Christian Movement of Canada; the state of the Christianity among youth and students in the SCM world; anti-oppression and the spiritual movement with SCM; liberation theology; perspectives on sexuality; the irreligious and the religious in dialogue and activism; Indigenous solidarity; and targeted objective and hopes.

Keywords: Canada, Christian, general secretary, Peter Haresnape, Student Christian Movement of Canada.

In Conversation with Peter Haresnape: General Secretary, Student Christian Movement of Canada[1],[2],[3]

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, how was upbringing in terms of religion or religious teachings in the household?

Peter Haresnape: I grew in what we would today call an intentional community in the East of England. It was comprised of my parents and a few other couples that were trying to follow more of a charismatic Christianity than was common in the types of churches that they grew up in, like the Church of England or things like that.

So, they ended up buying a house together, then a church came out of that. So, I grew up in that house and also in that church. It was pretty Evangelical in its mission and very charismatic, which was pretty unusual in the UK at that time.

Although, there were lots of other churches across the country that were doing that. However, never large numbers of people. So, growing up, it always felt a bit weird or I was always a bit weird in a fairly secular society that I not only went to church, but also lived in the house with a bunch of other people in the middle of a small city in East England.

This is not the usual. So, my religious upbringing was all tangled up with this unusual household. We lived there until I was about 9, then my family left that community and moved to a different house. However, still carried on taking part in that church.

This was a very non-political community in the sense that they didn’t weigh in heavily on political issues. However, that meant it generally had this conservative feel to it, if that makes sense. So, they would have said they were nonpartisan. However, that defaulted to a type of conservatism.

So, that’s my upbringing. I carried on to that type of church after going to university. However, gradually found, that I was more and more drawn to a more ecumenical, definitely more left-wing types of Christianity and more socially engaged type of things.

So, in that, it was pretty inspired by Christian anarchism as a force and eventually I liked that tradition and that’s what I also gravitated towards in my young adult years.

2. Jacobsen: You used the term “ecumenical.” With regards to the Christian ecumenical movement, what does the term mean? And how is it interpreted within its proper context?

Haresnape: My use of it, personally, in terms of my life story is that I grew up with this idea that we were this particular church. We were the only ones that had it right and everybody else was wrong.

The spirit of God was with us and it wasn’t with these other churches. Most of the people who were part of that church upbringing had maybe grown up in a religious environment and belief that this was at best like a cultural thing or actually corrupt or something like that.

Years after this upbringing, I began to actually realize other people’s sincere Christian beliefs who were not part of this community. People from different Christian groups could be for each other.

So, ecumenism for me means acknowledging those many different streams and navigating them not based on what’s wrong or right necessarily, but on an understanding that there’s genuine truth or a truthfulness perhaps in each of these streams.

That there’s an advantage to being conversant in all of these different streams. Within the Student Christian Movement, that’s always been an ecumenical movement intentionally. The other movements that I draw the most inspiration from have always had intentional ecumenical attempts to bring in different streams of Christianity and have found that to be an important part of their identity.

3. Jacobsen: Eventually, you found yourself in the Student Christian Movement of Canada. It is a youth and student-led grassroots network with an emphasis on community and diversity, radical faith, action, and social justice. How did you find it? What did you decide to join it?

Haresnape: So SCM, many countries have SCMs. I believe they’re all fairly different from each other, potentially. In the UK, most of the campuses are either SCM campuses or Christian Union campuses.

The SCM is the more progressive and the CU is the more Evangelical. So, the university I went to had a Christian Union. So, I never thought about the SCM until I came to Canada in 2010 to work with Christian Peacemaker Teams, which is another important organization in my life.

I began to meet all these people connected with the SCM. I didn’t know about the SCM; then when I went back to the UK to do a speaking tour about my work with Christian Peacemaker Teams, I met all these people from the SCM in the UK and realized they were all these people who were engaged in the stuff that excited me about religion.

It was my luck that I ended up not them at the time when I was a student myself. So, I was never involved with the SCM as a student. However, in Canada, I became involved with them through organizing the Cahoots Festival which is a faith justice and do it yourself festival that we do every year.

The SCM gives a primary organizing impetus to it. However, I was invited in as somebody who’d done a bit of organizing of this type of thing before to help with that. It is done in partnership with other groups that have some shared values.

So, I was involved as a volunteer organizer for the first couple years. Then last year, the General Secretary at the time, who was a friend of mine, decided to quit so that she could move to another country.

So, I applied for the position because I’d done 6 years with my previous organization, which is about as much as anyone does with Christian Peacemaker Teams. There were changes coming with the team that I thought it made sense for me to step out at that time.

4. Jacobsen: Looking at the contexts now in Canada, what is the state of the forms of Christianity among youth and students that the Student Christian Movement would support?

Haresnape: A lot of the people that we connect with are those who had a religious upbringing, a Christian upbringing. However, they find that they are not comfortable in that. So, for the vast majority of cases, that’s because they’re queer, or because they don’t agree with their church’s teachings on sexuality.

Or generally on justice issues or they’ve grown up in an affirming congregation and they don’t find a home with other campus Christian organizations. It seems to me that the majority of campus Christian organizations are pretty much conservative, small or Orthodox.

A lot of people who grew up in those religious environments who reject that will also reject the religious environment. The SCM is there for people who want to keep their religion but get rid of the social conservatism or whatever.

The more conservative outlook on life. We’re a pretty small organization and we tend to attract people who are trying to be on the fringes or who find themselves on the fringes. So, there’s stories of people who, maybe, don’t feel totally at home as a Christian within the more perhaps atheist or anti-Christian political societies.

But also who find, that the Christian groups on campus are too conservative or too non-political for them and don’t include that nice aspect. So, we’re like in between these different movements. It is how it feels to me.

We’re not the only ones doing this. There’s other organization specifically and maybe some other groups of people that are doing this. However, we’re certainly the oldest of those organizations. Does that answer your question?

5. Jacobsen: It does. I want to go through the principles quickly. You emphasize anti-oppression. What is anti-oppression? How does this fit within the spiritual movement of SCM?

Haresnape: Anti-oppression specifically refers to the idea that the forces of racism and sexism, or homophobia and transphobia. This long list of forms of oppression that people experience is part of the society that we live in.

So, it is not about individual actions or attitude, these are values or power structures that are baked into our society and that we need to have a principled and systematic response to them of anti-oppression.

This also implies that violence against women or violence against queer people or violence against people of colour is not again a matter of individual criminality or not a matter of individual criminality.

However, it is a matter of social pressures, historical trends, things like that. So, the SCM is one of the organizations I say that would try to build a different way of functioning and a way that tackles forms of oppression, and also give the people the tools to eliminate them in other parts of their lives and try to encourage that.

It also tends to be a bit of a systematizing formula or something like that. We maybe come to understand racism and then we use those analysis tools to understand sexism as well or to understand issues of a built-in disability and access.

So, it is a lens that we would use to view our societies and our structures and also try to encourage other people to use those lenses to understand; how it relates to spirituality differs from person to person.

Some people would feel that anti-oppression is like the Christian thing to do in the sense of “Jesus was intentionally inclusive. Jesus didn’t discriminate against people based on their ethnic origin or their physical capacities and gifts and, therefore, we shouldn’t either.”

Other people would see say racism or white supremacy as being essentially a spirit or spiritual power that Christianity is pulled to resist, to cast out, to speak out against, things like that. So, the spiritual aspect tends to differ from person to person.

As well, how they bring that into their spiritual life as well also differs, this might be something that is felt to be like good policy. Church is the one place that they as a person can explore that. Or they might also feel a sense of religious obligation or obligation to their religion to pursue this in all areas of their life.

So, it does differ.

6. Jacobsen: Also, something of particular note is the Liberation Theology aspect of SCM with the “preferential option for the poor.” You know, as well as I do, that in the past, either in Latin America or South America, there were political assassinations of Jesuit priests who were exposing this.

Also, something of interest to me is the fact that it is more in this world of a focus for the poor. I find that aligned with some formal irreligious belief system such as humanism or unitarian universalism or ethical culture.

So, what does this mean within the context of SCM, Liberation Theology?

Haresnape: It would certainly be something we would draw upon to some extent. It is an interesting question because like that’s not necessarily a place that we would jump to and how we describe ourselves, that formal liberation.

Even though, when a lot of Liberation Theology practices like the way the Bible is interpreted in community, the way people are expected to bring in their own context of oppression and liberation into it, for example. That’s something we would definitely do.

However, we’re a little divorced perhaps from the historical context there, not Latin America, but also I would say African American Liberation Theology as well. Or things that maybe we have some impact upon that maybe that we don’t intentionally recognize that in the way that we could do.

In the past, SCM certainly has been stronger in this and has done exchanges with SCMs in Latin America in particularly. There was an exposure trip to El Salvador a couple of years ago. But, you use Liberation Theology as its focus for study and the focus of that was bringing students and people into contact with that and how that had been. Does that answer the question?

7. Jacobsen: Yes, it does. Next on the list was LGBTQ-affirming, how does this differ from mainstream perspectives on sexuality that we see in Canada with regards to, well, Christianity at large?

Haresnape: The SCM has always, not always, it would be silly to say it is always been queer affirming. It certainly hasn’t been. However, it was pretty much an early adopter of the idea of it. Queer and trans people could be full members and participants, or that sexuality was not a bar to membership, full membership and full participation.

That is the way, as far as I understand it, the first churches approached this issue, about the SCM. In Canada, at the time that I was coming into contact with SCM 5 or 6 years ago, it was very, very clear and very, very pragmatic and systematic about how it talked about these issues surrounding sexuality.

It still is a strong part of our core identity that we want to be a place where queer and trans people can be safe, can explore their Christian identity and all the other aspects of identity within the organization.

So, we don’t exist so much as a place for conversation about these issues. There would be space for a variety of different views, but the SCM itself would be perhaps – we would say – would have a preference or option for queer and trans people who wanted to have full access to marriage.

Things like that. So, we wouldn’t be that neutral on that or if some other Christian organizations that try very hard to be a place where people of different opinions can co-exist; whereas, the SCM would come down on the side of the safety of queer and trans individuals rather than other groups.

The way this was explained to me by a former General Secretary, a number of years ago, was there are lots and lots of conservative churches. There are lots of safe spaces for people who are more conservative or perhaps queerphobic.

However, we don’t have a lot of those spaces for Christians who aren’t; it is pretty strong in our materials. We always try to use rainbows and stuff like that to identify ourselves. And that’s because on campus today, the majority of Christian organizations would not be affirming of queer people.

Also, we want to show that not to students, but to other organizations that we are queer and trans affirming and inclusive. We used to counter this idea that a fundamentalist conservative Christianity is like the voice of Christianity is the only way of talking about it. I don’t know.

That sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. Other organizations like queer organizations would still be suspicious of a Christian organization. However, it at least gives us a way to converse with them.

It doesn’t seem to have impacted our ability to do interface work as well or to even relate to other Christian groups that would not show these things. So, that’s pretty good.

8. Jacobsen: Also, another principle is interfaith. It is to build those bridges through dialogue and work. Another phrase that was introduced to me, I forget from who, was “inter-belief,” where this can then include the irreligious as well without by title implying only faiths.

Would you also include the irreligious in regards to having room for dialogue as well as activist work?

Haresnape: Definitely. I would say in some ways that’s a natural way that our coordinators at different campuses would seek out those connections to do the activist angle and seek to do that activism through partnership with groups that wouldn’t necessarily share our religious connections.

The SCM has also not had a doctoral statement or certainly any expectation that people hold to a particular set of spiritual beliefs for being a member. So, we would certainly have people who would identify themselves as part of the SCM who are atheist or agnostic.

I would say that they’ve pretty much always been part of the SCM as far as I can tell. I found a record of something called the Annual Joust, which was this event that the SCM and the UFT had in maybe the 70s.

That was a debate between the agnostic and the religious members of the SCM; everybody looked forward to it with great anticipation. Maybe, the interfaith, or inter-belief, more formal partnership, getting together with a particular, set of other religious groups.

That’s more recent in some ways. I don’t know the history of that so much. However, I know the SCM’s have been involved in a few different projects that try to build up those interfaith conversations.

I should say, there was this Faith House that worked quite well in Ottawa that the SCM was somewhat involved in that was an intentional community for people of different religious beliefs, still exists.

We’re not super involved in it, but it is still going. There was an attempt to do the same thing in Toronto for a number of years running, but it never took off. But, it was this idea of people of different religions living together and learning from each other.

So, it definitely fits within a project that the SCM would be involved in. However, I am not sure it has ever been a core value in the same way that some organizations exist specifically. It has been solely for interreligious work.

9. Jacobsen: Also, you have three, what seems to me like, associated principles: Indigenous solidarity, environmental justice, and consensus. Indigenous solidarity, especially with regards to activism and environmentalism, or what is now termed environmental justice.

As well, the methodology in terms of making decisions about how one applies solidarity as well as environmental justice, which is through consensus. Can you dive for a couple minutes into what is meant by Indigenous solidarity, environmental justice, and consensus within the context of SCM?

Haresnape: The Indigenous solidarity and consensus are easier to talk about in some ways than the environmental justice aspect of things. The SCM is a predominantly non-partisan and secular – separation of church and state – organization in terms of the churches that support us and the people that come to us.

So, there is an intentional desire to identify that as part of who we are; that we are predominantly the non-partisan and secular individuals and the organizational structure itself is very a secular Christian organization clearly in the way we do things.

So, part of it is acknowledging that because then that gives us the capacity to engage Indigenous solidarity from an honest place where we can be honest about who we are, why we’re doing the things that we’re doing, then our actual program work around that looks different depending on what’s going on at the moment.

So, some of the program work we’ve done in past was when the TRC was actively taking recommendations and some things like that. There was a group of SCM members in Winnipeg that did something, where they walked from Winnipeg to Edmonton in time for the start of the Edmonton TRC.

Visiting the communities on the way and talking about this work of solidarity that Christians specifically had a responsibility for, because of recognizing the way that Christianity had been part of the colonization and continues to be part of way Indigenous communities are assimilated or colonized or attempted to do that.

So, there’s a particular Christian responsibility there. There’s also some particular opportunities there as well. So, our solidarity doesn’t come from this place of having a responsibility to right the wrongs of the past; the particular violence of colonization and assimilation.

Also, this idea that as a whole the impact of Christian European-Canadian society has been pretty bad for the land as well and the types of resource extraction that take place are damaging not to Indigenous people’s cultures and life ways, but to the environment itself and the air and the water that we all rely upon.

So, we would see those as dual concerns. I would say this is certainly a personal thing. I don’t know if I can say it is an SCM thing. However, I would definitely say that we would want our Indigenous solidarity.

We would want our environmental justice work to always come from a place of solidarity with Indigenous communities that are doing that work, when those two things get divorced it can be quite damaging.

When about what has the SCM done for environmental justice, in the time I’ve been a member, we haven’t done very much actually. However, Indigenous solidarity, I can talk about some specific things.

However, that would be a principle. We would say that Indigenous solidarity should lead the way or should guide how we do our environmental justice work, then consensus building or consensus decision making comes from way back and has been how things are decided.

An idea that whoever’s at the table has wisdom to share. We should have a structure that works like that. I don’t know if I have a lot more to say about that. It is a way of decision-making that I am familiar with from some groups in the UK, which did not have a particularly fond view of religion.

However, I believe it has a way of making decisions. It is much older than that. The Quakers had a lot to do with the way consensus decision-making was designed. Where there has been formal decision-making in the communities I’ve been involved in, it has usually been a consensus model.

10. Jacobsen: Looking ahead for SCM as well as its work within itself and in coordination with other organizations in Canada, what are some of the targeted objectives? And what are the general hopes for the next 5 years?

Haresnape: One is very pragmatic where I am on a gradual process of growth and rebuilding, essentially. The SCM was big in the 60s and then has been declining ever since then to the point that 4 or 5 years ago; there was a decision made. “Should we close down the organization or should we give it another go?” And they decided, “Okay. Get back on it.”

At that point, there was no programming. So, it is like starting from scratch again. So, we’re going to continue that gradual growth and also adapt to the changing circumstances of the church.

Particularly, the organizations that have always sponsored the SCM are themselves in decline, have less money, less capacity to support the type of work that we do. So, we also need to think about how sustainable we actually are on the long run.

However, those are the administrative concerns. In terms of program stuff, right now, we’re focusing on engaging white supremacy and working with other groups and trying to find students that are passionate about this anti-racist work.

We’re using more of the tools that we have for training around non-violence. The ways to keep people safe on the streets when there are protests and things like that, helping people to understand spiritual practice as something that they can do.

What’s behind that is an attempt to speak into a culture of cynicism or despondency or this idea that you can spend your whole day scrolling your Facebook feed and read bad news from everywhere, we want to get it into people’s heads and hands that there is actually something that they can do.

It doesn’t mean that they’ll have all the answers. The process of treating people in non-violent direct action and non-violent accompaniment, being present in the streets in solidarity with oppressed people is itself a mobilizing force that gets people out of this sense of despair or shock or despondency.

That’s very practical. It is very important for right now, where North America is. It is a mobilizing force. It is something that anybody can do. So, I am enthusiastic about that. Individual units in Canada focus on different things based on what makes sense for them.

I know that several units in 2017 were thinking about how to offer self-care on the campuses outside of solely Christian model or something like that. So, people are looking at ways so that they can make self-care resources around exam time next year.

That will be a way that they can bless the people around them, I suppose. So, not traditional outreach in the sense of trying to persuade people. However, something that directly engages the stress of students these days.

That’s pretty cool. Those ongoing things around Indigenous justice. Right now, SCM members are engaged in supporting the push for Bill C-262, which is going to, hopefully if it passes, will bring the United Nations on the Rights of Indigenous People into Canadian law.

So, that’s something for this year, but is going to be a campaign for the next couple of months certainly. After that, I don’t know what will happen. However, I know that there will always be people who are engaged in Indigenous solidarity.

We’ve done partnerships with Christian Peacemaker Teams in the past. That’s the organization I used to work for doing Indigenous solidarity work. That model that they do of short-term delegations for learning and peacemaking is something that the SCM has also done in the past.

So we’re always looking for particular trips that we can take; ways that we can get people out of their universities and actually into direct solidarity relationships with other communities. We do that stuff mostly through the World Student Christian Federation and programs that they run: leadership training, theological study, and political action programs.

However, we would also do things with Christian Peacemaker Teams or other groups as possible. Generally, there’s always things like the Cahoots Festival, which is a gathering of communities. That’s our annual event basically. The big annual event that we do in the Summer.

So, the Cahoots Festival reflects the general concerns of the organization that we engage in faith, justice and do that in a way that empowers people with sharing. Things like that. We try and use those principles in our other programs as well.

Those are the things that come mind at the moment.

11. Jacobsen: Do you have any final thoughts or feelings, conclusion based on the conversation today?

Haresnape: We pretty much covered everything I thought we would. It is interesting to me. So, what is it? So, in less than 5 years, it will be our hundredth anniversary. I don’t know quite what form the the SCM will be in by that point.

However, we’re always going to be around in one form or another. So, I am hoping we can mark our hundredth anniversary in a pretty good style.

12. Jacobsen: Thank you very much for your time, Peter.

Haresnape: You’re very welcome.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1President, Trinity Western University.

[2] Individual Publication Date: June 22, 2018 at; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2018 at

[3] Image Credit: Peter Haresnape.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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