Balliol College is one of the most prestigious at the University of Oxford, boasting three British prime ministers and a former president of Germany in its notable list of alumni.
So a recent decision by its student body to block a Christian group from a freshman fair has sparked anger, both from Christian groups in England and Balliol students themselves.
The Oxford student newspaper first reported that the Balliol College student body, known as the JCR, attempted to prevent a Christian Union (CU) representative from the fair.
Cherwell revealed a leaked email chain in which JCR Vice President Freddy Potts said he was concerned that a CU rep attending in the absence of other faith groups meant there was a “potential for harm to freshers who are already struggling to feel welcome in Oxford.” Freshers is the British word for freshmen.
Potts explained, “Historically, Christianity’s influence on many marginalized communities has been damaging in its methods of conversion and rules of practice and is still used in many places as an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism.”
After further discussions with the CU, Cherwell reported that JCR gave permission for a single multi-faith stall at the fair on the condition that it had no representative from any religious organization able to exhibit or speak with freshmen.
That decision prompted a “backlash within Balliol” according to Cherwell as students then passed a JCR motion accusing the JCR of “barring the participation of specific faith-based organizations” and also violating free speech and religious freedom.
“In Christianity there has been freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom to believe and manifest belief,” she said.
The Rev. Nigel Genders, the Church of England’s chief education officer, said that Balliol’s decision to exclude CU “is to misunderstand the nature of debate and dialogue and at odds with the kind of society we are all seeking to promote.”
Likewise, the Rev. Richard Cunningham, the director of The University and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF) told The Guardian that UCCF is “concerned that the current desire to provide safe spaces on campus does not infringe on the core liberties of freedom of speech and freedom of association which are surely foundational to the university experience.”
The UCCF said that 20,000 students in England are involved with CU.