Bishop of Ely defends freedom of speech in universities

“If we allow the dominant agenda to become the refusal to be exposed to being offended, we deny ourselves the rich opportunity to be agents of the transformation of conflict through positive engagement.”–  Bishop of Ely, 26/11/5

On 26th November 2015 the House of Lords debated a motion from  Baroness Deech: “That this House takes note of the protection of freedom of speech in universities.” The Bishop of Ely, Rt Revd Stephen Conway, spoke in the debate:

14.10.16 Bishop of Ely 1The Lord Bishop of Ely: I, too, take the opportunity to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for bringing this debate about. I would be very glad to engage in metaphysical conversation with the noble Lord, Lord Patten, about the soul of the university sometime outside the Chamber. I am more concerned for us to promote and understand the importance of religious literacy in the defence of free speech, and the Church’s engagement with a number of institutions in seeking to make the most of the Prevent agenda without throwing aside openness and readiness to engage in full debate.

One of my heroes in theology is Peter Abelard who, in the 12th century in Paris, by taking risks with academic freedom at the time in his Sic et Non lectures, had students flocking to Paris. While recognising that at the heart of study was risky engagement, he put himself at risk under an oppressive church authority at the time to set people free. This is the foundation of western education, which we must continue to promote. Universities must be places where there is passionate and forensic debate, actively promoted. That is not only a statutory obligation; more importantly, it is at the heart of any scholarly purpose, as we discover the truth with one another and for ourselves.

At the heart of Christian teaching is the recurrent theme of reconciliation. The churches are all committed to building resilience in conflict transformation. It strikes me that universities are places where students may first learn about intellectual and community conflicts. If we allow the dominant agenda to become the refusal to be exposed to being offended, we deny ourselves the rich opportunity to be agents of the transformation of conflict through positive engagement.

Many years ago, I was preaching at a midnight mass and someone came into the church and said,

“You are all hypocrites”.

I said,

“Well, come in, there’s always room for one more”.

We all need to engage with people, even those who are different from us, recognising that people have the right to challenge us and to speak out against us. However, we need to make that positive engagement and to continue to believe—and to encourage our students to have the character and the confidence to believe—in the power of persuasion around our own truth claims and what we want to make of them. This is how I believe that universities serve the resilience of our democracy.

If there was more than one right reverend Prelate here this afternoon, I am sure we would agree on all sorts of things, but there would be other matters where there would be considerable debate and disagreement between us. This serves a robust and generous pluralism. This must be cherished in our universities and must not be undermined by excessive institutional caution or by the unintended consequences of laudable policies to tackle hate crime and extremism. Where the clash of ideas flows from strongly held moral and ethical convictions, it is even more important that our universities actively enable and support the patterns of debate and good disagreement which are at the heart of learning and intellectual exploration. It is a vital area of learning that we do not aim at a strangely disconnected tolerance of almost everything but at the serious critical engagement with unpalatable ideas while still honouring the integrity of the person expressing them.