SRC and Catholic Chaplaincy in equal marriage spat

Claire Diamond & Louise Wilson

The decision to exclude Father John Keenan, Catholic Chaplain for Glasgow University, from September’s Freshers’ Address has caused controversy between the Student Representative Council and religious students.

SRC sabbatical officers told Father Keenan that this year he would not be invited to address the first year students at the Freshers’ Address.  Father John was told that this year only Reverend Stuart McQuarrie, the only other full-time University Chaplain and a Church of Scotland minister, would be invited to the address as the Interfaith Chaplain, a supposedly religiously neutral position.

However, SRC President James Harrison later told religious students who raised concerns that the decision was taken in light of the conflicting positions between the SRC and the Catholic Church on equal marriage.

After Catholic priests were asked to read out a letter to their parishes on ‘Support Marriage Sunday’ outlining the Catholic church’s position on equal marriage, the SRC approached the Chaplain to encourage him not to read out the letter on the grounds that it would be ‘unwelcoming’ to some students.  As the letter was read out, uninviting the Catholic Chaplain from the Freshers’ Address was suggested at a cross campus meeting.

With the heads of the other three student bodies – Colum Fraser, President of QMU; David Lockhart, President of GUU and Chris Millar, GUSA President – it was decided that this was not an appropriate reason, but that having one chaplain to represent all faiths would be sufficient. The Guardian understands that the GUU has since written to the Catholic Chaplaincy outlining that, in the eyes of the GUU, the letter read out on ‘Support Marriage Sunday’ was not the reason they agreed to asking Father John not to speak.

This is the first time the Catholic Chaplain has not been invited to the Freshers’ Address in decades, the tradition outdating Father Keenan himself.  Father Keenan, when asked why he did not speak at the Address, told the Guardian: “The SRC took the view that there were a lot of people addressing the Freshers…  Substantively [the decision not include Father John], and in its own terms, it wasn’t a bad idea.  On the face of it, that is an acceptable reason.  If the SRC’s decision had been made on that basis, I think that would have been fine.  I believe there was more to it than that.”

Father John clarified: “James sent an email to me in which he said he felt the Freshers’ Address was too crowded and that this was the basis for his decision for only Reverend McQuarrie to speak this year. I now know there was more to it than that.”

SRC President James Harrison, in an email to a concerned religious student, said: “It was felt to be inappropriate for him to then welcome students to the university” after he chose to read out the letter.

The decision to only invite one of the two full-time chaplains has led to some students feeling their views are not represented by the SRC.  Reverend MacQuarrie, who remained invited to the Freshers’ Address, admits some students have come to him in the past feeling their views have been sidelined, leaving them “frustrated and distressed”.  He said: “It’s almost like saying ‘you don’t matter’, which is a difficult thing to hear.”

Gabriele Franchi de’Cavalieri, President of Glasgow University’s Catholic Society, told the Guardian he feels his views are often ignored, despite Catholics making up a large proportion of students. He said: “I don’t feel free to express what I think.”

He believes the role of the SRC is to represent all students, and generally does a good job, but recent “political differences” have led to a schism between the two groups. He stressed it would be nice if the two bodies could work together in welcoming new students. He continued: “It would be much better if we could work together with the SRC, as a lot of the work we do is similar.” However, the recent differences of opinion have led many members of the Catholic Society to feel under-represented and ignored.

Commenting on Father Keenan not being asked the speak at the Freshers’ Address, he said: “The SRC should recognise that if they really want to welcome students they shouldn’t exclude religious students and make sure everyone feels at home.”

These concerns were also raised by several students, one of whom felt that their opposition – on religious grounds – to equal marriage was ignored by the SRC.  Last year’s Council meeting minutes detail how, despite opposition to equal marriage on the panel being consulted, Harrison – who last year was one of the three vice presidents – suggested that there was no need to include details of the dissenting opinion in the SRC’s submission.

The representative involved, who asked to remain anonymous, explained how, following speaking out during the consultation process, he was approached by Harrison whilst on a night out at one of the student unions and challenged about his views.  The student explained to Harrison in an email passed to the Guardian how he felt “uncomfortable, unsettled and upset”, to which Harrison admitted approaching the Council member in a social environment to discuss his views had been inappropriate and wrong.

Commenting on the decision to un-invite Father Keenan from the Freshers’ Address, the GUSRC executives said: “We believe that the statement [on Save Marriage Sunday] that was read sent an unwelcoming message to students, and therefore it was thought by the SRC that it would have been inappropriate and contradictory for him to then welcome students at the University Freshers’ Address the following month. The SRC also had concerns about the fact that it is only the Catholic Chaplain that is traditionally invited to speak with the Interfaith Chaplain. None of the other Honorary Chaplains are invited and this does not represent the diverse range of students that make up our student population.”

SRC executives denied that their personal politics had affected the representation of religious students at the University.  The SRC said: “The GUSRC executive were elected on their respective platforms, and always put the interests of students at the heart of their decision making. Further to that, we are accountable to Council who ensure that any decisions made are representative of our student body.  We remain committed to fighting for equality, but do not accept that religion should be used as an excuse to entrench inequality.”

In a draft response seen by the Guardian, President Harrison rejected the notion that the decision to exclude Father John could affect the SRC’s ability to represent religious students, calling it a “ridiculous accusation”. He argued that the SRC were “committed to fighting bigotry in all its forms”.