Freedom is at the heart of what we believe

April 13, 2007

Far from imposing unjust sanctions, universities with a Christian ethos encourage debate, claims Kenneth Stevenson

It has recently been suggested that the Christian ethos of a Church of England university may be a foe to freedom. This misunderstands the Church's view of freedom, enshrined in the ethos of Christian places of education whether schools, colleges or universities.

Faith-based institutions do uphold academic freedom. By contrast, a state-sponsored morality artificially constructed to meet imposed "equality criteria" risks excluding more viewpoints than it includes. As Dennis Hayes, founder of Academics for Academic Freedom, points out, this can amount to no more than "don't upset the students". The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote in The Times Higher in December that "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." Andrey Rosowsky's comment that "traditional Islamic scholarship has no problems with intellectual debate and freedom" demonstrates that the principle of freedom is also upheld in other faith traditions.

All universities should be places where, to some extent, ideas are explored for their own sake. Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell is absolutely right in saying that academic freedom is a fundamental principle of our higher education system, which goes wider than freedom of speech because it includes freedom to pursue research and to publish. But in reality the freedom of the individual can never be absolute.

To recognise this produces a more realistic view of whether academic freedom is limited by a particular ethos or set of values. For example, the choices that exist for research topics depend on where funding is available - including from interested parties. And giving approval for research proposals doesn't just depend on funding but on guarding hard-won reputations from accusations of taint.

We deceive ourselves if we imagine that institutions are not driven by their values. No education, research or ethos is "value-neutral", and an institution that is clear and open about its values framework will be able to avoid simply reflecting the most powerful voices around.

An ethos is not a set of non-negotiable credal beliefs; neither is it a straightforward concept to grapple with. But the evidence of a link between ethos and performance means that ethos cannot be ignored. A Church higher education institution committed to its Christian ethos will want to be explicit about it. This is true for Canterbury Christ Church University and Chester University, which ask staff in their articles of governance not to undermine their Christian ethos, and rightly so. If it is questioned whether these codicils should remain even if they have never been used, the point is that they should be used, but never abused. Putting unfair restrictions on academics in the manner that Hayes fears would be wrong.

What is different about the Church colleges and universities is not that they limit freedom. This is to misunderstand what an "ethos" is. A Christian ethos accepts the right to voice different views. Whatever factors might affect the choices made by all universities or colleges, the Christian ethos of a Church higher education institution is what drives it in its search for truth and sustains it. The search for truth is no stranger to Christian faith or Christian understanding of the purpose of a university. It lies at the heart of both. And that is not to say that other institutions won't behave in the right way.

If the suggestion is that support might not be given to academic discussion about controversial subjects, one needs only to reflect on the amount of time given by the Church of England to discussions around, for example, sexuality to be left in no doubt at all that academic debate is very much alive and well. A framework of openly declared Christian values opens up all an institution's activities to sometimes uncomfortable scrutiny and self-examination.

All higher education institutions push at boundaries of everything from ethics to media studies. It is worth remembering that Jesus himself debunked popular religion and practice as well as popular attitudes and conventions. Likewise, pushing at the boundaries of theology is a necessary function of any theology department, whether in a church institution or not.

In any community, freedom is exercised in the context of relationships. In Christian understanding, the tension between personal freedom and allowing others to be themselves calls for a generous and self-denying response.

Beyond the freedom prescribed by law is the absolute freedom prescribed - and circumscribed - by that self-denying love. A Christian ethos, properly lived by, will ensure that freedom is given, accepted and acted upon in relation to others.

Self-fulfilment at its best is not just about a personal search for freedom. It is about an understanding of what needs to be contributed in community. At the end of the day, the heart of the Christian gospel is that generous love takes priority over self-protection - even though the Church has not always been adept at making this crucial distinction. All this should go a long way to reassure anyone who lives in fear of unjust sanctions. That would be a total reversal of what the Christian faith - and education at its most vibrant - is all about.

The Right Reverend Kenneth Stevenson is Bishop of Portsmouth and chairman of the Church of England Board of Education.

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