A Christian theology lecturer with five young children has been sacked and threatened with a counter-terrorism referral by a Methodist Bible college for a tweet on human sexuality that went viral.
Dr Aaron Edwards, 37, who is being supported by the Christian Legal Centre, was last week sacked for misconduct by Cliff College in Derbyshire for allegedly “bringing the college into disrepute” on social media.
Dr Edwards was threatened with being reported to Prevent, interrogated on how he would pray for same-sex attracted students who approach him for prayer, and believes as a result of the sacking and subsequent controversy that he might not be able to work in UK higher education again.
Dr Edwards has said that: “Anyone concerned about academic freedom, Christian freedoms and free speech should be deeply concerned by what has happened to me.”
The story is a microcosm of the fall out in the Methodist Church in Britain following a June 2021 decision by its governing body to allow same-sex marriages in places of worship.
The Methodist Church globally has traditionally understood that marriage is the lifelong union of one man, one woman, to the exclusion of all others, and the only appropriate context for sexual intimacy.
Since the vote, however, Methodist Church leaders and members have found themselves in the impossible position of being compelled to affirm same-sex marriage while also continuing to teach the biblical belief that homosexual practice is sinful.
Increasingly, under the banner of ‘tolerance’ and ‘kindness’, conservative evangelical Christians, especially in the Methodist Church and Church of England (CofE), are unable to hold or express biblical teaching, which does not affirm LGBT ideology, without fear of reprisals.
This has included being labelled ‘homophobic’, being reported as safeguarding risks, and even being referred to the government’s Counter-Terrorism watchdog, Prevent, for holding allegedly ‘extreme’ views.
Cliff College, where Dr Edwards has worked for seven years without any disciplinary issues or warnings, was founded in 1883 and describes itself as a global centre for evangelism and missiology.
On its website it says that it is: “grounded in the authority of Scripture… We proclaim the Gospel and invite everyone to experience the life-changing transformation of a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Dr Edwards has long argued that free speech for conservative evangelicals would be threatened by the Methodist position on marriage. Cliff College adopted this position whilst also maintaining its vision statement to uphold ‘a distinctly evangelical voice’ to Methodist churches both in Britain and across the world, where the conservative view on marriage is the majority.
In light of the recent Church of England concessions on blessings for same-sex unions and the subsequent response from global Anglican dioceses breaking communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Edwards believed this to be a key moment for the evangelical voice to be heard.
On 19 February 2023, Dr Edwards posted: “Homosexuality is invading the Church. Evangelicals no longer see the severity of this b/c they’re busy apologising for their apparently barbaric homophobia, whether or not it’s true. This *is* a ‘Gospel issue’, by the way. If sin is no longer sin, we no longer need a Saviour.”
The tweet sparked a debate that went viral. There were users who posted in support of Dr Edwards and his message, but also many who harassed and abused him.
Dr Edwards insists, and clarified in subsequent tweets, that the post was not ‘homophobic’ and that it was addressed to evangelicals who agree with his message, but feel they can’t say so for fear of backlash.
Furthermore, he added that the aggressive response to the tweet illustrated the problem it addressed.
He subsequently tweeted: “That *is* the conservative view. The acceptance of homosexuality as “not sinful” *is* an invasion upon the Church, doctrinally. This is not controversial. The acceptance is controversial. Most of the global Church would agree. It is not homophobic to declare homosexuality sinful.”
He added that: “I expressed the conservative view as a doctrinal issue, re. the implications for sin/the Gospel. It was not an attack on individuals, it was addressed to evangelicals. It seems that holding the view that homosexuality is sinful is only welcome if it remains “unexpressed”.”
College bosses, however, were soon made aware of the post and contacted Dr Edwards asking him to take the tweet down as they believed it ‘contravened the College’s Staff Social Media Policy.’
Dr Edwards refused as he believed doing so would go against his conscience and be an admittance that he had intended to be deliberately provocative when the tweet was an expression of a deeply held belief which he believed was necessary to express.
Impact college ‘business plan’
Cliff College bosses later revealed in a disciplinary hearing that they had an ‘initial feeling’ that they should put out a statement to condemn and distance themselves from Dr Edwards’ tweet.
In the statement posted on Twitter, the same day, they wrote: “We have become aware that one of our lecturers posted some comments on this platform this morning regarding human sexuality. The language used is inappropriate and unacceptable and does not represent either the views or the ethos of Cliff College.
“Cliff College, with the Methodist Church in Britain, is committed to being a safe and hospitable place, where those with differing convictions are welcomed and challenged to live together as faithful disciples of Christ.
“We aim to do this with mutual respect and a generosity of spirit that springs from our biblical and evangelical conviction of God’s love for each and for all.”
A wave of what appear to be coordinated correlating complaints to Cliff College followed from some of the most senior members of the Methodist church in Britain.
One senior member of staff at the Methodist Church in Britain, who holds significant influence over the missional direction of the Methodist Church, wrote that Dr Edwards’ tweet had ‘distressed’ colleagues. They added that it ‘could be extremely damaging’ and ‘impact the college’s core work’ and its ‘business plan.’
They said that the tweet placed in doubt whether Cliff College is: ‘safe for both members of staff and of churches and circuits who participate in its programmes and activities.’
Suspension and Prevent
Dr Edwards was subsequently suspended while an investigation was undertaken.
On March 8, a disciplinary hearing was held where it was revealed that the college was considering referring Dr Edwards to Prevent, the government’s Counter-Terrorism watchdog.
Dr Edwards was also interrogated, arguably seeking to accuse him of so-called ‘conversion therapy’, on what he would do if a same-sex attracted student asked him to pray for them about their sexuality.
Leading the disciplinary hearing was the Rev. Ashley Cooper, principal of Cliff College. Following the June 2021 vote to allow same-sex marriages in Methodist churches, which he voted for, Rev Cooper stated:
“We’re stronger for the gospel together if we can find a way of living with difference, because we disagree on all kinds of things.”
At the time he said he believed it was right to work together with conservatives and liberals within the church to provide a new way forward and to live together despite the differences.
Following the disciplinary hearing, however, Dr Edwards was sacked and now believes he will no longer be able to work in higher education again.
Appealing the decision this week to a panel that has already raised complaints about the tweet, Dr Edwards is considering his legal options and believes the college has discriminated against him and breached its obligations under the Equality Act 2010.
In his appeal, Dr Edwards has argued that the decision to dismiss him was disproportionate and failed to balance his freedom to express his Christian beliefs. He will say that the disciplinary procedure that has led to his dismissal has lacked ‘requisite fairness’ and that the level of imbalance, exaggeration, and misrepresentation in the investigation was ‘astonishing’ for what was meant to be an unprejudiced investigation.
‘I have been treated unjustly’
Dr Edwards said: “The reaction to my tweet and the unjust treatment I have experienced by Cliff College and the Methodist Church in Britain completely illustrates the problem my tweet addressed.
“The tweet was not defamatory; it was not an attack on any colleague or individual; it was not abusive; and it was not an extremist religious view. It was addressed to evangelicals as a point of doctrine, and it has been misunderstood by many who wish to cause personal and institutional trouble for those who express that view.
“What has happened to me demonstrates that conservative biblical views on human sexuality are no longer ‘tolerated’ in the Methodist church in the UK. Rather it is clear that those beliefs are to be silenced and stamped out.
“My expressed view has not been received respectfully, tolerantly, or charitably. It has rather been met with harassment and personal defamation by many.
“It seems the college is a safe place for those who are pro LGBTQ+, but not for conservative evangelicals. What has happened exposes that living with contradictory convictions is not possible for an evangelical Christian.
“I am deeply concerned for the future of Cliff College, and other institutions like it, as all the evidence shows that when LGBT ideology is embraced and biblical teaching abandoned, numbers fall.
“Anyone concerned about academic freedom, Christian freedoms and free speech should be deeply concerned by what has happened to me.”
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, who grew up in the Methodist Church, said:“A Christian theologian working for a Christian bible college tweeting about the biblical Christian teaching on human sexuality, has been sacked and labelled as a potential ‘terrorist.’
“This is an intelligent, learned, respected, father of five children who has been kicked out of a bible college for expressing views and beliefs shared by millions of Christians across the globe.
“It is saddening and very concerning to see the Methodist Church, and a once renowned bible college, lose its way by no longer upholding marriage as God defines it, or supporting those who express it.
“The key to the revival that sprung up through Methodism was its passion for the truth that is contained in the Bible. I caught that passion from faithful Methodist Sunday school teachers as a young girl and it is devastating to see the movement reflecting society’s values rather than upholding true marriage.
“The bible is clear that homosexual practice is sinful. Dr Edwards is right that if sin is no longer sin, we no longer need Jesus as our Saviour.
“God’s plan for sex is one man and one woman marriage. Every Christian should be ready to believe that God’s pattern for our lives is the best way for individuals and society to flourish. Every church denomination – including Methodists and the Church of England – should confidently proclaim this vision, rather than mirror the zeitgeist.
“This story sets a dark precedent for the Methodist Church going forward and also serves as a warning to the Church of England.”
Toby Young, General Secretary of the Free Speech Union, said: “Expressing orthodox Christian beliefs should not be grounds for dismissal from a purportedly Christian organisation. I look forward to Alastair Campbell defending Aaron Edwards’ right to free speech, just as he did Gary Lineker’s.
“Defending Free Speech means defending the right of people to express views you do not agree with, not just those you agree with.”