Wilberforce Academy: speaking truth in a hostile culture

13 May 2020

Wilberforce Academy Development Officer Ben John comments on why the unpopular truth of the gospel is exactly what our culture needs to hear.

Applications to the Wilberforce Academy 2020 close on Tuesday 19 May. Could you or someone you know apply?

“[The Wilberforce Academy is] a real threat to the physical and mental safety of students” – Members of Lady Margaret Hall JCR, Oxford – October 2018

It was quite surreal; in October 2018 I wrote on behalf of Christian Concern to a few Oxford colleges enquiring about their availability in September 2019 to host our Wilberforce Academy, a one-week programme for young Christians looking at Christian apologetics, social engagement, and worldview. It was clear that this was to be a private conference with invited attendees only.

In the case of Lady Margaret Hall (LMH), the Junior and Middle Common Rooms (JCR and MCR, respectively) began issuing angry statements and voting in condemnation of the event even before there had been any official response.

The demands for a cancellation, before there was anything to cancel, even made it into The Times.

The official response from LMH was that they would consider hosting us under two remarkable conditions. The first was that we should pay for security during the conference: a demand which carried the implication that this private conference was such a threat to public safety that the college would be unable to offer protection and “in order to guarantee [our] ability to hold discussions and classes in the college,” effectively asking us to pay for security to protect ourselves from their own students. The second condition was no less extraordinary: that we should make ourselves available for public critique and debate. Since when has this been a requirement for private conferences?

The response of Queen’s College, Oxford, was that because of their commitment to “promoting equality of opportunity and avoiding discrimination” they were unable to host us.

In the end, we managed to book Wolfson College, Oxford, for our Academy.

In the run-up to our Academy we found ourselves subjected to some very dubious tactics. Having finally confirmed Wolfson College and having noted, without specifics, on our website that it would be taking place in Oxford, Christian Concern began receiving enquiries from various colleges as to whether we intended to have the event with them. It emerged that what lay behind this was that someone, presumably writing for one of the Oxford student newspapers, had emailed colleges posing as a disabled student coming to the Wilberforce Academy and wanting to know about disability access.

Nevertheless, we were hugely thankful for the warm and kind hospitality we received from Wolfson College, with many of the staff commenting on how warm, friendly and polite we were. Although the rainbow flag was flown during the week at the college – presumably not to remind us of God’s covenant with Noah – we generally had an excellent week without disruption. We had provisionally booked to return to Wolfson College this coming September 2020. However, when we requested to confirm the booking it suddenly clashed with other internal events, the events officer kindly adding “I am sure you will not have a problem finding a venue for next year.”

We have experienced other protests in Oxford, at Exeter College in 2012 and Trinity College in 2013. Often there are retrospective complaints, with exposés written about the fact a College has hosted us.

That a private conference for selected invitees held out of term time in an Oxford college should arouse such opposition raises interesting and worrying questions.

No doubt there was a general dislike of anything to do with a biblical Christianity,[1] but it seems clear that there were specific objections to three positions: our upholding of the traditional biblical positions on marriage, our belief in the sanctity of life (particularly that of the unborn) and our criticism of teachings within the Islamic faith.[2]

It is true that neither our Christian beliefs nor these specific positions are popular within modern secular liberal society, but that is why it is even more important to be open about them. Questions should be asked!

Now I do actually think the colleges have the right to say no. They should no more be forced to host us as a baker should be forced to bake a ‘gay cake.’

What is happening on campuses?

I began with this example from Oxford colleges but of course they are not an island of liberal lunacy within a sea of sanity: they typify the modern mood in which anything that challenges the moral consensus of society is considered to be a crime against such unshakeable values as ‘equality,’ ‘diversity’ and ‘tolerance.’

Let me give some more examples.

In 2014, Christ Church College, Oxford, had to cancel a debate titled “This House believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All”, because the two speakers were both men.

In 2017, social work student Felix Ngole was removed from his course at the University of Sheffield for expressing the view on Facebook that marriage is between one man and one woman, and was deemed not fit to be a social worker. Last year he successfully appealed the decision.

Just this year in January, it was reported how Julia Rynkiewicz was suspended, and nearly expelled, from her midwifery degree at Nottingham because she was president of a campus pro-life society. A lecturer had complained citing her pro-life views as incompatible with being a midwife. Apparently, it is preferable to have midwives who think it is acceptable to kill babies. The case against her has been dismissed but she has missed a year of training and held back from graduating.

Meanwhile, Ann Furedi, CEO of BPAS – the largest abortion provider in the UK, who campaigns for abortion up to full term for any reason – was recently awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Kent for making “a significant contribution to society.”

Now, we must guard against just being upset because we do not have a privileged position anymore, however much we would like one.[3] But it is important for us to have perspective about the views that are being celebrated in society, and, well, to feel anger about them. What other reaction is possible when we read Furedi’s own admission: “the opponents of abortion claim that abortion is wrong because ‘it ends the life of the unborn child’ whereas for abortion’s supporters ending its life in the womb is precisely its point.”[4] Too often we are scared to call out these extreme – and dare I say, evil – views because society has conditioned us unto thinking that being pro-life is backward and bigoted, and that it simply means you hate women.

If we turn to the area of transgender issues, we find a similar depressing pattern of mindless knee-jerk reactions. For instance, there have been attempts to refuse a platform to Germaine Greer and others, for being a ‘TERF’ – a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist – who has committed the sin of believing that a man who modifies himself through surgery and chemistry does not become a woman.

There is fear amongst University staff about expressing sceptical views about the trans movement. More are coming out as detransitioning citing how they were rushed through the process without proper consultation and evaluation of their mental state. See for example the testimonies of Pete Benjamin and Keira Bell.

James Caspian was an MA Counselling and Psychotherapy research student at Bath Spa University who had already enrolled on the course to study trans regret and detransitioning, but was later told that it was too ‘politically incorrect’ and could harm the reputation of the university. His funding was then withdrawn.

The root of the problem

I have detailed all these instances because they seem to me to be symptoms of real problems within modern Western society.

How can we know what is right if we have no firm foundation? We are building up a utopian house of cards on sand and sooner or later it is all going to collapse. When you remove all values and standards, then who decides what is right for society? We are making it up as we go along and in a state of suspended disbelief about what is so obvious. Of course we should not abort babies with Down’s syndrome just before birth, but society says we can. Of course marriage is between a man and a woman, but society says otherwise. Of course we are born male or female,[5] but now we are saying gender is a social construct – or in the case of Dawn Butler MP “babies are born without biological sex.”

There are some issues which society seems to have right, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) for example. But why? By what standard can we say that FGM is wrong and immoral if good and evil do not exist, and every individual defines their own truth?

I had a friend[6] who I asked, after she criticised me for my view on marriage, whether she thought incestuous marriage was wrong. She said of course it’s wrong, to which I accused her of being a bigot who wants to block a minority group from ‘loving whoever they want.’ Surprisingly, she responded with “well maybe one day”.

The incoherence and the inconsistency can be seen in the famous case of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman, who ‘identified as black.’ She received public outrage and scorn, but why? Why can’t she identify as black? If truth is what she says it is then surely we must allow her to identify as black? Where will this all end?

Whilst I was pleased to see a “commitment” in the Conservative Manifesto to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities,” my immediate response was: how will we see this happen? That does not mean forcing universities to host us, but universities having a culture that does not vilify and oppose anyone with a different view. Can a government do that?

How can this culture be created? We can’t sit by and wait for it to happen; we must be prepared to speak up even when it is unpopular. The quieter we are, the further and faster the Overton window will shift. We must contend for truth in a nation that rejects the idea of truth.

We are in the middle of being handed over to our own desires, we want to be a society without God and God is letting us have it (Romans 1:21-32).

We have set ourselves up as gods, defining our own truth and we are reaping the fruit. How can we expect to see society flourish when we are purely led by our feelings and opinions? “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV)

What society does not realise is that what it is rejecting is actually the solution.

As Jesus calls us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:29 NIV), he is the only one who gives us rest. Fighting for an unattainable utopia (which literally means ‘no place’) will only lead to death and darkness, pursuing an impossible path and building a life on sand. In this society where we are restless, burdened and angry, where mental health problems are getting worse and worse, we point them to the only one who can satisfy.

Particularly in this cancel culture we are in, what an opportunity for us to share the glorious news of Jesus Christ who forgives us for our wrongdoing, to tell them that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1 ESV). For the many women struggling with guilt and regret following an abortion, we tell them that Jesus died even for those who have had abortions. The Cross is big enough.

Having Christ at the centre reminds us that it is only changed hearts that can change culture. As Douglas Wilson notes, “secular conservatism will sometimes buy you some time, but that is about all it can do… This is why individual heart transformation, not legislation, is fundamental to national reformation. The person and work of Jesus is not optional.”[7]

Boldly proclaim the truth

So, what should we do?

We need to know the truth, and we must be bold in speaking the truth in love.

“All things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17 ESV). These verses highlight the centrality and Lordship of Christ over all things. He is the reference point that we need. When we lose Christ, the Rock, we will collapse as a society – that is why we are where we are. “Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction” (Proverbs 29:18 NIV).

Whilst in recent years we have been able to live off the borrowed capital of Christendom we are beginning to run out. We must recover this vision for all of society and life through an explicitly Christian lens. “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light” (Psalm 36:9 ESV). He is the one by which we see light, without him we are fumbling around in the dark. That means all of life and society to the glory of God, we must have a Biblical worldview with which we see all of reality. That includes the arts, politics, economics, education, healthcare, all of culture.

But with this we need a boldness with which we proclaim the truth. We are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), even when the truth is unpopular. We must be prepared to be opposed; we cannot be silent. We cannot let fear overwhelm us. Yes, that might mean being cancelled, it may mean losing friends, but so what? As the Apostle Paul wrote “to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Do we believe that?

Boldness should come with understanding the culture we are in. Society tries to make us feel embarrassed about our views, but we should not be. It is right to be angry that abortion is allowed up to full term for those with Down’s Syndrome. It is right to say we should not be giving hormone blockers to children. Yes they will probably say we are on the wrong side of history, but we know that we aren’t, because God is sovereign over all of history, so we don’t need to worry about what they will say about us tomorrow or next year or in the future; ultimately we will be vindicated whether we see it or not.

Particularly at university this will be difficult, when it feels like you are surrounded by those who disagree with you. One of the aims of our Wilberforce Academy is to build a community of like-minded students and young professionals who are a source of support and encouragement. When you have friends supporting you and encouraging you even when it is lonely, you can do so much more than when you are alone.

Our Wilberforce Academy is a one week programme, and our vision is to raise up the next generation of Christian leaders in public life who will stand firm against the cultural tide and speak the truth of Jesus Christ in love to all of society. We train and equip students and young professionals to critique and challenge the assumptions of modern secular society with a robust Christian worldview and see how all of life and culture can be transformed to the glory of God.

LMH JCR might say we are a threat to their mental and physical safety, but what they do not see is that, in fact, we are offering exactly what they need.

Why don’t you join us?

Apply now at wilberforceacademy.org.uk


[1] Have any journalists asked Sadiq Khan if he thinks “gay sex is haram” like they did to Tim Farron in 2017?

[2] One of our speakers, Sam Solomon, is often accused of ‘Islamophobia.’ It is worth noting he is an ex-Muslim and former Islamic Jurist who trained in Sharia Law for 15 years before converting to Christianity.

[3] Yes, I would like Christianity to have a privileged position in this nation. Why wouldn’t I?

[4] Ann Furedi – The Moral Case for Abortion, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, p64

[5] I should note, intersex is a very real and painful physical condition

[6] I am not sure if we are friends anymore.

[7] Douglas Wilson, Rules for Reformers, p2, Canon Press 2014


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