George Carey Launches I’m Not Ashamed Leaflet

As has been widely reported, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey has put his weight behind Christian Concern‘s “Not Ashamed” campaign. Carey has penned a leaflet to go with the campaign, which can be seen here:

In spite of having contributed so much to our civilization and providing its foundation, the Christian Faith is in danger of being stealthily and subtly brushed aside. The evidence has been mounting in recent years. Teachers and council employees are suspended for offering to ‘say a prayer’. A devoted nurse is banned from wearing a cross, a British Airways worker told to remove hers. Roman Catholic adoption agencies are closed down under new laws. Christian marriage registrars who cannot, in good conscience, preside over civil partnership ceremonies are summarily dismissed.

This is a ragbag of causes célèbres that have come up over the past few years. The “suspended teacher” was Olive Jones, who had been employed to teach maths to a girl suffering from leukaemia – instead, she talked about miracles and heaven and exhorted the girl to pray with her, causing distress and annoying the girl’s parents, who complained.  The parents then found themselves not only having to cope with a dangerously ill daughter, but with being at the brunt of a media backlash against “political correctness”. According to the council concerned,

“It is acceptable to offer prayer but not to impose it against a family’s wishes. Teachers like Olive do not have to set aside their faith, but personal beliefs and practices should be secondary to the needs and beliefs of the student and their family and the requirements of professional practice.”

The council worker, meanwhile, was a homeless prevention officer for Wandsworth Council named Duke Amachree. Amachree claims he merely “discussed his faith” with a client, while the council claims he subjected her to a “religious rant”. He lost an appeal against dismissal in August.

The nurse was Shirley Chaplin, who lost a discrimination case in April:

Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital had acted reasonably in trying to reach a compromise. It had argued that the objection to the crucifix, which Mrs Chaplin, from Kenn, near Exeter, had worn for 30 years, was based on health and safety concerns about patients grabbing the necklace, not religion.

The British Airways worker was Nadia Eweida, who was also known to proselytise colleagues. However, although the case against her was upheld (after she declined a pay-out), it was also reported that

British Airways is changing its uniform policy to allow all religious symbols, including crosses, to be worn openly… The airline now says it will allow religious symbols such as lapel pins and “some flexibility for individuals to wear a symbol of faith on a chain”.

The suggestion that Roman Catholic adoption agencies have been “closed down under new laws” is misleading and perhaps inflammatory; they have been required to accept non-discrimination legislation when it comes to potential gay adopters, and some have decided that they had no choice other than to close down rather than accept this.

And the “Christian marriage registrar” was Lillian Ladele, who refused to conduct same-sex civil partnerships because of her “orthodox Christian beliefs” (in the words used in her tribunal).

Carey continues:

This attempt to ‘air-brush’ the Christian Faith out of the picture is especially obvious as Christmas approaches. The cards that used to carry Christmas wishes now bear ‘Season’s greetings’. The local school nativity play is watered down or disappears altogether. The local council switches on ‘Winter lights’ in place of Christmas decorations. Even Christmas has become something of which some are ashamed… The Church is far from dead but is definitely under attack.

This is silly. Non-religious Christmas cards have been around for decades, and many of those that use the word “Christmas” have a secular theme (including the first card ever). And the extent to which the phrase “Winter Lights” has replaced “Christmas Lights” (which is debatable, although Carey at least avoided the “Winterval” hysteria) or nativity plays have declined reflects a general indifference caused by wider trends in society rather than some sort of “attack”.

Carey’s complaints have provoked some critical commentary, most notably perhaps from Bishop Nicholas Baines:

I do not believe that Christians are a persecuted group of people in this country today.

We live in a society which I sometimes call a hierarchy of victimhood.

If people feel that the job they’re doing requires them to go against their Christian conscience, it could be in areas of sexuality or the wearing of a cross or whatever it is, then they have a choice to make, and if you feel that what you’re being asked to do is incompatible with your faith then you shouldn’t do it, but that isn’t persecution, you have a choice and you can go and do something else.

My personal view (if anyone is interested) is that society is in the process of trying to adapt to an individualistic culture in which people increasingly feel that their their professional lives should not completely stifle their sense of personal identity. This isn’t a bad development: terrible things have happened because people gave up any sense of individual responsibility once they were given a uniform and a job to do. It has long been recognised in the UK that there should be some accommodation for personal conscience (I blogged on this here), and the area where there is most likely to be a conflict here in is in the area of religion.

The question is how much accommodation should be given, and with the arrival of immigrant faiths and the rise of alternative religions we can see to a greater degree than before how this plays out in the public sphere. Sometimes it’s not clear where the correct balance should lie: in the case of BA, the airline decided on reflection that it had made a mistake, even though a crucifix is not a religious requirement such as a Sikh turban or a kippar. There is less likely to be compromise where conscience involves an expression of disapproval of other people’s identity in relation to sexuality or religious belief.

It’s still somewhat messy: for instance, should a non-religious BA worker still be barred from wearing a locket containing the photo of a loved one, simply because he or she can’t claim that God had told them to wear it? I recall some years ago the case of a supermarket worker who refused to work at a tobacco counter because a relative had died from lung cancer.

At the same time, there is public uncertainty over the balance between freedom of expression and the need to protect individuals from harassment and incitement: we know that some attacks on minority religions are really motivated by racism, just as members of some minority religious groups will use the race card to deflect reasonable criticism. The upshot of this is that aggressive attacks on minority religions are more likely to end in some sort of legal action or censure than similar attacks on Christians.

It’s reasonable for Christians to fight their corner while these processes are still being thought through, but there is a temptation to use dubious cases and the politics of resentment to drive the argument. Carey – and Christian Concern – give the impression of having succumbed to this temptation.

(Further discussion of the subject from Hannah M here and from Simon Barrow of Ekklesia here)