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In a letter to the Sunday Telegraph today, a group of Church of England bishops and retired bishops / archbishop (Lord Carey; Michael Scott-Joynt, Bishop of Winchester; Michael Nazir-Ali, Former Bishop of Rochester; Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester; Anthony Priddis, Bishop of Hereford; and Nicholas Reade, Bishop of Blackburn) claim widespread discrimination against Christians and that:
“There have been numerous dismissals of practising Christians from employment for reasons that are unacceptable in a civilised country.”
Predictably it has given rise to yet another misleading Sunday Telegraph headline: “Britain is persecuting Christians, say bishops”
This Britain that allegedly persecutes Christians, of course continues to afford many privileges to Christians. It has state funded church schools for example which legally and routinely discriminate in employment against those who aren’t Christians. There would be justifiable outrage if the situation were reversed with ‘secular’ state schools giving priority to atheists (or even those of other religions), in the same way.
But putting aside the institutionalised discrimination which exists in the opposite direction, what of the claim that there have been “numerous dismissals of practising Christians from employment for reasons that are unacceptable in a civilised country.” ?
To my knowledge, even the most extreme pressure groups like Christian Concern for our Nation and the Christian Legal Centre who are stoking and reinforcing the Christian persecution complex, haven’t made the claim that there have been “numerous dismissals”. So far they have pointed to only a handful of examples where there is some alleged injustice. Rarely have this small number involved dismissal. And even where (if?) they have, upon further investigation, the claims have tended to fall apart. Indeed, in one case, it even seemed to be the intervention of Christian campaigners which brought the dismissal about, after confidential client details were given to a national newspaper. In another, CLC claimed dismissal and then reinstatement, when dismissal never actually seems to have occurred.
The bishops should cite these “numerous” cases, or stop making such allegations. Why?
1. It seems to be bearing false witness to what is actually going on.
2. It is creating and then reinforcing a ‘victim’ mentality amongst some in the churches, which makes Christians fearful, inward looking and preoccupied with their own interests.
3. It is fuelling extremists such as the BNP who are making political capital out of the scaremongering. They are associating, as the bishops are doing too, the 'marginalisation' of Christians with the idea that other religions – in particular Islam - are getting better treatment
4. It makes bishops and the churches look stupid. When the claims of ‘persecution’ are scrutinised, they usually fall apart. And even if one were to believe that all the claims of discrimination were entirely true, their statement is a clear exaggeration.
5. It polarises and entrenches positions and often destroys any chances of mediation in specific cases by publicly raising the stakes.
6. It is causing Christians to misinterpret honest misunderstandings in the workplace and to react innapropriately, when they might otherwise be sorted out much more effectively.
7. It fails to acknowledge that there are usually Christians on both sides of the various cases which are cited.
8. It devalues the real persecution of Christians that is going on around the world, as well as that experienced by Christians historically – sometimes at the hands of other Christians
9. It makes it very hard to spot where there might be genuine cases of victimisation and injustice.
10. It is helping to create a reputation for Christians in the workplace as unreasonable and irrational, whose voice has little validity.
In 2005, in the book Faith and Politics After Christendom, we identified and analysed this unhealthy trend, predicting it would grow. It has. We have since looked at most of the cases, often talking to the actors involved on all sides. It is a feature of post-Christendom and a religiously plural society, that misunderstandings will increasingly occur. It is true too, that there are a few hardline secular fundamentalists who have it in for anything religious. As yet however, there is little, if any, evidence that this latter group is behind the cases that have hit the headlines.
It should be noted too, that the majority of bishops are taking a much more sensible approach and scrutinising the claims that are being made, and are not being taken in by the scaremongering.
It is the way that Christians react which is crucial. Will they develop a reputation for fairness, for love and as peacemakers who can sort these difficulties out sensibly? Or will they develop a reputation for hysteria, exaggeration and distortion?
With their letter to the Sunday Telegraph some bishops are clearly seeking to take us firmly down the second path which does no one any favours.
[ Update 18.46 Should have added that Jonathan Wynne-Jones of the Telegraph has also been taken in by the bishop's line. He states as 'fact' in his story: "Their (The bishops) intervention follows a series of cases in which Christians have been dismissed after seeking to express their faith". He does not cite one example where this has been the case.
In all the retweeting of the Telegraph story, there is a suitable level of mirth. Very few people seem to be taking either the bishop's claims, or those of Jonathan Wynne-Jones, seriously]
[Update 11.00am Monday George Pitcher has now taken up the point made above on the Telegraph website ]Tweet