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Oxford University students advised which churches are ‘safe’ for LGBTQ+ peers

22 September 2023

Churches are ranked on a scale of one to five according to inclusivity and transparency


A Pride flag flown above University College, Oxford

A Pride flag flown above University College, Oxford

STUDENTS at the University of Oxford are being given advice about which churches are “safe” for LGBTQ+ students, in a report published on Friday.

The University’s LGBTQ+ Society’s Safe Churches Team has compiled a report on 30 churches in the city, categorising each on a five-point scale according to how inclusive it is judged to be and how honest the church leadership are about their stance.

A spokesperson for the group told the Church Times that the Oxford Safe Churches Project was motivated by a desire to put on public record the stance that each church took on LGBTQ+ issues rather than have students trying to “figure it out” by attending.

Emphasising the importance of honesty, the spokesperson said that some churches put out publicity to suggest that they were inclusive, only for those LGBT+ students who attended to discover later that they would not be welcome to take a leadership position in the church.

“The project grew out of wanting churches to be open and willing to communicate on what they actually believe, their theology and their practice, and for this to be made clear, so that people who are LGBT+ and want to attend a church have all of that information,” the authors said.

The report was released on Friday on the University’s LGBTQ+ Society’s website, and will rank St Ebbe’s, a large Evangelical parish church in the centre of Oxford, lowest on the five-point scale.

An accompanying press release describes this level, colour-coded red, as indicating that the church is “known to hold beliefs, pastoral policies and practices opposed to LGBTQ+ dignity and inclusion, and which the students consider to be unsafe”.

A draft of the report, seen by the Church Times, tells LGBTQ+ students who might be thinking of attending St Ebbe’s that the church leadership would expect them to remain celibate, and conform to the gender that they were assigned at birth.

The report notes that six members of the leadership of the church signed a statement last year opposing a proposed ban on conversion therapy, arguing: “It should not be a criminal offence for us as Christian ministers to persuade, to teach and to help people of every age to become, and to live as, orthodox Christians” (News, 17 February 2022).

The authors of the report have drawn on publicly available information, such as letters, statements, and copies of sermons, as well as testimonies of those who formerly attended, to draw their conclusions. Oxford Safe Churches also contacted church leaders and asked them what they taught about LGBTQ+ identities and same-sex relationships.

An anonymous testimony in the section on St Ebbe’s describes being “left on the periphery” and feeling “very alone”, concluding that their experience was “likely because I was openly queer”.

Another spoke of being made to feel “very unsafe” when asked to explain why they wanted to leave the church, and that they were “effectively threatened with hell”.

The Rector of St Ebbe’s, Canon Vaughan Roberts, told the Church Times that he was “very sorry to hear of anyone who has not had a positive experience of St Ebbe’s. We welcome a very wide range of people, including those who would identify as LGBT or same-sex attracted. It would never be appropriate in a pastoral setting to threaten anyone with hell.”

Canon Roberts told the Church Times: “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.”

The report notes that St Ebbe’s did not complete the questionnaire, and Canon Roberts showed the Church Times an email in which he explained this decision to the Safe Churches Team.

“Our concern is that your questions invite binary answers that would not provide a proper reflection of the reality of our attitudes to LGBTQ+ people or an adequate basis for a judgement on whether our churches are ‘safe and welcoming’,” Canon Roberts wrote.

In the email, Canon Roberts, who has spoken in the past about being a celibate Christian attracted to people of the same sex, wrote that he had “experienced homophobic behaviour simply because of my sexuality, including from other Christians”, and was “well aware that churches have often failed in the past and that there is certainly room for continued improvement”.

He concluded that “whatever our views on these matters, it is important that we all engage with one another with care and respect.”

The system of evaluating churches used in the report is based on resources developed by the Student Christian Movement’s Honest Church initiative.

The campaign, launched last year, calls on churches to reflect on whether they welcome LGBTQ+ people, and to be open about their stance (News, 30 September 2022).

The spokesperson for Oxford Safe Churches said this week that they “just want to see safer places and growth in the churches that are willing to have a more inclusive theology. The ones that aren’t willing, we just want them to be transparent and clear on what it is that they believe. It’s only safe to tell people what kind of environment they will come into.”

They suggested that such an approach would also help to improve safeguarding, arguing that the designated safeguarding officer in a non-affirming church was unlikely to be able to help someone who had been made to feel unsafe owing to comments about their sexuality.

“We’re not actually creating spaces where people can be safe if we’re just letting each church have its own echo chamber,” they said, but were open to changing the ratings of churches if new information came to light.

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