Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

Dear Oxford Union: What was the point of that?

Jack Twyman questions the value of Oxford Union membership.

A slight disclaimer before I begin: I wish I didn’t have to write this. I wish my fellow community members and I could live without additional complexities, barriers to jump and hurdles to cross. I wish that my sexuality could remain just a part of me, and not my defining feature as society continues to force it to be. So with that:

When I paid my £250 for membership I expected to hear world-class speakers, be immersed in a diverse and vibrant events calendar, and experience a part of Oxford that I believed was integral to my Oxford experience. 

What I didn’t expect – rather naively, I have come to believe – is for my rights to be up for debate. I didn’t think it was a debate still being had. Not in the Oxford Union. A secular space free from the bounds of regressive forms of religion that persecute those their saviour is bound to love. Jesus loves. Homophobes don’t. 

Quite why the Union sees giving a platform to the institution most opposed and hellbent on restricting to free speech in the form of dissent to promoting the concept is baffling.

My issue is with the debate motion ‘This House Supports Same-Sex Marriage in the Church’. What does the committee expect from this motion? A fairytale accolade when everyone lives happily ever after and reaches a conclusion that solves the problems the church has been in turmoil over for centuries? I can’t imagine anything remotely positive will come from giving a platform to those who are so bothered by their own celibacy that they feel their time is best spent preventing those who love from doing so. It’s not an intellectual exercise, it’s people’s lives. And indeed it didn’t. 

If we look at the church, its supposedly liberal image is a mirage disguising a bed of hatred. The Archbishop of Canterbury – the person who is given the right to broadcast a Christmas Message every year on the publicly funded BBC, called gay sex a sin last summer. So, I can imagine that his views on same-sex marriage will not be the most productive. 

If we look at the announced opposition, one member Dr Ian Paul, is at the college of St Johns. How are those members of that college going to react to a senior figure parroting hatred? His beliefs extend far beyond same-sex marriage. His blog psephzio has an entire page dedicated to sexuality – placed more prominently than Biblical Studies and Life & Ministry. Here he espouses his disdain for those who see LGBTQ+ lifestyles as ‘legitimate’ and who want to shift the church’s view ‘in relation to the appropriate pattern of sexual relationship’. 

Paul says ‘Biblically, the witness of Scripture is uniform in its negative moral judgement of same-sex sexual behaviour but in places permissive of divorce.’ Yet there is not a single mention of homosexuality in the bible – nor any homophobia – until the King James I Bible was released. The decision of one monk in charge of being a translator has led to historical ramifications on an unprecedented scale. But what I hope anyone does not let Ian know, for his sanity’s sake, is that King James I was…not exactly straight. Historical records have documented his relationships with both men and women, and proven he was most likely bisexual. A BBC Scotland documentary by historian Emma Dabiri, said ‘it’s no surprise that James was gay or bisexual — as his letters to George Villiers confirm, the two were in an intimate relationship.’ James was well known to have male ‘favourites’ as one courtier said that ‘I never yet saw any fond husband make so much or so great dalliance over his beautiful spouse as I have seen King James over his favourites, especially the Duke of Buckingham.’ It is rather ironic that Paul’s comments on divorce were soon after he got a new boss – King Charles III who is divorced and remarried. Perhaps much bolder in the bible than any discussion of homosexuality is Malachi 2:16: “I hate divorce, says the LORD God of Israel.”

Biblical Authors were writing at a time when sexual orientation was not understood. This means that any Christian arguments opposing continued opposition toward same-sex relationships and LGBTQ+ identities must be based on something other than these biblical texts.

Ian calls marriage the tip of the ‘sexual revolution iceberg’ claiming ‘I don’t think it is really possible to separate attitudes to gay marriage from these wider themes’. Paul uses an aggrieved tone to describe how ‘The church is then being called to shift its understanding and teaching, including in relation to the appropriate pattern of sexual relationship’. He understands past negative attitudes to homosexuality in the church as  ‘due to church teaching and an understanding of sexual ethics and what patterns of behaviour fall into the category of sexual immorality (porneia) against which Scripture constantly warns’. These claims are found in 11 articles which obsessively pedal this viewpoint. The Union cannot try and say that for this speaker of the opposition, this is a debate purely about marriage, and will not touch on a debate about same-sex tolerance in general. 

The other speaker of the opposition Calvin Robinson has made a career out of the culture war he so despises the left for creating. He told his 242-thousand Twitter followers that ‘Pride is a sin. The debauchery and degeneracy on display highlights why.’ Robinson believes Western countries are “fighting tooth and nail for the survival of our way of life.”  Robinson hosts a GB News show where his bio says his show aims to “Reclaim our country from the woke. Join me in my crusade for common sense.” On the show he has peddaled the ideology of far-right politician Enoch Powell, declaring he “was right on many points” and even changed his Twitter banner to include a photograph of him. 

The disarray of the Church over the topic should be enough to prove the debate is not ready to be had yet. And the choice of speakers to this debate suggests its purpose is very different to purely a debate on the right of marriage. The Union is no stranger to the topic, having held a debate in 2013 on whether gay parents should be given the right to raise children, and a pointless debate over whether “This House Regrets the Prominence of Allies in the LGBTQ+ Movement”. Consistently seeking to divide and fratcure, the Union needs to rethink this route. While the top echelons of Committee are dominated by straight men, the lower ranks have a strong LGBTQ+ representation, and we must ask why this is. I wanted to believe the Union wasn’t just an old boys club – but after the Saturday bicentenary debate it became clear that Oxford’s Union lags behind its counterparts, both in terms of representation and attitude. Yesterdays debate could have been held in much better framing, with a more productive title, in my off-record conversations it seems the title was forced through by a domineering executive, with little regard for the concern raised by those below. What if the Union got respected religious figures to debate, instead of a opportunist populist and homophobe? Would that not have led to a better debate with more rigour? Would it not have been wise to refer more specifically to what Church is being referred to here? 

So, Charlie Mackintosh, when you tell the ‘dyed-in-the-wool Conservatives’ to challenge their view on same-sex marriage ‘by engaging in debates on these topics’, it is clear to see why this is damaging. You see, when you say ‘the ultimate duty of the Oxford union’ is ‘to have a space to question, away from the oppressive forces of dogma that continue to restrict free speech’, you are parroting a viewpoint perpetuated by the alt-right shocked that anyone dares speak out on the historic oppression that has occurred. For those that laud the libertarian principle of free speech, it is strange how you give a platform to those who want to impress draconian restrictions by treading laws all over society. If these speakers had a choice the debate would be settled, nullified and void. They don’t want a debate about these issues. They want their way. And what I would say to them, and you reading if you agree with them, is that your belief is a belief, but my existence is a reality.

Image Credit: CC:2.0//Barker Evans via Wikimedia Commons.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles