EXCLUSIVE: OICCU and Oxford churches accused of homophobia

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Image description: Looking east towards the altar from the nave of Christ Church Cathedral.

TW: homophobia, queerphobia, abuse, mental health

The Oxford Student has this week spoken to several LGBTQ+ students who say that they have experienced homophobia within OICCU (Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union) and two of its main student churches, St Ebbe’s and St Aldates. Multiple students explained that as a result of their experiences with OICCU they struggled with serious mental health issues. This term, OICCU deleted social media comments supporting LGBTQ+ affirming churches, but it strongly refutes claims that it does not welcome or support queer Christians.

Former student members of the Union have made allegations that OICCU is homophobic. One wrote that “OICCU has hugely worsened my mental health” and that “only straight cisgender conservative Protestants—who believe in the superiority of straight cisgender men—can be supported and welcomed”. Another said that “I lost my faith at Oxford” “St Aldate’s seemed marginally better [than St Ebbe’s], with a friend telling me that they at least didn’t actively preach against homosexuality”. They stated, “I felt rejected by St Aldate’s, its community, and by God.”

Another student claims that, having attended services and events at St Ebbe’s, the church “clearly intended to spread the message that engaging in non-heterosexual activity was a sin”. Hannah Taylor, in a 2017 article, previously suggested that at an event she attended some comments were made that started with “obviously homosexuality is a sin…”. A different student stated that OICCU’s environment has “left LGBT+ people feeling suicidal, self-harming or experiencing other mental health issues”.

Deletion of LGBTQ+ affirming comments

In a recent Instagram post, OICCU wrote that “church is for everyone”. In the comments, people responded with suggestions of LGBTQ+ affirming churches and communities but these were later deleted. Following this, OICCU has turned off commenting on its Instagram (as of 5/11/20).

Alex*, a member of the Oxford Student Christian Movement (SCM) – a progressive Christian group – told us that, in response to OICCU’s post, SCM and others had “shared their excitement [that ‘church is for everyone’]”. As a result, SCM listed LGBTQ+ affirming churches in the comments of OICCU’s post. However, this list did not include OICCU’s churches. Students have since come forward with screenshots of such comments, no longer available on OICCU’s Instagram posts, that re-listed these LGBTQ+ affirming churches.

One individual wrote: “Since OICCU has been consistently deleting these comments and […] are clearly not LGBT-affirming, here are some LGBT-affirming churches in Oxford! St Giles, St Colombia’s United Reform Church, Wesley Memorial Methodist Church, University Church of St Mary the Virgin- many others are out there too!”

On a more recent Instagram post about a new “weekly discussion for international students” talking about “the big topics in life, culture, and society”, another person expressed their concern, stating: “OICCU claims that church is for everyone yet delete comments about how they are clearly not LGBT affirming accor[d]ing to the experience of others.” They went on to list the same LGBTQ+ friendly churches as the aforementioned commenter.

Regarding the deletion of comments, Alex* stated: “This is awful, especially given how OICCU puts out inclusive posts but aren’t transparent with what they believe until LGBT+ students get involved and are harmed.” Alex feels people “have their right to beliefs” but that “they need to be transparent” and “not gaslight and manipulate freshers, giving a misleadingly inclusive image and then acting [in a way which is not as] broad church as they claim to be”.

Alex also alleges that this does not include all the deleted comments, stating: “There are quite a number of comments deleted but the issue is whether they were screenshotted on time before they were deleted”.

Another commented on a Facebook post, writing: “I’m really concerned to hear how OICCU has been silencing LGBT+ voices and those who are trying to raise awareness of abuse in churches. You even recently posted an inclusive message for Freshers saying “church is for everyone”, telling people to try out church but then deleted comments that gave examples of LGBT friendly churches […] Is OICCU officially against this?”

OICCU’s executive committee replied to this Facebook comment: “The OICCU doesn’t stand in judgement on other churches in Oxford – it’s not our business to comment on the beliefs and activities of churches. We have a high view of freedom of speech, conscience, and association and would not wish to intrude on what other churches do or tell people where they can and where they cannot attend a church service. OICCU welcomes all students from all churches or none to come and join in our meetings and activities. We are pleased to partner with ‘Love Oxford’ which constitutes a wide range of churches who have a high view of Bible teaching and who are supportive of the OICCU. But, we recognise that there are many other churches in Oxford and that students need to make their own choices.

“It is regrettable that comments were deleted – which is not in the spirit of free speech – and we very much regret that lapse of judgement. We do think it is important that OICCU do not seek to coerce those with differing views of church and theology to conform to our own expectations and beliefs. And we trust that we will be able to move forward in a spirit that recognises the inviolability of freedom of conscience and speech and at the same time the importance of kindness and good-faith in how we speak of each other.”

Another student directly replied to this comment, writing: “Your response implies that those who showed solidarity for survivors of spiritual abuse or supported LGBT+ affirming churches (across a variety of church traditions) at Oxford do not “conform to [your] own expectations and beliefs”. Could you please clarify whether OICCU thinks there is something wrong with being LGBT?” At the time of writing, OICCU had not further responded to the comments.

When asked to clarify its position on homosexuality, the group’s executive committee provided the following statement:

“As previously stated, we welcome all students to OICCU regardless of age, gender, race, sexual orientation or any other distinctive. This is a very high value for us and is based on our foundational belief that all people have worth and dignity because they are made in the image of God. OICCU does not tolerate homophobia or abuse – such accusations go against the core of our identity as Christians and we find them deeply upsetting. We believe that OICCU offers students of all faiths and none a welcoming community. A great many students each year find OICCU to be supportive and a helpful context in which to explore issues of faith.

“It would be inappropriate for us to comment on behalf of churches, but we have a longstanding relationship with many churches in Oxford who are supportive of our aim, to give every student the opportunity to hear and engage with the message of Jesus Christ. OICCU isn’t the only expression of Christianity at university; there are many different expressions offering their own particular distinctives.

“We believe in freedom of speech, expression, and association, and believe these freedoms are essential in creating a context in which students flourish. Therefore, as previously stated on Facebook, in hindsight it was a mistake to delete the comments mentioned. Our intention was not to silence, but we believe these are sensitive issues that are rarely discussed well and productively on social media.”

Robin Hanford, a Ministry Student at Harris Manchester College as well as Student Minister at Oxford Unitarians, spoke about OICCU’s response to the Facebook comment. Hanford said “I was surprised that the OICCU would delete comments from LGBTQI Christians helping to signpost people to affirming and supportive communities. What has really angered me is their attempt at an apology.” Hanford explains: “Erasing the voices of LGBTQI people is one thing that us Queer folk are unfortunately all too familiar with, however as their apology [in the Facebook comments] failed to mention LGBTQI people at all, one is forced to conclude that even acknowledging the existence of LGBTQI Christians is seemingly something OICCU has trouble with.”

In response to the deletion of comments, Greg Morris, a member of OICCU and interfaith rep at Jesus College, echoed Robin’s message: “I personally think that’s undeniably homophobic, both erasing the existence of queer Christians and leaving them with no place to be accepted.”

Hanford commented further: “In comparing ‘churches with a high view of Bible teaching’ with churches that affirm LGBTQI people, they seem to implicitly declare that I as a bisexual Ministry Student at Harris Manchester and other LGBTQI Christians take a ‘low view’ of the Bible. This is frankly insulting. By conflating the valuing of LGBTQI voices within the Church with the issue of free speech they have shown that they have failed to understand the criticism that some students are making.”

OICCU has also been accused of untagging themselves from posts which specifically pray for those who have been spiritually abused, including LGBTQ+ people. OICCU was initially tagged in one post, pictured below, which was about LGBTQ+ affirming churches in Oxford; OICCU are no longer tagged in that post. St Ebbe’s and St Aldates’ Instagram pages were tagged but these tags were not removed. OICCU was also accused of untagging itself from another post from the Student Christian Movement about spiritual abuse. At the time of writing, OICCU is not tagged in either post.

Hanford, who is also a member of the Student Christian Movement, continued: “While OICCU claims to welcome ‘students from all churches and none’ it is apparent from the churches that it works with that it operates within a conservative evangelical framework which is not an accurate reflection of the ecumenical diversity of Church traditions that many Oxford students are a part of (a wide spectrum that the term ‘Christian Union’ should live up to).”

In response to OICCU’s Facebook comment, Alex* stated: “OICCU has been evading the question online [as to] whether they officially think there is something wrong with being LGBT. That’s a question that I think more will continue to ask”. Alex believes that OICCU will continue to evade this question.

The Oxford Student spoke to Sam*, a graduate of OICCU (2020), who said: “OICCU’s motivation with the churches that they recommended is certainly not motivated by LGBT issues but much more focused on whether they believe the churches are gospel focused”. Clarifying, Sam explained that OICCU are focused “on declaring Jesus as Saviour and not just a ‘social message of Christianity’ as some places focus on”. Sam suspects that OICCU decided to delete comments “because these are sensitive issues and social media is rarely a place to discuss them well, although they’ve obviously since apologised for doing so. But that’s where I expect they were coming from.” Sam felt that calling the deletion of comments homophobia is “not doing justice to OICCU’s decisions […] to recommend specific churches.”

Sam continued: “I think one can feel welcome without people affirming every part of one’s lifestyle,” explaining that “not tolerating one’s lifestyle would be a whole different subject but that doesn’t seem to be the issue.”

In response to these claims about which churches OICCU recommends, Greg Morris questioned who Jesus was the saviour of: “all God’s people, or just the cishet ones?” He argues that “if all the churches that preach Jesus as saviour alienate LGBTQ+ people, then it is implied that Jesus will not/cannot save LGBTQ+ people. If [OICCU is] not even willing to discuss such churches, that is very hypocritical of the critical approach to the Bible they preach. It seems they are willing to think critically so long as that results in support for […] mainstream values held by the majority of Christian institutions.”

There are also more long-term allegations that OICCU is not LGBTQ+ inclusive. These allegations were present in Hannah Taylor’s piece for The Oxford Student in 2017. She says: “I was, as a bisexual Christian, particularly looking forward to the small group discussion on sexuality. But instead of a meaningful discussion, there was a 5-minute talk by a gay apologist on how celibacy was the only true way for the gay Christian, this was then followed by several questions from OICCU members that began with ‘obviously homosexuality is a sin…’ and similar homophobic comments.”

Taylor also mentioned that OICCU often has speakers expressing these ‘controversial views’. This includes Michael Ramsden, one of the founders of The Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, who “talked of how he believes homosexuality is a so-called ‘lifestyle’ that is not approved of by the Bible.” Her piece, entitled “OICCU: Why leaving it behind was one of the best things I ever did for my faith”, concludes with the statement: “We need to speak out against the major flaws in OICCU if we want to make it open and welcoming instead of toxic. If we speak now, we can begin this process of change.”

Testimonies of alleged homophobia

Alex, Charlie, Cameron, and Jordan (not their real names)* say they experienced homophobia at OICCU and two of its main student churches, St Ebbe’s and St Aldates. Three of the four explained that as a result of their experiences with OICCU they struggled with serious mental health issues.

Charlie*, who lost their faith at Oxford, claimed they did not feel at home at OICCU: “I lost my faith at Oxford. As a gay Christian fresher, I hid who I was out of fear that I wouldn’t make friends and be accepted in the Evangelical scene at Oxford. OICCU felt inherently Evangelical, despite its protestations of unity and diversity. It felt like a dirty, shameful secret. As I began to dip my toe into the LGBT+ scene, it became clear that I had to split myself in two. I could not bring my queer self to Church or my Christian self to queer events.

“As is encouraged in the Evangelical tradition, my faith became my life. I attended as many OICCU events as my schedule could allow, but never felt at home because of my sexuality. OICCU’s ‘Home’ mission week felt like salt rubbed into an open wound.”

Charlie goes on to explain that “Church likewise failed to provide me with a home. St Ebbe’s’ track record [of homophobia] meant I never set foot in their church. St Aldate’s seemed marginally better, with a friend telling me that they at least didn’t actively preach against homosexuality. At its services, however, I felt the sting of implicit prejudice and assumptions that male and female was the only acceptable pairing.”

“At St Aldate’s, I met a group of celibate gay Christians, who shook up my view of what homophobic people were like. I felt the same overwhelming love and kindness from them that I clung onto in the OICCU community. These were good people, with solid, theological views, and yet my interactions with them were the most destructive to my faith of all I had while at Oxford. For the first time, I was encountering kind homophobic people. Sitting in their living room, I felt both loved and hated, blessed and cursed. They presented me with a choice – a relationship with Jesus or relationships with people of the same sex. There was no middle way, no ability to live authentically as a queer Christian, in their view.”

Charlie’s testimony concludes by explaining: “My conversations with them led me away from, rather than towards, God. While I could not fully defend my faith, shaky as it was, I could defend my sexuality. I knew I was gay but didn’t know whether I knew I believed in God. As time passed, and as I came out to more and more people in OICCU to test the waters and hear their perspectives, it became clearer to me how incompatible my faith and sexuality were. I felt rejected by St Aldate’s, its community, and by God.”

Another student, Alex*, spoke to us with a focus on the harmful mental health effects of allegedly failing to affirm LGBTQ+ Christians: ”I first came across OICCU through their ‘Carols at the Sheldonian’ where the Oxford Belles were singing. I was thus shocked to learn how my friends have had traumatic experiences in OICCU and in its endorsed churches. And, the consequences of OICCU’s lack of clarity on what they believe (not only limited to LGBT+ issues), has had a disturbing impact on people’s lives.

“I’ve seen how the actions and rhetoric of environments like these have left LGBT+ people feeling suicidal, self-harming or experiencing other mental health issues. Whenever we’ve tried to raise these issues, we’ve been told to respect “unity”. But that “unity” is never reciprocated when it comes to including LGBT-affirming churches and viewpoints, as seen by OICCU’s latest actions [deleting social media comments]. It is a serious safeguarding issue when organisations are more interested in endorsing churches that align with their views rather than standing up for the very survivors of trauma and abuse. As a Christian, our faith is meant to deepen our love, empathy and understanding for one another. This has clearly failed to happen.”

Another student, Jordan*, claims that OICCU did severe damage to them and others:

“No-one told me that OICCU wasn’t the only way to be a Christian. I wonder if they realise how much damage—hopefully not irreparable—they’ve done to myself and others. My exposure to conservative evangelicalism through OICCU has hugely worsened my mental health, and I know this is the case too for so many more people. The anti-Catholic, misogynistic, homophobic and queerphobic rhetoric ensures that only straight cisgender conservative Protestants—who believe in the superiority of straight cisgender men—can be supported and welcomed. It is sectarian and exclusive yet masquerades as welcoming and friendly. I have made ‘friends’ from OICCU, but I wonder whether we would be as close if they knew who I really was.”

The final student who spoke to us, Cameron*, said: “I, fortunately, have not experienced or heard much homophobia in OICCU or in my church St Aldates, though it sounds as though it is there, which I am saddened, though not particularly surprised, to hear (sadly one gets used to homophobia in churches).” They contrasted this to St Ebbes, which “is a different matter and is not a very affirming church for the LGBTQ+ community. For example, I went to one bible study there and they picked a passage from Romans to study (Rom. 1). This passage could have been about sin in general, but they chose the focus to be on homosexuality and clearly intended to spread the message that engaging in non-heterosexual activity was a sin. I felt uncomfortable the entire time, and never went to a study there again.”

Several posts from earlier this year on Oxfess, the University’s anonymous confessions page, contain similar allegations. One suggests that “the major student churches and the CU” are “homophobic and/or transphobic to varying degrees”, referring to St Ebbe’s and St Aldates churches. Another claimed that “the CU is an exclusionary place” and that “vile and hateful things [have been] spouted by the CU about the queer community.” They suggest that these “things they are willing to say to our faces […] make it so extremely difficult for queer people to retain any ties at all to their Gods and their Church.” It is not possible to determine whether these posts are from multiple people or a single individual.

Another Oxfess states they “really struggled to find a church in Oxford that was LGBTQ-affirming” and was “so glad to see this conversation is finally taking place”. They contrast the “diverse churches” they are used to at home with “the views of more “conservative” Christians” at the CU. They also point out, as was reported by The Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, that St Ebbe’s’ leader signed an open letter asserting the “importance of scripture” and seeing LGBTQ+ “lifestyles” as “inconsistent with New Testament tradition”. The anonymous Oxfesser alleges that their attempts to express outrage at this were “in the minority” and that others told them the same “in confidence.” They suggest “the fact they told me this in secret really says something.”

The Oxfess concludes: “I really think this is a conversation we need to have more openly because I don’t think people realise just how widescale the issue is.”

*At the request of these students, “Alex”, “Sam”, “Charlie”, “Cameron”, and “Jordan” are not these students’ real names and are not a reflection of their gender identity.

For any student wishing to attend an LGBTQ+ affirming church, here is a non-exhaustive list of such churches: St Giles, St Colombia’s United Reform Church, Wesley Memorial Methodist Church, University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford Quakers (43 St Giles), St Mary Magdalen, New College Chapel (particularly good trans inclusionary chaplains)

Oxford LGBTQ+ society also have support for queer religious people here: http://www.oulgbtq.org/religious-in-oxford.html?fbclid=IwAR2bfDF-V600rbKVQpyhHKaMqYB5fsU2y59S0P-W6F-Y7VAC7CgZKrePGXs

St Ebbe’s and St Aldates churches have not responded to our requests for comment. 

Image credit: The Oxford Student