david isaac worcester college oxford wilberforce academy
Freedom of Religion

Would Worcester College Oxford apologise for hosting the Pope?

Worcester College Oxford is among the fairest of the University. Founded in 1714, some of its buildings date back to 1283, when there was a Benedictine abbey on the site. In 1542, the buildings then known as Gloucester College were home to Robert King, the first bishop of Oxford. The College chapel hosts services conducted according to the rites of the Church of England: it is “the spiritual heart of the College and is also its centre of Christian worship. It aims to be the home for all Christian branches in College and is available for people of all beliefs”.

Except, it seems, for young people attending the Wilberforce Academy, run by Christian Concern, which is a “1-week intensive residential programme aimed at students and young professionals with a passion to serve Jesus Christ in a variety of vocations including law, politics, education, media, arts, healthcare, ministry and business”, the aim of which is to prepare delegates “for servant-hearted, Christ-centred leadership in their communities, Churches, and workplaces, having been equipped with a robust biblical framework that guides their thinking, prayers and activity in addressing the issues facing our society”.

Worcester College can’t be doing with any of that.

The Wilberforce Academy held their most recent conference there over the summer recess, as they have done at various Oxford colleges for the past 11 years.

But a Worcester College student, on returning to the University after recess, found a Wilberforce Academy brochure which outlined the topics of the week-long programme of lectures and seminars, and all purgatory broke loose.

The pamphlet included sessions on Islam, homosexuality, transgenderism, marriage, abortion and assisted dying, and some of the visiting lecturers hold views with which others may disagree.

Despite the subjects being considered in historical, social and theological context, the student thought this was Islamophobic, homophobic, anti-women’s rights and intolerant, so he complained to the Provost, David Isaac CBE, who was absolutely mortified that Worcester College could even consider allowing its fair halls and sanctified chapel to be used by such a bigoted, extremist, fanatical, racist, sexist and hateful group of Christians.

So, despite this student not attending any of the lectures, and having no clue about each subject was handled or how the teaching was delivered and how the learning was assessed and what pastoral care or support was available over the week, the Provost apologised to him/her and to the entire College, and assured them it was an egregious error of judgment which would never be repeated. A spokesman told The Oxford Tab:

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.

We have agreed with the JCR Committee that the profit from the conference will be set aside to fund dedicated equality, diversity and inclusivity initiatives. We are working with students and other members of the college community to identify the most appropriate projects.

We acknowledge that this was a serious failure that has caused significant distress, and we apologise unreservedly to all those who have been affected.

So, the Wilberforce Academy will never again be hosted by Worcester College Oxford. It is worth noting that David Isaac was previously Chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), during which time he fervently supported freedom of expression and vehemently opposed ‘no-platforming’. He was also once Chairman of Stonewall.

In response, Andrea Minichiello Williams, Chief Executive of Christian Concern, told MailOnline:

Sadly, we have had no communication from Worcester college about these reports of an “apology” for hosting us, despite our attempts to contact staff and discuss what has been alleged.

But if the college has turned its back on us, 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.

Oxford University should continue to stand for free speech and free expression and allow its students to have the intellectual ability to decide whether they wish to attend external events, and to make up their own minds on what they hear.

None of the students who complained actually heard what was said in the seminars. Neither does the college know what was said. They appear just to want to shut down any discussion.

We had such a warm welcome from them and it is upsetting that no one called us about it, to hear our side.

There has been no support from the Chaplain of Worcester College Oxford, or from the Bishop of Oxford, or, indeed, from any clergy associated with the University. The Free Speech Union, however, has written an excellent letter to the Provost:

But it is curious that Worcester College Oxford will not host anyone whose values and policies conflict with their own values and policies, even during recess, when there are no vulnerable students around. The Roman Catholic Church holds some quite robust views on the nature of Islam, homosexuality, transgenderism, marriage, abortion and assisted dying. Would David Isaac veto a visit by Pope Francis, or apologise for allowing him anywhere near their ‘inclusive’ chapel?