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Rights of Christian Unions Should be Defended

Thursday 7th December 2006

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has defended the rights of university Christian Unions, saying that Student Union bodies should not discriminate against them simply because they don't approve of their views.

"The danger in issuing sanctions against a body whose views you disapprove of is that it looks like a fear of open argument. If disagreement is to be silenced because offence may be caused, that is not good for intellectual life; it personalises and 'psychologises' all conflict of ideas and denies the possibility of appropriate detachment in debating issues."

Writing in an article in the Times Higher Educational Supplement, to be published Friday 8th December 2006, Dr Williams says that the judgement that religious views ought to banned because they may cause some kind of offence damages the culture of free exchange on which so much in a university depends:

"A good institution of HE is one in which students learn that their questions are not everyone's questions, and their answers are not everyone's answers. Simply in the fact of being alongside people who are following other academic disciplines, you learn that different people want to know different sorts of thing. You learn that your world is not the obviously right and true one just because you say it is. Whatever convictions you emerge with will have been tested by this critical exposure to other ways of seeing and other sorts of investigation."

Student Unions had to consider, he argued, whether their essential role was brokering between different communities from which they drew their membership, or whether they were to function in a central licensing capacity:

"... The question that ought to be asked is what those student unions that have sought to withdraw recognition from Christian Unions think their powers are; do they see themselves as 'brokering' the business of a wide variety of bodies, many of whose views they (naturally) do not endorse? Or do they think of themselves as representing a central authority that can create or abolish associations?"

Christian Unions, he said, certainly had their own questions to answer:

" ... Some CU's might do well to undertake a little hard self-examination about whether their language is vulnerable to proper challenge; they may need to affirm more clearly and credibly the distinction between declaring behaviour unacceptable and effectively passing judgement on a whole category of persons. But that does not alter the fundamental point about freedom of association. The integrity of the whole educational process in a democracy depends on getting this right, and it should not be obscured by hasty and superficial reactions to what are regarded as unacceptable opinions by the fashion of the day."

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