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By Isaac Delestre
Oxford students and tutors alike have condemned Exeter College’s decision to host an anti-gay conference this spring.
The Oxford Student can exclusively reveal that controversial pressure group Christian Concern, which advocates “corrective therapy” for homosexuals, will converge at the college during the coming Easter vacation.
Exeter has resisted calls to cancel the conference, in spite of opposition from University academics, the LGBT community and international gay rights charity Stonewall.
The debate was sparked by a complaint filed by LMH finalist Owen Alun John who condemned the homophobic principles of the conference called “The Wilberforce Academy”.
The “Academy” is an annual event organised and run by Christian Concern. The Academy’s website, which boasts a large picture of the Radcliffe Camera on its home page, is described by a video on their website as “God’s tool to raise up similar people”.
Christian Concern, a UK-based religious organisation (also known under the commercial name CCFON Ltd), is the organising force behind the conference, and has, according to its website, “a passion to see the United Kingdom return to the Christian faith.” It also seeks to raise objection to “secular liberal humanism, moral relativism and sexual licence”.
In his letter to Exeter’s Rector, Alun John asserts the group’s CEO Andrea Minichiello Williams’ view that homosexual relationships as “evil”, citing articles on the group’s website which describe them as “immoral” and “unnatural”.
The group has also been accused of equating homosexuality to paedophilia, after publishing an article objecting to the possible declassification of paedophilia as a mental illness in the US. In discussing the outright declassification of homosexuality in 1973 the piece complained, “Academic discussion of the adverse effects associated with a homosexual lifestyle has virtually ceased amongst psychologists.”
The evangelical group has also generated controversy through its consistent support of ‘corrective’ or ‘reparative’ homosexual to heterosexual conversion therapy. CC’s sister company the Christian Legal Centre (of which Minichiello Williams is also CEO) is currently lobbying in defence of psychotherapist Lesley Pilkington. Pilkington faces being struck off by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) for offering the ‘corrective’ therapy. The treatment has been widely discredited by the BACP as being based on “no scientific or rational reasoning”.
The head of policy at Stonewall, Sam Dick, condemned what he called Christian Concern’s promotion of a ‘voodoo’ gay cure therapy saying: “[This] has been discredited by the British Association of Counselling Psychotherapists. It’s remarkable that these bizarre and dangerous ideas can be aired unopposed in one of the world’s leading universities.”
“Gay students, and many Christians, will be deeply offended to see extremist groups given a platform at Exeter College. These murky groups spread intolerance and hatred against gay people in the UK and the US.”
Another group affiliated with the conference is the US-based legal body the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF). The ADF was instrumental in fighting the US Supreme Court case of Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, which set a precedent allowing the dismissal of scout leaders based on sexual orientation alone. They are also a driving force behind the maintenance of the same-sex marriage ban in California in the case of Perry v. Brown (formerly Perry v. Schwarzenegger).
Dr Andrew Hodges, a Fellow of Wadham College and long-standing gay rights activist gave his views on Exeter’s decision to host the conference:
“It is possible that the College concerned has regarded this booking as a purely commercial question for their conference business. However, in practice any organisation gains credibility and kudos from having a meeting in an Oxford college. Students are quite right to draw attention to this fact, even if the conference does not directly involve the life of the University population. Speaking purely personally, I am amazed to read that the College has agreed to this particular event.
“I have often pointed out that the University’s equality policies on religious belief and on sexual orientation are liable to give rise to a contradiction, since there are many religious beliefs which stigmatise homosexuality. This may well be a case in point, and I hope it will lead to a more serious discussion of what it means for the University and Colleges to implement such policies.”
Jess Pumphrey, OUSU’s LGBTQ officer made her position clear saying: “Students who experience homophobia need to be able to look to their College and University for support and vindication. When a college welcomes an organisation with a record of demonising LGBTQ people, they alienate those students who most need to know that they are accepted and supported.”
Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church, at St Cross College was also less than positive about the conference: “Colleges should be very careful about accepting bookings from pressure groups. They should also think carefully about the diverse nature of the community in the University and its Colleges: in particular the University’s stated commitment to welcoming diversity amongst its students, staff and visitors, and the way it recognises the contributions to the achievement of the University’s mission that can be made by all individuals, regardless of gender or gender reassignment. These aims do not seem very compatible with aspects of the activities of Christian Concern.”
In response to the burgeoning outcry against the event a spokeswoman for the University responded to complaints by saying: “Organisations seeking to use the College’s facilities are required to uphold the College’s policies concerning equality, which stipulate that any form of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation will not be tolerated.”
Exeter Rector Frances Cairncross, however, continued to defend her college’s decision: “This matter was discussed at the governing body at the beginning of term. There was a lively debate between members where it was decided that the conference would go ahead but we would write to the organisation concerned to remind them to follow our College policies, to which they agreed. None of the governing body disagreed with the final view.
“The organisation has signed a contract with us stating they will follow our policies. They’ve signed the contract and as long as they abide by it we’re content.
We have had many conferences organised by people whose views the College may repudiate. Freedom of speech is something Oxford stands for.”
However, when asked whether the college was planning on undertaking any effort to police or monitor the extent to which the conference conformed to college regulations she responded: “In terms of whether they abide by the rules, we can’t sit in on every conference. Some conferences that appear innocent may turn out to be the worst, so we can’t single out this one and it’s very difficult to police everything.”
Christian Concern CEO Andrea Minichiello Williams answered allegations that the conference may breach the College’s ethics policy, by saying: “We do not seek to discriminate against anyone, on the contrary, the message in the Bible is one of welcome for all people, but the Bible also makes clear statements on how we should live. The Bible says clearly that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that all sex outside of marriage is wrong.”
Addressing the issue of corrective homosexual therapy in more detail, she refuted the idea that there was any conclusive evidence rejecting its effectiveness, saying that there was still debate “at the highest levels of the scientific community” on the subject. Citing the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH)’s research as support for Christian Concern’s views, she stated: “Many homosexuals want to change their behaviour, they choose to do this, and to deny that people change their sexual preferences and behaviours is misguided.”
She concluded: “True tolerance gives us the right to disagree with those who have opposing views. Without this right, society becomes illiberal, even totalitarian.”
Student reaction to news of the conference and the views it seeks to promote was one of shock and dismay. A second year French and Spanish student at Exeter said: “I’m usually more supportive of the methods they use to bring in cash than many other people, but I think we need to know where to draw a line. Conferences are one of our biggest sources of income but if we’re going to have radical groups preaching views that are simply prejudiced, offensive and hatred-inducing in our College then something’s gone seriously wrong.
“Students might get a lot of stick about potentially giving a bad name to the College for their antics, but to be honest I’d rather that Exeter was known for having some drunk students than anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-toleration Christian fundamentalists. It’s also a bit difficult to say we’re forward-thinking and tolerant of everyone if we’re willing to host this conference. I hope that the College reconsiders their decision.”
Earlier this week, Alun John reiterated his objections, saying: “This is a simple question of Exeter’s priorities: do they care more about respecting their lesbian and gay tutors, students and staff – the people who pay their fees, teach their tutes and clean their floors – or is their focus on profiting financially from the very people who say that those members of Exeter are “evil” and need to be “cured”?”
He continued: “They can’t have it both ways. Exeter claims to be tolerant and accepting of gay people, but those words have no meaning if they’ll happily be paid thousands of pounds to welcome bigots and homophobic fundamentalists to their college, no questions asked.”
Addressing the issue of whether the forced cancellation of the conference would impinge upon the group’s free speech he said: “This isn’t about taking away their freedom of speech; it’s about where it’s most appropriate for them to exercise it. Should any Oxford college be hosting groups that are so fundamentally opposed to what our University stands for: rational, evidence-based study. Now I’d happily welcome them to an Oxford debate where they’d actually be challenged to back-up their lies and pseudoscience –that’s how we confront prejudice here, not by giving them cosy rooms, a lecture theatre and breakfast between eight and ten.”
When asked to comment, the president of the Oxford Inter Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU), Robbie Strachan, declined to condemn or support the planned conference, saying: “The Christian Union exists to tell people at Oxford University about Jesus. Owing to the multitude of political beliefs within the OICCU, the Christian Union itself takes no specific political stance.”