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Oxford college accused of canceling Christian conference, denies Evangelical group's claim

Free Speech Union criticizes college's 'uncritical acceptance' of student complaints

Worcester College
Worcester College in Oxford, England |

An Evangelical organization has accused a college in Oxford, England, of canceling an upcoming Christian conference after student activists complained that the beliefs of speakers and attendees were hurtful to the LGBT community, a claim the college has denied. 

The Wilberforce Academy, an affiliate of the Evangelical advocacy group Christian Concern, has run a one-week conference for university students and young professionals at Worcester College for over a decade to guide them on applying the Christian faith to their vocations.

After the conference last September, some university students pressured the school to take action against the group, claiming speakers’ beliefs were “hateful and invalidating” toward the LGBT community. The school issued an apology for those offended by the conference. 

The preliminary booking for this year’s Wilberforce Academy conference   scheduled for September was allegedly canceled by Worcester College, according to a statement from Christian Concern. 

Student activists allege that leaflets promoting the conference’s Christian worldview were “aggressively” distributed “without consent."

Upon hearing news of Worcester’s public apology after last year’s conference, Christian Concern launched an independent inquiry.   

The group said in a statement Monday that there was “no evidence” found to justify the college apologizing last year and canceling the event booking this year.

“After thoroughly reviewing all the available evidence given by 114 attendees – the conclusion is made that complaints against The Wilberforce Academy delegates are ‘without substance,’” Christian Concern stressed in its statement. 

In a statement provided to The Christian Post, Worcester College contends that contrary to Christian Concern's claims, "no conference booking has been cancelled." 

"The College does not accept many of the findings in Christian Concern’s own report, and we are disappointed that this report has been published without us having the opportunity to discuss it in advance," the Worcester College statement reads.

"The College looks forward to a constructive meeting with Christian Concern and the chance to discuss properly the issues raised.  It does not wish to comment further at this stage except to make it very clear that the College supports free speech and to confirm that it remains one of the core values of Worcester."

Christian Concern reported that the topics found to be covered by “expert” international speakers at the conference were teachings of “biblical” beliefs the Church has upheld for roughly 2,000 years. 

The legal group confirmed that the topics discussed by the Wilberforce Academy at the conferences included “the role of Christianity in shaping law and culture; understanding today’s context; biblical ethics on human identity and sexuality and comparative religion including examining the nature of Islam.”

Worcester College is headed by the former chair of the U.K. Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and former head of the LGBT organization Stonewall, Provost David Isaac.

Christian Concern claimed in its Monday statement that it was informed by the college last November that the Wilberforce Academy’s preliminary booking for September 2021 was canceled because the college planned to conduct an internal review of the matter.

“As you will be aware, Oxford University and Worcester College seek to establish an inclusive culture which promotes equality, values diversity and maintains a working, learning and social environment in which the rights and dignity of all members of the College and University community (including people of faith) are respected,” the college said in a statement. 

Worcester College says it received several complaints from students about the leaflets being passed out on campus last September.

“Unsolicited approaches by your conference delegates to staff and students within the confines of the College in respect of various issues, especially LGBT conversion therapy, which they found upsetting,” the college was quoted as telling Chrisitan Concern. “This was especially the case for new students attending a parallel event, Opportunity Oxford, which prepares young people for their impending admission to Oxford University.”

When asked to show details of the complaints and alleged leaflets passed out on campus, Christian Concern was told that the school could not provide such information. 

“The information provided does not enable me to identify any of your delegates,” a Worcester College official told Christian Concern. “I have not been able to obtain a copy of the leaflets that were alleged to have been distributed.”

Christian Concern’s independent inquiry was conducted by Michael Stewart, a charity lawyer with prior experience in similar investigations.

Of the 124 attendees at the 2021 conference, 114 provided witness statements responding to the allegations. Worcester College didn’t engage with the inquiry, according to Christian Concern.

“The allegations that have been made regarding inappropriate behavior are not in keeping with my own experiences with the delegates with whom I had the pleasure of teaching and interacting. I found them unfailingly courteous and, in their debates with each other, mature and respectful,” one of the attendees was quoted as saying in a witness statement.

“I find it very sad that people are spreading lies when the week was a very positive week where many of today’s issues could be discussed in love and respect,” said another attendee. 

Andrea Williams, the chief executive of Christian Concern, said she anticipated that the inquiry would find no evidence that any delegates have done anything to warrant “apologizing for, being canceled or discriminated against for their Christian beliefs.” 

“Worcester College capitulated to complaints from a handful of students who appear to have felt offended following debate on some of the most important social issues of our time. It is disappointing that such a prestigious university and college should be canceling Christian beliefs, debate and free speech,” Williams wrote. 

Williams believes Oxford University should stand for “free” speech and expression and allow its students to have the “intellectual” ability to decide whether they wish to attend external events and make up their minds on what they hear.

“We will continue to speak of Jesus Christ who was Himself an outsider and by His words and actions demonstrated His commitment to reaching the marginalized, excluded and vulnerable so that they could discover true hope and everlasting love through Him, even sacrificing His own life to do so,” she added.

The Free Speech Union, a U.K.-based advocacy group, sent a letter to Provost Issac last week voicing concern with the school’s handling of allegations against the Wilberforce Academy. 

“The College’s uncritical acceptance of claims that the conference harmed students was a serious error,” FSU General Secretary Toby Young wrote. “In keeping with, as you put it yourself, your own and the College’s commitment to freedom of speech, the College should have investigated and faced down students’ ill-founded complaints. No higher education institution should apologise for free speech.”

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