There was a time when Balliol College was considered one of the top Oxford Colleges. I do not know if that is still the case, but the College’s reputation must take a battering after the latest folly of its Junior Common Room (JCR), as reported in this magazine and also in the Guardian.
The JCR’s leadership decided to ban the Christian Union (CU) from the Balliol Freshers’ Fair. According to the Guardian, they wanted the Freshers’ Fair to be a, you have guessed it, “secular space”.
This needs some unpacking, so please bear with me. All spaces outside church buildings are per se secular. That is what space is, in the saeculum, in the world. Allowing the CU to have a stall in the Freshers’ Fair would not make the Freshers’ Fair into a sacred space. Rather, letting any religious organisation set up a stall in a fair of any kind is essentially allowing them a place in the secular space that is shared by people of all faiths and none. The JCR’s position is absurd because the secularity of the Freshers’ Fair is not under threat, because the Freshers’ Fair is of its very nature a secular gathering.
Having made this absurd and ill-informed decision, the JCR president and vice-president then tied themselves in knots trying to justify it. Vice-president Freddy Potts is quoted as saying:
“Christianity’s influence on many marginalised communities has been damaging in its methods of conversion and rules of practice, and is still used in many places as an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism.”
Yes, really. Is that he best he can do? I am afraid that if he wrote something like that in one of his essays in the Exam Schools he would merit a gamma at best. Mr Potts makes some very bold assertions without a shred of evidence for them. Let him point out to us the marginalised communities who have been damaged by Christianity with its “methods of conversion and rules of practice”. Let him be specific in linking our faith to homophobia and neo-colonialism. Let us have examples, quotations from peer-reviewed academic studies; and let us also have proof that these alleged crimes of Christianity make it imperative to exclude the CU from the Freshers’ fair. Or are we to assume that Mr Potts’s words are just the usual irrational guff and bluster of a man who has painted himself into a corner?
My guess is that the JCR leadership do not particularly like the CU (and there are many who do not) and have decided to exclude them. But — and this is the sticking point — if they are to exclude anyone at all, they have to advance coherent reasons for their action which will stand up in the public forum. That they have failed to do, is because, I suspect, such reasons are impossible to find. After all, if you are to ban the CU on the grounds mentioned above, you can ban almost anyone.
These Balliol students have behaved irrationally. Let’s hope that the next time they have a Freshers’ Fair they make a better fist of it. And let’s hope that one of Oxford’s leading colleges succeeds in getting its undergraduates to think a little more systematically.