Oh boy, another report concerning Wycliffe Hall. This time, the press is having a good time bashing the evangelicals! (For previous posts, see here, here, and here.)
Not faith, but fanaticism
Oxford University should end its support for the homophobic, misogynist evangelicals at Wycliffe
. Giles Fraser
Tuesday May 29, 2007
The college head thinks 95% of us are going to burn in hell. His new deputy believes it's wrong for women to teach men. Insiders are complaining about an "openly homophobic" atmosphere. A third of the academic staff have resigned. Others are unwilling to speak openly to the press because they fear disciplinary action. Is this perhaps the notorious Bob Jones University in South Carolina, where rock music and mobile phones are banned, where men must have short hair and where women can't wear trousers to class? No. Welcome to the University of Oxford.
Strictly speaking Wycliffe Hall is a permanent private hall of the University of Oxford, rather than a full college. But the difference is pretty academic. Wycliffe has control over its admissions policy and those who graduate do so with a full Oxford University degree. Which is why the thought that Wycliffe has been taken over by Christian fundamentalists is ruffling senior common room feathers all over the university. For having a cell of religious extremists succeed in claiming one of its precious institutions does little to enhance Oxford's reputation.
But can disgruntled dons do much about it? After all, Oxford was founded as a Christian institution and, for good or ill, Christianity is built into its DNA. Dominus Illuminatio Mea - the Lord is my light - is the university motto. It has a university church and university sermons; the colleges have chapels and chaplains. It's hardly a secular institution. Even forgetting this heritage for a moment, there's a freedom of academic speech aspect to all of this. Surely Richard Turnbull, the principal, and his chums must be allowed to say what they like, however foolish or unpleasant.
What sticks in the throat, however, is that this new wave of reactionary evangelicalism is using the name of the university despite the fact that it has no love in its heart for the values of learning. Wycliffe is fast becoming a school for church planting that does little more than peddle the techniques of Christian salesmanship. As such, it is drawing upon a longstanding tradition of evangelical anti-intellectualism that originates in the great American revival of the 18th century - specifically, in the American churches' desire to define themselves against what they regarded as the bookish sophistication of snobbish and decadent Europeans.
The theologian Mark A Noll, in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, argues that the low esteem in which many evangelicals hold academic inquiry is a function of fear, a lack of confidence that faith can survive rational scrutiny. And so they build walls around their minds and colleges, desperate to keep at bay the dangerous lessons of the Enlightenment. In such a context, theology and doctrine are replaced by training: leadership skills and strategies for church marketing. Places such as Wycliffe once had internationally renowned scholars - now they cling on to the university for its kudos. It's all about image.
Which is why it's all very timely that Oxford is conducting a high-level review of the status of its permanent private halls, chaired by the former vice chancellor Colin Lucas. As a minimum requirement, it must ensure that places like Wycliffe are made fully compliant with the equal opportunities policy of Oxford University. Would Wycliffe Hall really be a safe place for a gay person to study? I suspect not. It is why Oxford University must be careful with its imprimatur. For while it is one thing to hold morally abhorrent views about the subordinate role of women, it is quite another for such views to influence admissions policy.
Of course, what should really happen is that the bishops of the Church of England stop using colleges like this to train its priests. Places such as Wycliffe are turning Anglicanism into a cult. But it's a symptom of how bad things are in the C of E, and how frightened its bishops have become of the financial muscle of conservative evangelicals, that they won't find the gumption to cut Wycliffe adrift.
But clearly they should. For Anglicanism is fast becoming the nasty party at prayer, with traditionally inclusive theology being submerged by a bargain-basement prejudice that damns to hell all those who disagree. This isn't faith, it's fanaticism. And the University of Oxford should not be supporting its work.
· Giles Fraser is the vicar of Putney and a lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford