The fact that the event had taken place at all only became known to the college’s radicalized students when one of them found a flyer from the event lying around. Since the students were not in residence at the time, they missed the chance to be upset by hearing any of the talks or discussions, or traumatized by meeting any of the attendees. They had to make do with their distress at the fact that the college’s hallowed meeting rooms and corridors had felt the presence of a wider range of views than has become usual.
Worcester College realized too late its mistake, issuing a statement: “We deeply regret the distress caused to students, staff and other members of the college community by the presence of the Wilberforce Academy conference.”
As a matter of fact, Christian Concern is involved in a range of issues, such as the right of street preachers to proclaim the Gospel, and if the activist students had had more of an insight into the organization, I imagine their outrage would be even more extreme. But Oxford colleges, like many schools and universities, routinely hire out facilities to anyone, within wide limits, who is willing to pay. Colleges, indeed, charge a great deal for this, and it represents an income stream crucial to their survival, since their main business, teaching undergraduates, tends to be loss-making.
Thanks to this kind of fake outrage, colleges are increasingly trying to balance financial considerations with attempts to gag and censor conference organizers. Colleges are unwilling to face criticism from their own undergraduates for allowing events to take place where forbidden topics are broached. Allowing discussion and debate is dangerous: people might draw the wrong conclusions from a wide-ranging presentation of facts and arguments.
This affects academics, but in many ways it is the students themselves who suffer most from this. Student-organized events like debates about abortion are targeted by extremists who openly, indeed proudly, proclaim that they want “no debate”. Even a debate featuring Ann Furedi, the radical pro-abortionist, was targeted for cancellation in Cambridge because it was a debate, not a monologue.
The fuss about Worcester, however, takes things to new lengths. The horror that views not approved by some self-appointed committee of woke students had been articulated on the premises cannot be explained in the usual terms—of students not “feeling safe” and the like—since all the participants had gone before the fragile students returned. I don’t generally go for comparisons between “critical theory” and whatever the latest fashionable ideas might be with religion, since they do not concern the supernatural, but it is clear that these systems of belief are occupying space in the lives of many of their followers which might otherwise have been occupied by religion. In this case, we seem to have been seeing in action a confused, secularized notion of the desecration of a sacred space. The students feel bad about someone they don’t like using the space otherwise reserved for them.
As the former Anglican bishop, and recent Catholic convert, Gavin Ashendon expressed it, the next step would be for them to engage in an “atheist exorcism” to drive away the miasma of Christianity from the college.
But I have news for them. Worcester College was founded in 1714, but its oldest buildings date from before the Reformation and provided accommodation for Benedictine monks. If you look carefully, you can still see the coats of arms of medieval monasteries over the doors to each of the houses. Some members of these communities were martyred for their Catholic faith when the monasteries were destroyed by King Henry VIII; they included Blessed Richard Whiting, who was hanged on Glastonbury Tor in 1539.
The college is only an indirect beneficiary of the crimes of the English Reformation, but if you occupy the buildings of the victims of such crimes, you have a choice to make. You can side with the criminals, as no doubt many Protestant College leaders did over the centuries. Or you can acknowledge the crimes and pay your respects to your wronged predecessors, as one might have expected civilized and broadminded British institutions to do in the recent past. Now that Christianity has come to be seen as an intrinsically bad thing, we are witnessing places like Worcester College swinging back into the previous mode of dealing with the past, no longer out of Protestant sectarianism, but out of a general anti-religious animus.
The past, though, is not so easy to deny. As G.K. Chesterton wrote of England’s fading aristocracy: “Or perhaps the shades of the shaven men, whose spoil is in his house,/ Come back in shining shapes at last to spoil his last carouse.”