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Oxford Student Faith Action publishes safe churches report

Oxford Student Faith Action publishes safe churches report

By Etienne Baker
September 27, 2023

The Oxford Safe Churches project, run by a coalition of LGBTQ+ organisations and Churches in Oxford, have published their first faith report, titled 'Attitudes to Queer Christians in Oxford Churches.' The report, published on Friday 22 September, uses a 'traffic light' system to rank the LGBTQ+ inclusivity of churches in Oxford. St. Aldates Church and St. Ebbe's Church, both located next to Pembroke College in the centre of Oxford, are ranked in the lowest rate of inclusivity, and have a notable amount of evidence suggesting active displays of both homophobia and transphobia.

The introduction to the report states that it is intended to 'give LGBTQ+ people the tools to make informed decisions about what church to attend.' It acknowledges that whilst ideally all churches would be welcoming spaces for LGBTQ+ people of faith, this is not the case, and it is important to help prevent queer people experiencing trauma caused by 'spiritual abuse' suffered in churches. A spokesperson from the group told us that 'for a long time, students in Oxford have walked into churches not knowing how their LGBTQ+ identity will be received. We desperately want to stop this from happening, and this is what our report attempts to do'.

Of the 29 churches evaluated, 13 were categorised as '1: Red' (the lowest rating). These include St. Aldates Church, St. Ebbe's Church and Magdalen Road Church in the centre of Oxford. Ranking based on a 'traffic light system' comes from an 'Honest Church Toolkit' developed by the Student Christian Movement, which also includes suggestions of how to make your church 'more welcoming' of LGBTQ+ people. The decisions on ranking were made 'on consideration of the team made up of 11 members, either based on evidence which has been made publicly available by churches, or from collected personal experiences.'

Anonymous testimony from St. Aldates speaks of feeling 'totally shocked and sick' after finding out the views of the leadership, and another mentioned one recent upsetting preaching on a passage in Ephesians which made them realise 'that St Aldate's wasn't truly queer friendly as an institution.' St. Aldates did not respond to the survey provided by the Safe Churches Project.

St. Ebbes also had similar levels of evidence of homophobia and transphobia, however apologised for not responding to the survey. In a comment made to the Church Times, Canon Vaughan Roberts, the Rector of St. Ebbe's, said that he was 'very sorry to hear of anyone who has not had a positive experience of St. Ebbe's', and that '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.' He also said that they didn't respond due to concerns over binary answers, which wouldn't 'provide a proper reflection of the reality of our attitudes to LGBTQ+ people.'

On the other end of the rankings, Sacred (Christ Church Cathedral), University Church of St Mary the Virgin and St Columba's United Reformed Church all scored as a '5', the highest rating, with anonymous testimony from Sacred (Christ Church Cathedral) saying that it is 'encouraging to meet other LGBTQ+ Christians in a space where you know you are fully accepted.'

Content in the report also raises the issue of conversion therapy and its link to churches and spiritual spaces. Government research, published in October 2021, found that the most common methods identified involved spiritual methods, such as prayer 'healing' and pastoral counselling, and psychological methods, such as talking therapies. Conversion therapy appears to be most commonly carried out in religious settings, by either individuals or the organisation. The government reported that whilst there is no robust evidence to support claims that conversion therapy is effective, there is an increasing amount of quantitative evidence that exposure to conversion therapy is statistically associated with poor mental health outcomes.

About 5% of people who responded to the UK-wide LGBT Survey in 2018 said that they had been offered some form of conversion therapy, whilst that figure was 10% for Christian respondents, and 20% for Muslim respondents. The government says that it will ban all forms of conversion therapy in England and Wales, after criticism for previous plans which excluded transgender people from the ban. The Faith Report from the Oxford Safe Churches project highlights how several churches in Oxford signed a letter opposing the government's proposals of a ban, due to concern that areas of Christianity would become criminalised through a conversion therapy ban. In 2022, 6 of the 18 Oxford signatories of a letter responding to the Government's proposals of a ban on conversion therapy were from St Ebbe's leadership.

The report, which has already been covered in The Times and the Church Times, could bring attention to the trauma caused by non-inclusive experiences for LGBTQ+ individuals, and the continuing prevalence of conversion therapy, as many figures do not necessarily reflect the true number of people impacted. This is due to the lack of legal definition and reluctance to share experiences that may be traumatic for the victim to speak about.

The Times also commented on Christian LGBT rights campaigners saying that they want to see the 'important' project copied nationally, showing the potential scale of the project. This would not only equip LGBTQ+ individuals with the information to allow them to practise their faith in a safe environment, but also bring important attention to the need for greater support of LGBTQ+ people of faith, particularly in instances where conversion therapy is normalised and practised.

To read the full report: https://www.oulgbtq.org/uploads/1/1/0/3/110317091/oxford-safe-churches-report.pdf

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