It has been interesting to follow the news of the court’s ruling to uphold the decision of Sheffield University’s Fitness to Practice panel regarding Felix Ngole’s removal from his masters in social work course last year.
This student was removed from his course due to Facebook posts he had made defending an American registrar who was refusing to give gay couples marriage licences. During his Facebook discussions he states he sees homosexuality as a ‘sin’.
Also significant is the fact reports indicate that since the incident he didn’t demonstrate critical reflection or regret about his comments, showing little insight into how LGBTQ+ service users might experience such an attitude.
In the judgment, Judge Rice said: “It was reasonable to expect a student whose career was at stake to have gone further to show that he understood the questions and had some reassuring answers.”
I think this was a good decision by the court.
Ultimately the wellbeing of service users need to be protected and this incident seems a clear breach of Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) standards of conduct. However, the situation has also brought up a number of questions and conflicts for me.
I write as someone who has been a social worker for over 20 years, and is currently a university lecturer.
I also write as someone who spent my teens and early twenties in a fundamentalist Christian church. Reading about this situation has made me ask the uncomfortable question of whether I could have been in Mr Ngole’s situation if I had grown up in an era of social media.
It is painful to look back on the views I held during that period, and it is particularly difficult to explain them to others. In essence, fundamentalist Christianity is an all-encompassing world view where you are expected to believe the Bible is the true and perfect word of God. The pressure to believe this privately, and to proclaim it publicly, is extremely strong.
I went to a church where this was impressed upon me in the form of weekly sermons outlining the imminent threat of me burning in hell; a much more fearsome prospect than HCPC fitness to practise proceedings.
There were other subtler forms of shaming, peer control and hierarchical (often patriarchal) pressure. These influences are all assisted by a genuine belief in the devil; a convenient figure used to explain away any challenges, particularly those from a secular culture. There is a huge emphasis on keeping up a public defence of Christianity and being a ‘witness’ to its perceived truths.
Reason and persuasion
It doesn’t surprise me at all that Mr Ngole doesn’t seemed to have changed his perceptions during the university hearings, as from his point of view he will be doing the right thing: fighting for his faith, upholding truth in the face of secular attacks.
It is almost impossible to negotiate or reflect with those who hold fundamentalist views as they believe they have access to objective truth.
The kind of reflective processes we use in social work rely on reason and persuasion, and they are unlikely to be effective at changing people’s minds. In my experience it is only the actual deconstruction of the world view, and the loss of the fundamentalist faith in the bible, which will enable enough openness which might make reflection on multiple perspectives a possibility.
I would be interested in whether there was any attempt to engage with Mr Ngole on a theological level. It would be a complex task, but probably a more effective way of challenging him.
I am also concerned about how students and social workers who have a religious faith will perceive this judgement. I suspect that a quick reading of what has happened, where some of the nuances around Mr Ngole’s ongoing lack of reflection are not identified, will lead people to conclude that they must keep their religious views very much out of sight in their social work training and subsequent career.
For me, this is a worry. It won’t make people less homophobic, just more secretive about how they express it. Driving it into the shadows might make it even more powerful. In my experience it is listening, the expression of lived experience and authentic dialogue, which are most likely to provoke people to reassess their perspectives.
Disclosing religious faith is quite a thorny issue in social work university departments. As someone who has lived within the Christian subculture I have a good nose for identifying people with a Christian background and I have identified a few such people in my department who also, like myself, keep silent about it. I have specifically chosen to write this article anonymously.
I am worried that my arguments might be misconstrued. I don’t wish to be defined and stereotyped by my past beliefs, and I worry that my LGBTQ+ colleagues might view me differently if they knew my association with Christianity. This would be very understandable, as the damaging nature of the ongoing homophobia from Christian churches cannot be underestimated.
It is also true that a lot of people are brought to social work because of their Christian faith. I see them all the time in admissions interviews at my university. There is also a cultural issue here, as many of our students are from a West African background, and it is very common for them to have strong Christian beliefs and church communities. These are often candidates with an immense amount to contribute to the profession. We can’t afford to lose them.
One of the contradictions of my own experience is that as well as the very negative input, my Christian background also contributed to some significant positives. The radical teachings of Jesus provoked an early interest and commitment to social justice.
These teachings continue to challenge me. It is also a very common experience, as evidenced by James Fowler’s (1981) Stages of Faith research, which found that people frequently move through a journey of faith, which includes an early stage of certainty, often expressed in fundamentalism, to later stages of agnosticism and possibly renewed, but open-minded, beliefs later in life.
It is likely that many people who have fundamentalist beliefs now might be at a very different stage given the passage of time. This was certainly my experience. Yet I am also aware of the imperative to protect service users in the immediacy.
These are nuanced and complex issues and I hope that this judgement doesn’t silence people from talking about their religious faith. If we are going to challenge homophobia in ourselves and our institutions, we must honestly explore our beliefs and emotions in environments which allow us to make mistakes and are both challenging and supportive to our professional growth.
This blog was written by a social work lecturer.