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Worcester apologises for hosting “homophobic” conference

Charlie Hancock reports on the latest controversy in which an Oxford college hosted the controversial Wilberforce Academy.

CW: homophobia, transphobia, conversion therapy, Islamophobia, abortion, paedophilia, self-harm, suicide

The Provost of Worcester College, David Isaac, has apologised for the College’s decision to host a controversial Christian residential course between 6-11 September. The course featured speakers who have appeared to draw connections between homosexuality and paedophilia, and is run by an organisation which opposes abortion, same-sex marriage, and banning so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ people.

The Wilberforce Academy is a week-long residential course run by Christian Concern, a religious lobbying group, with the aim of “equipping the next generation of leaders in public life”. The course is aimed at students and young professionals working in a variety of sectors including law, politics, the media, business, and the arts. 

Cherwell has reported that some speakers at previous Wilberforce Academy conferences have appeared at rallies hosted by groups supportive of the English Defence League, and have spoken alongside the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders.

Worcester College is not the first Oxford college to host the Wilberforce Academy. Trinity, Exeter, Jesus, and Wolfson Colleges have all been criticised for hosting the conference. After backlash from students, Exeter College donated the profits from the conference to LGBTQ+ causes. The then-President of Trinity College apologised for hosting the Wilberforce Academy.

In 2018, students at Lady Margaret Hall voted to refuse to allow Christian Concern to hold events in the College on the grounds that their presence would threaten the “physical and mental safety” of students. In the same year, The Queen’s College refused to host the conference because of their commitment to “promoting equality of opportunity and opposing discrimination”. Christian Concern was eventually able to book Wolfson College for their 2019 residential course.

Colleges at Cambridge University have also been criticised for hosting the Wilberforce Academy. The conference was hosted by Magdalene College in 2014, and Clare College in 2015. Sidney Sussex College hosted the Wilberforce Academy in both 2016 and 2017. Magdalene and Sidney Sussex both told the student newspaper Varsity that the Wilberforce Academy was a private booking which did not represent the views of the College.

Christian Concern has been accused of peddling “homophobia and transphobia” for their stance in opposition to same sex marriage, and for describing proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act as “an attack on children, families, and marriage”.

The group opposes banning so-called conversion therapy, on the grounds that it would criminalise some forms of religious practice including “spiritual counselling”.

Figures from the 2018 National LGBT Survey found that 5% of LGBTQ+ people in the UK had been offered some form of conversion therapy, and another 2% had undergone it. 53% of respondents said that they were offered conversion therapy by a faith organisation or group.

In a letter to the Evangelical Alliance, Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised that “appropriate pastoral support (including prayer) in churches and other religious settings” would not be criminalised under any ban on conversion therapy. However, survivors of these practices in religious settings have claimed that the “prayer” they received “did its damage” and even caused them to self-harm and attempt suicide.

The chief executive of Christian Concern, Andrea Minichiello Williams, has described homosexuality as being caused by environmental factors such as “the lack of a father” and “sometimes a level of abuse”. These comments were made at a 2013 conference in Jamaica where she was arguing against the repeal of the country’s colonial-era ‘buggery laws’ which criminalise same-sex intercourse.

At the same conference, she appeared to link homosexuality to paedophilia, saying: “They [proponents of LGBTQ+ rights] hate the line of homosexuality being linked to pedophilia. They try to cut that off, so you can’t speak about it. So I say to you in Jamaica: Speak about it. Speak about it.”

Photographs from the conference shared on Instagram show that Mrs Minchiello Williams, visible in a turquoise patterned dress, spoke at the Wilberforce Academy at Worcester College.

Worcester College as seen on Walton Street. Image: Steve Cadman/CC BY-SA 2.0 via flickr.com

Abi, a student studying Theology and Religion at Worcester, told Cherwell: “For me, it’s genuinely surprising that Worcester has agreed to host them [The Wilberforce Academy]. I’ve always been proud of the fact that Worcester is a (largely) inclusive space. Associations with Christian Concern are disappointing and feel like a step in the wrong direction.

“Obviously Oxford isn’t short of problematic connections, and I would never pretend that Worcester is perfect – but I think this puts the students in a difficult position with the college that is loved by many of us.”

In an email to students at Worcester which has been seen by Cherwell, Mr Isaac said: “Worcester College recently hosted a conference run by the Wilberforce Academy, a Christian group who have promoted controversial opinions on a range of subjects, including reproductive rights and conversion therapy. These views do not align with our values, and we are aware that the conference’s presence and promotional materials have caused distress to many members of the College community, including students, staff and fellows. We deeply regret this.”

“Our normal vetting processes did not work as they should have done. We are undertaking a review immediately to ensure that this does not happen again,” he said.

A summary of the curriculum for the five day course is available on the Wilberforce Academy’s website. Day one included discussion of “our Western Christian heritage, how it came about, and why we are now at a critical point in our history”. The summary for day five claims that the “historic freedoms of the Christian West” are under threat from an “encroaching politico-religious ideology of Islam”, and promises discussion on “the nature of Islam”.

Using the Wayback Machine online archive to access previous versions of the webpage, Cherwell found that information about the curriculum was available as far back as August 14th 2020.

Worcester College told Cherwell: “We deeply regret the distress caused to students, staff and other members of the College community by the presence of the Wilberforce Academy conference. The College was not aware of the speaker list or programme content in advance. The booking was taken in good faith, but it is clear that our procedures did not work as they should. We have begun an urgent review to ensure that this does not happen again.”

Mr Isaac continued: “This was a serious failure that has caused significant distress. We apologise unreservedly to all those who have been affected, and we want to work to rebuild trust across the College community.” He urged students who had been affected to contact the College’s welfare team.

After consulting with representatives from the Junior Common Room, Worcester College has decided that the profit from the conference will be used to fund “dedicated equality, diversity and inclusivity initiatives”.

A statement from the JCR included with Mr Isaac’s apology said: “We appreciate how promptly the College took action, [sic] to resolve their oversight in hosting the Wilberforce Academy. We are equally shocked and disappointed to hear about the conference, and we would like to thank the Freshers who brought it to our attention and voiced their worries. We would like to encourage all students not to hesitate to contact us if something in College concerns them.”

Andrew Minichiello Williams, CEO of Christian Concern, told Cherwell: “It seems that cancel culture has once again demonstrated the power of its grip in one of our top universities, fuelled by a small group of activists who won’t tolerate any view that departs from their own narrow ideology and who will resort to tactics of misrepresentation and sweeping allegations to get their way, seemingly frightening nearly everyone into submission. That a college now led by someone who has so often claimed to be a defender of freedom of expression in higher education is rumoured to have capitulated to this aggressive movement is even more concerning. 

“We very much enjoyed our week at the college, were very warmly welcomed, including by the Provost, received many compliments from the staff and were not aware of any complaints or concerns being raised with us at the time. Yet now we hear it alleged that the college has ‘apologised’ for hosting us! We will be seeking urgent clarification. 

“Whatever happens, 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 marginalised, excluded and vulnerable so that they could discover true hope and everlasting love through him, even sacrificing his own life to do so.”

The Oxford University LGBTQ+ Society and Oxford University Islamic Society have been approached for comment.

Featured Image: Hugh Chevalier / CC BY-SA 2.0 via geograph.org.uk

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