Oxford LGBT students publish a blacklist of “homophobic” churches in the city, most of them evangelical. It is a clear example of how Christian congregations are coming under pressure for teaching the Bible to their members.
Oxford, known for the forty colleges scattered through its city centre, is the oldest university in the English-speaking world, a powerful magnet for students from all over the world.
Like many other prestigious universities, Oxford has a long Christian history. From the influence of Dominicans and Augustinians in the 12th century to the re-organisation under the Anglican Church, it has been strongly shaped by Christianity, as shown by the motto on its coat of arms: “Dominvs Iluminatio Mea” (“The Lord is my Light”, a reference to Psalm 27).
The city itself, not surprisingly, has a multitude of churches still active today. According to an incomplete Wikipedia list, the 160,000 inhabitants can choose among over 100 Christian congregations.
Now, a document issued by the 3,000-member Oxford LGBTQI+ Society ranks thirty of these churches according to how “safe” they are for students. Several Christian worship places get a 1 on a scale of 1 to 5 and are labelled “red” for “high risk of spiritual abuse”, the ‘Attitudes Towards Queer Christians in Oxford Churches’ report says.
Students who identify as LGBTQ+ are encouraged not to visit such churches (most of which happen to be evangelical in their theology). The reason is that these Christian communities “pretend you’re welcome”, the report warns, but will “ask you to repent your identity”. The report continues, “hide” their beliefs and later abuse the confidence of churchgoers - making them sound like religious cults.
The 31-page document offers “clarity” by sharing the name, address and other details of churches where “homophobia and transphobia in the context of religious teaching” has been detected.
The question that comes up, of course, is what is “homophobia”? What is “transphobia”? What definitions are used? The authors state in the beginning of the document that many Christian congregations in Oxford who might say they hold to a ‘traditional view on marriage’ are in reality “an example of systematic homophobic theology from post-WWII USA”.
The LGBTQI+ Society goes as far as saying that holding to the historic Christian doctrines on human sexuality and identity is “inaccurate and harmful theology, translation, interpretation, and understanding of scripture”.
The document, which was shared firstly by newspaper The Times, comes in the midst of a larger debate in the UK around the teaching and liturgy of the Church of England. In fact, the whole Anglican Communion is at risk of splitting over the proposed changes related to LGBTQI issues that are being discussed by the English College of bishops.
In Europe, other mainline Protestant churches have debated about the issue strongly in the last decade (see examples here). Even among free evangelical churches such as Baptists, Charismatics, or independent churches there have been conversations that have led to internal tensions. A vast majority of free evangelical churches have reaffirmed their conviction that what the Bible says about human sexuality and identity is good, and deserves to be taught with clarity and grace.
So, why has the teaching on sexuality in Christian churches become so controversial? “These beliefs are drawn from the Bible and have been shared by Christians for 2,000 years”, says the FIEC, a fellowship of over 600 evangelical churches in the UK, one of them in Oxford and blacklisted as “harmful”. The FIEC is one of the few Christian groups growing in the UK, and have “nothing to hide”, they emphasise. “We believe that our churches are entirely ‘safe’ for anyone interested in investigating the Christian faith (…) and those who want help to live in accordance with biblical teaching, including those from the LGBT community”.
St. Ebbe’s Church, an Anglican congregation in Oxford that holds to evangelical doctrinal statements, is also flagged with the lowest number by the LGBTQI+ Society. In answers to The Church Times, its pastor, well-known author and speaker Vaughan Roberts, explains that “we do affirm a traditional Christian ethic in relation to sex and gender, but we seek to be very careful indeed in how this is applied pastorally”. At St.Ebbe’s, he continues, they “welcome a very wide range of people, including those who would identify as LGBT or same-sex attracted”.
Even fellow students who take part in the Christian Union of the university (the OICCU, Oxford Inter Collegiate Christian Union) are categorised as “harmful” in the report.
So, why this singling out of believers of a Christian faith that is not even a majority religion in the UK anymore?
Decades ago, LGBT activist groups in Western countries were taking to the streets to demand respect and tolerance towards their views and lifestyles. As the 20th century finished, they were still seen as marginal groups in society. LGBT people were right in their fight to be treated with the same dignity and respect as everyone else.
Now, as political narratives across Europe and the rest of the West evolve, SOGI (the acronym for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) matters have not only been normalised in the public square but have become a measuring stick to categorise which ideas, policies and beliefs deserve to be described as ‘tolerant’ and ‘inclusive’ and which are ‘hateful’.
Christian churches are listed as “unsafe” and “homophobic” if they stay true to teachings that everyone would have describe as standard Christian sexual ethics some years ago.
The question to ask is whether it is ok for groups and individuals who suffered much discrimination in the past to use their newly gained socio-political influence to decide what Christians should believe. Or what churches should teach.
Many cases reported by Evangelical Focus demonstrate that the pressure has moved from social media to the doors of Christian temples (see examples from Australia, Spain, or Switzerland). For a growing social majority, those faithful to the historic Christian doctrines are some kind of new ‘heretics’. What unanimously was considered faithfulness to the Bible as God’s Word is now deemed “transphobic”, “fundamentalistic” or straight forward “spiritual abuse”.
Another interesting question to ask is what kind of Christianity will thrive in the future. Facts so far show that it is the churches which remain committed to the authority of the Bible that are growing in membership both in the UK and the rest of the world. Around them, Christian groups who uncritically affirm cultural trends at the cost of compromising their doctrine become emptier and emptier.
If the calling of Jesus Christ to all Christian communities is to “make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-19), surely many will continue to do the job of presenting the good news of the gospel, no matter the cultural opposition of the moment. “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”, Jesus tells them.
Joel Forster, journalist in Spain and director of Evangelical Focus.