Archbishop can help churches escape 'persecution complex'

Archbishop can help churches escape 'persecution complex'

London, UK - May 21, 2009 The religion and society think-tank Ekklesia says that today's installation of the new Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, can signal an important move away from an unhelpful 'persecution complex' which has been developing in certain sections of the churches in the last few years.

In his installation homily at Westminster Cathedral today, the Catholic Archbishop referenced the story of how St Paul learned openness through dialogue with an audience of sceptics. Drawing contemporary parallels, Archbishop Nichols went on to say:

"At the heart of Paul's effort in Athens was an appeal to reason. He did not seek to impose his beliefs, nor [to] exploit anxiety or fear."

He added: "Respectful dialogue is crucial today... Let us be a society in which we genuinely listen to each other, in which sincere disagreement is not made out to be insult or harassment in which we are prepared to attribute to each other the best and not the worst of motives... In these matters, we ourselves in the Churches have so much to learn and do."

The Archbishop's comments follow a number of high profile public cases in which claims have been made, backed by some church leaders, that Christians are being discriminated against, or even persecuted.

Ekklesia's research into such cases, which began in 2006, suggests that often these claims are spurious, and that fears are unhelpfully fuelled by lobby groups who blow them up into conflicts instead of seeking reasoned resolution.

In his recent Hugh Price Hughes lecture at Hinde Street Methodist Church in Central London, Ekklesia's co-director Jonathan Bartley suggested that an identifiable pattern had now emerged in many of these cases:

1. A situation arises, often in the workplace, where there is a misunderstanding, or a dispute which has a religious dimension - or can be construed as having one.

2. Radicalised religious groups, who believe that Christians are facing the prospect of discrimination or persecution and are actively looking to identify such situations, are informed.

3. The group interprets this as another case of discrimination and persecution and encourages the individual or organisation involved to fight it.

4. The media are informed. This polarises the protagonists, creating a public narrative about what has happened which is often inaccurate and hard to correct.

5. Religious public figures, such as bishops, are called on to lobby on behalf of the alleged victims.

6. Some secularists then join in on the other side, further entrenching positions.

7. The situation moves swiftly in the direction of tribunals or the court.

8. The groups involved use the case to raise funds, which enables them to identify new situations around which they can campaign.

Ekklesia has proposed instead that strategies of listening and mediation are needed to find constructive ways forward.

Ekklesia's Jonathan Bartley commented: "Archbishop Nichols has pointed out that the core Christian message is not about exploiting fear or anxiety - it is about reason, hope and love. In a fearful climate, church leaders need to be advocating cooperation not confrontation as a way of tackling public disagreements about religion and belief."

Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow added: "As the Archbishop also indicated, Christian belief cannot and should not be imposed upon people. It is a voluntary commitment and lifestyle. Many of those who claim that Christians are being 'persecuted' or 'discriminated against' do so when special advantages which have accrued to the church in the past are seen no longer to apply. The Christendom era of privilege is indeed over, and this means Christians need to commend their message by good example rather than imposition or fiat. That is an opportunity, not a threat."

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Notes to Editors

1. Ekklesia is a thinktank which examines the role of religion in public life. Independent of the churches it formed in 2002. It was listed amongst the top 20 thinktanks in Britain by the Independent Newspaper in 2005. It has raised £250,000 each year for the last four years to promote peace, justice and development work around the world. It is a not-for-profit company limited by Guarantee, and works on a co-operative basis.

2. Ekklesia first identified and documented the growing trend amongst Christians who felt they were being 'persecuted' in a book 'Faith and Politics After Christendom' (Paternoster, 2006) by Ekklesia co- director Jonathan Bartley.

3. An article by Ekklesia's co-director Jonathan Bartley urging alternative approaches to dealing with controversy is available here:

4. Ekklesia's report proposing a resolution to the conflicts involving Christian Unions in universities is available here:

Keywords: vincent nichols