Students feel “shocked” and “isolated” following Christian Union talk on sexuality

By Elliot Burrin, and

Content Warning: this article contains reference to homophobia and transphobia 

Inclusive Christian Movement Durham (ICMD), Durham Students’ Union (SU) President Dan Lonsdale, and Durham’s LGBT+ Association amongst others have criticised the Durham Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (DICCU) for hosting Rev Matthew Roberts in their talk ‘Good News for a Sexualised World’.

The talk happened as part of DICCU’s ‘Good News’ week, which ran from 19th to 23rd February and included 15 talks “explaining how Jesus brings good news of great joy for everyone.” The talks, many of which were framed as providing ‘Good News’ for different groups of people or communities, were accompanied by free meals and socials. 

‘Good News’ hoped to give students the opportunity to interact with religion: Co-Presidents of Durham’s Christian Union Jacob and Nancy-Rose explained that DICCU “believe that there should be space in our university community for people to hold and promote the Bible’s teaching in respectful and loving ways.”

However, students have expressed their concerns to Palatinate about the invitation of speaker Rev Matthew Roberts, minister of Trinity Church York. Rev Roberts has been called “homophobic and transphobic” by the ICMD and “anti-LGBTQ+” by Mr Lonsdale for his past comments on sexuality and same-sex marriage.

Rev Roberts has called this criticism “strange”, stating that he was speaking about “standard, historic Christian beliefs.”

“We believe that there should be space in our university community for people to hold and promote the Bible’s teaching in respectful and loving ways”

DICCU

Rev Roberts has publicly spoken about same-sex marriage in the context of Christianity, of which he described himself as Protestant during the ‘Good News’ talk. In January 2023, he criticised the House of Bishops for publishing prayers of blessing for same-sex partnerships, writing that “[the House of Bishops has] chosen to bless with a high hand what God has condemned, and set their own wisdom and beliefs, and the values of an idolatrous culture, above the word of God and the entirety of the Christian tradition.”

Within this blog post, he called for the “excommunication” of any bishops who have “publicly stated their support for the redefinition of marriage and the blessing of same-sex, or unmarried opposite-sex relationships.”

Prior to this, in November 2022, he wrote on his online blog that “only ten years from legalising gay ‘marriage’, with its denial of our created nature of male and female, the deletion of sex has led to the horrors of transgenderism and its trail of damaged children.”

Rev Roberts told Palatinate about his experience at the talk, expressing his belief that, “the wide variety of people who attended the well-organised events engaged excellently with what they heard, and hopefully left having heard more of the radically good news Jesus Christ brings.”

His talk ‘Good News for a Sexualised World’ was not directed at LGBTQ+ people, but rather sexual activity as a whole. He spoke about “a sexualised world” being “awful”, claiming that sexual freedom “actually isn’t freedom. It is something more like misery and slavery.”

One student who identifies as LGBTQ+ told Palatinate that they felt “shocked at the extent to which the speaker was invalidating people’s sexual experiences and identity.”

“I left the event questioning why God had, in the speaker’s words, made me naturally “messed up,” they expressed to Palatinate.

Whilst Rev Roberts did not directly call LGBTQ+ people “messed up”, he did say that “who we are naturally is really messed up […] but the new person that God wants to make us into is the new self.” When someone in the audience asked why God created homosexuality, he replied that “every single one of us has inclinations and desires which are just messed up.”

Rev Roberts then defined sexual immorality as “any sexual activity that is not part of the lifelong union of one man and one woman in marriage.”

“As a bisexual and somebody who does not identify as cisgender, I personally felt very isolated”

Another student who attended the talk told Palatinate that they felt that, “He definitely did have an underlying tone that anything outside of marriage between a man and a woman seemed to be inherently ‘wrong’.

“As a bisexual and somebody who does not identify as cisgender, I personally felt very isolated in the talk, and felt as if I had been told that my identity was something ‘wrong’ with me. There were multiple moments where it brought tears to my eyes, and not in a happy, moving way.”

Rev Roberts spoke about how he believed gender and sexual identity are not determinative, saying that “the obsession with identity, particularly gender and sexual identity, is all about this belief that who I am arises from inside me, but it has no actual grounding in what we really are.”

Another student in the audience, who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, said that they felt “sad for the queer audience members who aren’t as assured in themselves as [they are].”

The student continued to express their opinion that, “A talk like this is telling them to feel broken or dirty and that they need to be saved. Rhetoric like this can be so harmful to the more vulnerable members of the queer community.”

One student told Palatinate that “I found that Matthew Roberts cleverly worded everything to avoid the usual homophobic buzzwords.” They felt that “with this it was hard to pinpoint things that were wrong but the atmosphere he created was uncomfortable.

“As an LGBTQ+ person in the audience, I could feel myself shrinking in my seat. The thought that the hundreds of people around me, fellow students, could think that my identity is wrong is a fear I don’t wish on anyone else.”

They repeatedly described the talk as “uncomfortable” and that “there was no opportunity for another perspective to be given”, claiming that their questions, which were submitted to the anonymous Q&A service, were not answered. However, audience members were able to ask questions in person, many of which dealt with the topic of identifying as both LGBTQ+ and Christian.

Rev Roberts said that “the obsession with identity, particularly gender and sexual identity […] has no actual grounding in what we really are”

During the talk, Rev Roberts said that “We’re also designed that the children that result [from sex] should be brought up by their natural mother and father […] when we ignore that, then we debase and degrade ourselves.” 

In response to this, a student who attended the talk, Mollie, told Palatinate how she felt to listen to Rev Roberts: “Having sat through the talk, alongside my girlfriend, I was really disappointed to hear such extreme heteronormativity and passive homophobia. While there were no explicit homophobic statements made, it was suggested that the only sexual relationship that God accepts is between a man and a woman, bound together in a legal partnership of marriage.”

ICMD have heavily criticised DICCU’s involvement with Rev Roberts. Though none of the executive committee attended Rev Roberts’ talk, a spokesperson from ICMD told Palatinate that “As a society, we believe it is unacceptable to invite a known anti-LGBTQ+ speaker to campus.

“We wholeheartedly disagree with Mr Roberts’ position on LGBTQ+ people in the church and are hurt and upset by this event taking place, and worry for the safety and wellbeing of any LGBTQ+ people who may have attended the event. 

“As Inclusive Christian Movement Durham, we feel it necessary to say that the views expressed by Mr Roberts are not those expressed by all Christians. We believe in a God who created all in Their image and loves us all regardless of gender identity or sexuality. We believe that God rejoices when His children live freely as themselves.”

They added to this in a public statement released on 22nd February 2024, which said: “Inclusive Christian Movement Durham is saddened to hear of the homophobic and transphobic speaker invited to campus by the Christian Union.”

The Co-Presidents of DICCU, Jacob and Nancy-Rose, told Palatinate: “The Christian Union exists to give every student in Durham the opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Good News was a week of events where this happened. Our intention is always and will always be to show the extent and goodness of this message to every student. It is never our goal to cause harm to any person or group in the student community which is why it is saddening to hear that some students have been upset by some of the content at Good News Events Week.

“We believe that everything the Bible says about all of life is good news and that the words and life of Jesus are relevant and good for everyone. We also recognise that the Bible’s teaching will at times challenge deeply-held beliefs which stem from differing worldviews. Whilst we recognise that these are very personal issues, we believe that there should be space in our university community for people to hold and promote the Bible’s teaching in respectful and loving ways. The belief that sex should only take place in a lifelong marriage between one man and one woman is in line with the official Biblical teaching of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, along with many other mainline Protestant denominations.

“In inviting Matthew Roberts, we complied with all SU and University regulations and all of our speaker request forms were approved by the SU.

“As a Christian Union our intention is to create a welcoming and warm environment where anyone of any belief or opinion can come and explore the Christian message. As a society we will continue to try and provide avenues for those who have questions and objections to voice them in a kind and loving environment.”

“All members of our community deserve to feel safe, respected, and supported, and we are incredibly sorry that this has been breached”

Durham LGBT+ ASSOciation

President of Durham SU Dan Lonsdale has joined the condemnation of the platforming of Rev Roberts by the Christian Union. In his public statement on 23rd February 2024, Mr Lonsdale said, “the law protects the right of homophobic and transphobic people to have those views, and to speak on our campuses if invited by a student group. The law does not require me, on behalf of the Students’ Union, to stay silent on how much I find those views disgusting, hateful and completely antithetical to the culture we need to build here in Durham.”

Mr Lonsdale commented further that “the right to freedom of speech comes with the responsibility to include more people in the conversation. The kind of rhetoric DICCU’s guest speaker brought to campus does the opposite – it reinforces hatred and fear, marginalises people within our communities and freezes out quality conversations about modern faith amongst students. This invitation was a bad choice.

“At a time of intense hostility towards the LGBTQ+ community in wider society, it is vital we come together as a student community and stand against this hatred when it seeks to present itself on our campus.”

Rev Roberts responded to Mr Lonsdale’s claims, telling Palatinate that, “It was a privilege to speak for the ‘Good News’ week of the Durham Inter-Collegiate Christian Union last week. It has been strange to discover that the SU President apparently believes that it is unacceptable for a Christian student society, and Christian ministers like myself, to speak about standard, historic Christian beliefs, and that it is his role to condemn us for doing so.”

He expressed his belief that, “Thankfully, the wide variety of people who attended the well-organised events engaged excellently with what they heard, and hopefully left having heard more of the radically good news Jesus Christ brings.”

Durham’s LGBT+ Association also released a statement on 23rd February 2024 criticising the invitation of Rev Roberts to speak at DICCU: “It is our belief that this is completely unacceptable. Someone with these beliefs should never be given a platform at the University, and we are deeply sympathetic to those who have been hurt by this event.

“All members of our community deserve to feel safe, respected, and supported, and we are incredibly sorry that this has been breached.”

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One thought on “Students feel “shocked” and “isolated” following Christian Union talk on sexuality

  • Rev Roberts is incorrect that he was stating “standard, historic Christian beliefs” (and, similarly, the CU presidents in suggesting that this is “the Bible’s teaching”: they mean “particular interpretation and application of the Bible’s teaching”). The current standard non-affirming position on LGBT+ relationships has changed significantly in the last 60 years, as outlined best by Durham PhD alumnus Mark Vasey-Saunders in his 2023 book Defusing the Sexuality Debate: The Anglican Evangelical Culture War. I’m not saying previous Christians were pro-LGBT+ (though some, in real ways, were), but that particular interpretations of biblical teachings have changed notably: e.g. non-affirming evangelicals now normally acknowledge that gay/bi/pan orientation or ‘persistent same-sex attraction’ exists, that most gay people can’t change this and it’s dangerous to try to force such change, and that same-sex attractions aren’t themselves sinful. They also normally centre Genesis 1-2 and Romans 1 in their biblical interpretation (papering over how references to passion or lust in Romans 1:26 and 27 contradict their newfound acceptance of same-sex attraction) rather than the Sodom story. A 1970s Christian Union would consider Roberts and other non-affirming evangelicals today to be downright liberal.

    In any case, something being standard and historic Christian beliefs doesn’t excuse it from being harmful – at least not for us Christians. Over the last century, the Christian churches have had to recognise that anti-Semitism was in many ways “standard, historic Christian beliefs,” and a hundred years earlier, that accepting slavery was too. Evangelical Christians should understand as well as anyone that all humankind is affected by individual and social sin and that this includes sometimes needing to repent of ways we have supported and perpetrated oppressions. Many other evangelical Christians such as David Gushee, an expert on Christians and anti-Semitism, have come to believe that we need to repent of our harmful teaching towards LGBT+ persons the same way we have repented—or more accuately, are still repenting—of harmful teaching towards other people. (see Gushee’s moving speech on Youtube “Ending the Teaching of Contempt against the Church’s Sexual Minorities”. I would link, but my experience is that adding URLs to Palatinate comments gets them stuck in awaiting-moderation limbo.)

    As a Christian ethicist, I am also deeply concerned at Roberts’ quoted definition of sexual immorality as “any sexual activity that is not part of the lifelong union of one man and one woman in marriage.” This entirely erases all sexual violence, harassment, and other misconduct within heterosexual marriage. Sexual and gender-based violence and other family violence is a huge problem in marriages and many scholars have shown the particularly insidious ways that interpretations of Christian theology can enable violence in Christian marriages. (And let’s not forget that rape within marriage was only outlawed in the UK in 1991, due to horrifically misogynistic and violent “standard, historic … beliefs”.) I hope Rev Roberts simply mispoke when he forgot about immoral/violent sexual behaviour within heterosexual marriage. If so, I hope he will reflect on what led to his misspeaking, and that he will try to be more accurate in his future statements and pastoral ministry.

    I am sorry on behalf of my Christian community for the harm caused by this speaker and invite fellow Christians to work towards safety, liberation, and justice for LGBT+ people as part of following Jesus and living under God’s reign in creation.

    – Caleb Day (Durham PhD researcher on evangelical ethics of LGBT+ relationships)

    Reply

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