At Balliol College Oxford, the ban on Christian Union students taking part in the Freshers' Fair has been lifted. No doubt there's a lot more to this story than has been reported in the media. But on the surface the original decision emanating from within the structures of the JCR not only looked foolish and naive, but it was guaranteed to provoke an outcry not only from evangelical Christians but from all fair-minded people, including the students in their own College who quickly condemned it.
I'll come clean. Balliol College Oxford is my alma mater. I went up in 1968 to read maths and philosophy, and stayed on to do a second degree in theology. I went back as a postgraduate in 1974 and was ordained priest in the College Chapel in the summer of 1976. So you'll see that I have a lot invested in the place. You won't be surprised if I say I loved it and still do. My years there were deeply rewarding. I suppose I began to grow up at Balliol. I'm more grateful than I can say to have been a member of such a progressive, open-minded and enlightened institution.
In particular, I owe a great deal to the College Chapel and the Christian Union. I doubt I would have become a priest at all had it not been for Balliol. The Christian Union, part of the University-wide Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union or OICCU, laid down important foundations on which to shape my life as a Christian. And although that thought-world belonged unreservedly to the conservative evangelical tradition, I did not experience it as narrow or exclusive. We were ordinary members of the College alongside students of many different faiths and of none. Most Christian Union members attended College Chapel regularly, some every day. Its traditional Anglicanism helped set our fervent evangelicalism in a broader, more liberal, context. We were certainly low, hearty and happy in our churchmanship. But we were part of mainstream religion.
It's true that I now blush to think of some of the convictions I held in those far-off days. I could have defended such doctrines as the inerrancy of scripture, a literal Second Coming and the predestination to their fate of the elect and the reprobate. Everything turned on the hardest version of belief in substitutionary atonement as the only way to understand the Cross. But Balliol was a tolerant place where you could try anything intellectually, test ideas and belief by the cut and thrust of robust debate. If you believed something wildly ridiculous, your friends would smile gently and without ridicule, ask you with what logic or on what evidence you drew that conclusion.
I owe a lot to that tolerant, liberal attitude. It's what made Balliol an intellectual force to be reckoned with in modern times. This it owes largely to the vision of its legendary Master, Benjamin Jowett, one of the most eminent of Victorians. A priest of the Church of England, he got into tremendous trouble for contributing to a notorious but highly influential book called Essays and Reviews. In it, he argued as a classical scholar that the Bible should be interpreted like any other text from the past, using the same rigorous tools of textual and higher criticism and of literary interpretation as he would apply to his beloved Plato. It was, he claimed, through such ordinary processes of study that the word of God would be discerned among the words. This radical approach was not well received at the time (and the book's other contributors were not spared the opprobrium either). But today, almost all biblical scholars apart from the most conservative would endorse his approach.
Jowett's legacy at Balliol was of a College in which dons and students alike were generous and tolerant, modern people of their own century, open to new ways of thinking, unafraid of debate. Looking back fifty years, having been at a school founded on similar lines, perhaps I unconsciously chose an Oxford college that would continue to foster these liberal ideals and teach me to practise my faith in a setting that modelled the real world where beliefs are not privileged or protected. This kind of learning is an inestimably important preparation for adult life in a contested secular age. We may not know it at the time but later we realise how its values have shaped us in hugely important ways. My faith is very different now from what it was then. I suppose I echo whoever it was (David Jenkins?) who said that as he grew older, he believed more and more in less and less. "Be tentative in theology but be sure in religion", that is, don't invest more in the speculative particularities of doctrine than you do in knowing and loving and serving God which is the heart of all good religion. That is what I shall always regard as the core of what I learned about Christianity at Oxford.
Back to the headlines where Balliol has unwittingly (and unwillingly) found itself today. I spoke earlier about its character as a "progressive, open-minded and enlightened institution". I don't know the Christian Union today so I can't speak for them. But somewhere in the JCR decision-making structure, there seems to be a mighty fear of them if these heavy-handed tactics of airbrushing them out of the Freshers' Fair are any indication. What we are told in the media reports is that out of respect for the vulnerabilities of its new students, there was a need to create a secular space that is "safe". Religion, it is argued, does not belong in such a space, least of all when it comes freighted with homophobia (an allegation that is merely stated without any evidence or justification).
Yes, no doubt religion can be oppressive, and is in many places. Homophobic too. But it won't do wildly to accuse Balliol's Christian Union of it. (And by the way, were Jewish and Islamic groups also refused permission to have a Freshers' stall and be present at it? I genuinely have no idea - please tell us. It's important that we understand the background here. There's a lot we don't know.)
This unhappy episode is all part of the debate about the limits of free speech in higher education. There are no easy answers to the question of who should and shouldn't be given a public platform to promote their beliefs in a university or anywhere else. But in a fair-minded society there should be a presumption of trust that those who publicly share their vision and ideas will do so responsibly. No-one has quoted any evidence that the Christian Union intended to do anything other than the likes of the Balliol Music Society or Rowing Club: share what they had to offer and invite anyone interested to find out more.
One final thought. If I were a fresher at Balliol (happy days!), I'd be pretty annoyed if I thought that anyone was trying to "protect" me from notions that might challenge or disturb or (God forbid) corrupt me. I'd have said: "I'm a legal grown-up now. I have the right and the duty to make my own choices. I have come to Balliol of all colleges because I want to be in an environment of bracing exploration and debate that will form me intellectually, ethically and as a person of faith. This is the very thing you are denying me. Please stop infantilising me in this way."
Well, common sense has prevailed, thankfully. I gather that the JCR as a student body has been as outraged by what has happened as anyone. Maybe we should put it all down to the naivety of youth. Making a mistake and learning from it is no bad experience. I hope this episode helps all students to think about and absorb their College's values and treat their fellow students with respect. What's happened will have cost Balliol in terms of its reputation for diversity and inclusion. That grieves me. But what matters now is that trust is quickly restored and Balliol continues to be recognised as one of Oxford's brightest, most generous and most humane institutions.
Oh and by the way, I'm looking forward to being back at Balliol next month to preach in the College Chapel.
**I have made some minor amendments to this blog in the light of conversations today with Oxford people who are close to the events behind the media reports.