Students protest against Christian Concern conference at Exeter

28th March 2012 By Jonathan Tomlin

Students protested last Sunday against Exeter College’s decision to hold a conference organised by the controversial group, Christian Concern.

The annual conference, called “The Wilberforce Academy”, whose website has a large picture of the Radcliffe Camera on its home page, began this week.

Christian Concern has been criticised in the past for supporting “corrective therapy” for homosexuals, and for attacking same-sex relations.

The protest began on Sunday morning, the day on which the conference began, and lasted several hours, with students demonstrating outside the college.

Lyman Gamberton, one of the organisers of the demonstration and a student at Brasenose, said: “Our job was to try and engage others, both conference attendees and passers-by, rather than drive them away.

“We had a lot of positive feedback from passers-by on Turl Street; several people came up unprompted to express support, having heard about the protest beforehand, while others asked for leaflets and information.

“Our interactions with the conference attendees were surprisingly positive overall, I think: there were a few heated exchanges, but we engaged several conference delegates in respectful theological debates, some of which lasted over an hour. I don’t think anyone’s fundamental views were changed, but both sides got an opportunity to put forward their views.

“All in all, I think the protest was extremely successful.”

Gail Bartlett, a student from St Hugh’s who attended the protest, agreed: “Throughout the afternoon we managed to get a wealth of messages of support from the passing public – and to my knowledge not a single expression of hostility was received from passers-by.

“I believe we presented ourselves honourably, made the attendees aware that this was not by any means an anti-Christian protest (many of the protesters were Christian themselves), and described our grievances well.

“Our primary aim – to make it known that we do not think that an Oxford University college should lend its reputation to a group such as Christian Concern – was achieved.”

But Reubs Walsh, a student at St Edmund Hall who was involved with the protest, said: “I was trying to engage in a conversation with the CEO [of Christian Concern] whose responses were brief and confrontational. She complained that we had made them feel unwelcome and the subject of hatred.”

Walsh added: “After my trying political arguments about the nature of incitement to hatred and the damage done to the targets of their ‘therapy’, biblical arguments pointing out how Jesus healed a gay man’s life-partner, and held the man up as an example of good faith…and the academic community’s uncertainty about the meaning of words often translated to mean homosexual, she started moving towards ideas of ‘protecting the family’.

“At this point I was forced by my emotions to remove myself from the discussion because I know how the ex-gay industry rips apart families and I knew I would lose my cool if I remained.

“These kinds of conferences are essentially indoctrination using techniques not so dissimilar from the Hitler Jugen, and therefore really rather hard to resist. It is clear to me that the CEO herself is indoctrinated into a state of non-engagement.

“As an organisation, they refused to engage with me either as a fellow Christian, a member of the university, or as a member of a community they target. As individuals, they were, on the whole, good-natured and willing to engage in discussion.

“It seems that the Wilberforce Academy is not nearly as dangerous or self-righteous as its parent organisation Christian Concern; however the fact of their association is indeed worrying.”

Sam Weinberg, President of the OU LGBTQ Society, said: “I fully supported the protest, I think it was a great idea.  It was a good way to remind people of why groups like OUSU’s LGBTQ Campaign exist—in spite of the rapid progress that has been made, we are still not treated equally.”

Many of those who attended the protest added that it was inappropriate for Exeter College to hold the conference.

Ross Brooks, author of the local LGBT guide ‘Queer Oxford’, and an alumnus of Oxford Brookes, said: “This event at Exeter is a disgrace to the whole of Oxford, gown and town. I am heartened that the whole community has pulled together to organise a formal protest against this dreadful situation. It is the first LGBT rights protest in Oxford for over a decade.

“It is inconceivable that members of the BNP would be welcomed to Oxford for a private event in the same way as these anti-LGBT lobbyists are being entertained.

“If, as we have been led to believe, this is a genuine mistake then Frances Cairncross, Rector of Exeter, should make it absolutely clear that these extremists will not be back in future years. So far, she has not done this.

“The Christian Concern people really are dreadful… I spoke to a couple of them who made some snide insinuations about homosexuality being akin to paedophilia. This upset me and others.

“It subsequently transpired that the group was using recording devices to document protesters’ outraged responses to their coercive statements. This, on Turl Street, in the name of Jesus!”

OU LGBTQ supported the protest, saying: “While we appreciate that speakers or conferences appearing at the University does not necessarily mean that their views are endorsed by the University or its colleges, the presence of a group that actively argues against the protection of freedom of sexual orientation is not conducive to the presentation of a university that welcomes LGBTQ members.

“One only need look at the website for the Wilberforce Academy to see that being hosted at Oxford University is a major draw for the event, and we do not feel that the University should, however indirectly, lend its prestige to such an event.

“While not one of us would argue that these people do not have a right to hold and speak these views, they hold no such right to hold this conference at our university.”

But representatives of Exeter’s LGBT community defended their college: “The fact that an organisation with homophobic views has rented the college premises does not reflect on the college’s own views on this issue.”

They added: “The presence of a very vibrant student LGBTQ society…is testament to the atmosphere in Exeter, buttressed further by the strong LGBTQ presence in the SCR.”

Frances Cairncross, Rector of Exeter College, declined to comment on the actual protest, but said of the conference: “As soon as it was raised as a potential issue, the Bursar wrote to the Wilberforce Academy to emphasise our position on equal rights, and sought and obtained reassurances that nothing in the meeting would be against our policies on basic rights and freedoms.”

Christian Concern CEO Andrea Williams said: “Our whole motivation is one of love for God and the individual. The Bible is quite clear that the only place for sexual expression is within marriage between a man and a woman.”

Access to Exeter College was limited, and security was increased, in response to the demonstration.

Gez Wells, Deputy Bursar at Exeter, said: “The College will remain open to its members during this time, but will restrict access to visitors and associates who do not have specific business within the College.”

Nobody from Wilberforce Academy was available to comment.