Verdict on Nicky Campbell’s documentary on Christian ‘persecution’

Verdict on Nicky Campbell’s documentary on Christian ‘persecution’

Last week I set out 5 tests by which to evaluate Nicky Campbell’s BBC television documentary on alleged Christian ‘persecution’ in the UK, which was broadcast tonight, on Easter Sunday.

Ekklesia has been examining these issues closely since 2004. We produced a book which analysed the reasons for feelings about 'persecution' and predicted the growing trend towards confrontation over this, back in 2006. We also did a report in the same year on one set of conflict situations in universities. It suggested an alternative approach which was welcomed by Government and others involved. We have also spoken to many of the actors caught up in similar cases, on all sides, as well as observing what has been going on behind the scenes.

This is quite hard for me to write, as I know Nicky through doing BBC1's 'Big Questions' TV programme. It is right to be honest however, particularly given the work we have done in this area. (I am aware however it could lose me the Big Questions gig, as criticism seemed to lose me Thought for the Day, but here goes anyway....!)

The documentary concludes what most of us already know - that Christians aren't being 'persecuted' in the same way as in many parts of the world, but that some feel marginalised. But the programme's overly simplistic hypothesis is (implicitly) that this marginalisation is happening, and is down to 'secularisation' which has brought about competition around 'rights' in the public square between the religious and the non-religious. It further concludes that religious (Christian) liberty is being lost.

The immediate observation is that the selection of those interviewed was one sided. There was no religious voice to provide an alternative view to the documentary's central hypothesis. The only people who came close were Nick Spencer from Theos and Muslim Ziauddin Sardar. But they simply offered their thoughts about how to deal with ethics and morality in a pluralist society. There was no real challenge to the use of the 'rights' discourse, nor a hint that things might be a little more complex. Neither was there a challenge to the 'secularisation' hypothesis which is challenged by many academics and others not included or mentioned in the programme.

The other side, however, was represented by interviews with about a dozen others. Those interviews included former Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir Ali, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Anglican Bishop of Oxford John Pritchard, Catholic Archbishop Vincent Nichols, Andrea Williams from the Christian Legal Centre (formerly Lawyers Christian Fellowship), and the Rev George Pitcher from the Daily Telegraph. (NB. three establishment Anglicans, a Catholic and a highly conservative Evangelical as far as the Christians go).

The only dissenting voice was journalist and commentator Polly Tonybee, President of the British Humanist Association, a choice which also reinforced the programme's mistaken paradigm that this was primarily a 'religion v atheism/secularism' issue.

The polling data was also represented in a one-sided manner. Campbell cited a 'special' BBC poll commissioned through ComRes for the programme. He said it was to determine whether people were becoming more 'tolerant' of religion. What it asked about was whether people 'believed' Britain was becoming less tolerant, which is a different matter.

He reported one poll finding - that 44 per cent of people believed Britain is becoming less tolerant of religion. He did not mention however that the same BBC poll found 39 per cent believing Britain is in fact becoming more tolerant.

The poll findings were presented as ‘revealing’. But more in depth studies around the same time by the same polling organisation, paint a different picture. When the question was put: "Do you agree or disagree with each of the following statement?" (sic) "'Religious freedoms have been restricted in Britain over the past 10 years'" this other survey found that most disagreed. Almost double the number (59 per cent) in fact disagreed (as opposed to agreed) with the statement. Amongst Christians the disagreement was even slightly higher (60 per cent). This evidence was not referred to, even though it provides a compelling case against the programme's central hypothesis.

But what of the five questions that were raised previously by which the programme might be evaluated?

Question 1. Will the claims of ‘persecution’ be properly scrutinised? There has been so much misinformation about what local councils, hospitals, schools and other bodies have been doing/saying. The claims make great headlines, but upon further scrutiny – including talking to the bodies involved - the claims often have little substance. There are certainly disagreements, but they are often of a different nature to the way they are being presented. Will the documentary interview the public bodies involved and get the story from their perspective? (It is sometimes the case that the people involved in the bodies are themselves Christians).

There was next to no scrutiny of the claims. Cases cited included that of Duke Amachree, the Wandsworth homelessness prevention officer. Like the others, the account of his story was one-sided. There was no interview with anyone from Wandsworth council, or even an indication that they had asked the council to comment. There was no reporting of what the local papers said about the case, which is public record, and gives a very different picture. It was not reported for example that there is evidence that it was the actions of the Christian Legal Centre in giving confidential information to the Daily Mail, that may have led to Amachrie's dismissal. An absolutely crucial point.

The cases of both nurse Caroline Petrie and teacher Olive Jones were also cited. There was no acknowledgement that they are friends. There was no mention of the fact that the allegations against Olive Jones in particular came from the family of a girl with leukaemia who she was tutoring, and the distress that they expressed about what had happened. There was no mention that the Christian Legal Centre wrongly claimed that Olive Jones had been sacked - a point which was also uncritically repeated by the media and never scrutinised.

2. Will there be a proper account of why some Christians feel marginalised? Specifically, will the context of post-Christendom be taken into account? The churches have had centuries of special privilege, with Christianity being a dominant narrative. Religion is relocating and finding a new place in society. This is making many Christians feel unsettled and making others fearful. This is being fuelled by many of the reports in the press and media.

After a promising start, which seemed to take this into account, the documentary slipped into the ‘secularisation’ thesis. As predicted Campbell fell back on the example of the Russian/ French revolutions. The reports in the press and media were presented uncritically. There was no acknowledgement in a section about the attitudes of teachers to sharing their faith, that one third of primary schools are faith schools, and that there are legal safeguards, as well as special opt outs, for them to teach in accordance with their ethos. A remarkable and significant omission. Nor was it mentioned that faith schools can legally discriminate in employment against those of other faiths and no faith.

3. Will the documentary scrutinise the work of pressure groups like the Lawyer’s Christian Fellowship, Christian Concern for our Nation and the Christian Institute, who have been feeding the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph with stories, sometimes with dire consequences? Will there be examination of their ideology and what is driving their efforts, which we have suggested involves a radicalisation as a response to post-Christendom? Will the links to what is going on in the US also be made?

There was no scrutiny of these groups. The Christian Legal Centre was featured several times, and again without any critical analysis, or even a question that they could be fuelling the problem, despite evidence that they are (cited above). There was also an interview with George Pitcher from the Daily Telegraph. No questions of this nature were put to him either. There was no examination of the radicalisation hypothesis or mention of the links to the US.

4. Will the documentary look at mediation efforts to sort out the disputes? What has often been happening is that positions quickly become entrenched and there is little chance of amicable resolution following misunderstandings or mistakes. This is often because pressure groups get involved and raise the stakes, giving stories to the media. I know for a fact that the documentary makers spoke to a top QC who is not just an evangelical Christian, but one of the most experienced commercial mediators in the country.

There was no mention of mediation whatsoever even though the programme makers had been told about its existence. The QC did not feature at all.

5. Will the documentary primarily frame the debates as a simplistic conflict of rights, or accept that the situation is far more complex? Will it bring in different Christian perspectives which do not see this primarily as about one person trumping another?

The documentary framed the debates primarily in terms of conflicts of rights. Although the Equality Bill featured heavily, there was no mention, let alone interviews with, for example gay Christians or Quakers who were lobbying on the other side. The issue was presented as one of religious liberty for only one 'side', completely failing to acknowledge the liberties of Christians and other religious groups on the other side. Nor were any religious perspectives represented who did not see this as a competition of "rights".

Conclusion

This could have been a great documentary which brought some light to the debates, and offered a way forward. Instead it uncritically accepted the claims which have been reported consistently in the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, and failed to challenge the groups who are actually the cause of many of the problems. In a programme which was supposed to be addressing the marginalisation of Christians, it also did a great deal to marginalise Christians who held dissenting views. It took little or no account of poll data and other evidence which would challenge, or even balance the perspective that the programme was seeking to present.

[Update 5 April: 15.48 Nicky Campbell has responded very graciously, saying this blog raises some 'interesting points' is 'thoughtful' and that he 'enjoyed'. But he also says: "Thing is it wasn't a some say this but others say that documentary. It was more a 'here's the view..now debate' ". I have tweeted back saying that the title: "Are Christian Persecuted?" suggested that it was an enquiry, and pointing out that the title was not "This is what some Christians believe". ]

[Update 6th April: 15.01 Nicky has said there is a "detailed and comprehensive response" to this blog on the way from the documentary's Exec Producer". I will publish it when it arrives]

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"wooden-headed bureaucratic silliness" - Rowan Williams

Jonathan,

Thank you for linking to the Guardian's comment on the recent decision. A balanced and interesting report. I find your summary of it betrays your bias one again and suggests to me that you are not committed to a full and thorough account of such encounters between Christians and the secular authorities. The report in the Guardian makes it absolutely clear that Shirley would accept wearing a pin rather than a necklace if she could have this pinned to her uniform. The authorities seemed to accept this but requested her to pin it on the inside of her uniform. It's simply a case of keep the cross out of sight, keep the cross out of mind.

I do however agree with you that Christians have a great degree of freedom in Christ and I don't feel that wearing a cross is a requirement for all Christians. Yet, such freedom in Christ should not be taken for granted and surrendered to those who increasingly want to censure religious expression in the public sphere! It was for freedom that Christ has set us free. I also feel that it is important that personnal conviction and individual conscience is upheld against what the Archbishop of Canterbury has called "wooden-headed bureaucratic silliness". :-) Let us not forget that this woman (of 53) has been wearing this symbol for the last 30 years without incident.

All God's blessings,
James

Campbell's programme

For those who want to see what Peel is referring to:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/apr/06/christian-nurse-loses-battle-cr...

Which explains that:

(i) The claim that it was primarily a health and safety issue was upheld

(ii) She could have worn her cross elsewhere but she refused

(iii) Wearing a cross indeed isn't and has never been a requirement of the Christian faith in the sense that other religions (who do not perhaps experience the freedom of the Gospel in the way some Christians do) require certain items to be worn. (The headscarf I am not aware presents a health and safety issue?)

Are we for Labour's secular agenda? No we oppose their defence of unChristian privilege for bishops in the House of Lords, the defence of establishent which compromises the Gospel, and Labour support for exemptions for faith schools which allow them in discriminate in employment and admissions in a way that Jesus would I suspect have challenged robustly.

Campbell's exellent programme

Today a nurse, whose case was discussed by the programme, lost her appeal against dismissal for wearing a small cross. The employment tribunal judge said that this was a matter of no importance, and that to wear a cross is no requirement of the Christian faith.

To wear a headscarf in a western society is not a requirement of the Muslim faith for a woman, it is an option, as is that of wearing a cross.

Four legs good, two legs bad. Campbell has it dead right, a programme packed with recent examples of anti Christian discrimination, flowing from oddly named 'equality' laws and fundamentalist secularist bureaucrats, judges, etc.

Ekklesia - are you a front for New Labour's growing secularization agenda?

Thank You

Thank you Jonathan,
Your intellectual honesty is something which is unlikely to ever see the grip of Nicky Campbell's hands. I always find your voice refreshing on the Big Questions. This whole issue seems a no-brainer - Nicky is following the most lucrative path: he can become the face of victimization.

James Church

We do not claim to represent any constituency. What we do is put forward ideas/ comment from a radical theological perspective.

It's a nice image of Ekklesia's (nonviolently) beating the Church of several million people "on behalf of the State into a position of acquiescence", but as I said not really born out by reality! As I say, we stand quite opposed to the approach of the state on the issue of church schools. You and some others in the churches are the one supporting it. There are of course people in the churches who share our position (And nor are we big enough to make anyone "acquiesce"!)

We have covered the issue of faith schools elsewhere in depth and responded to your points on the site, so I am not going to repeat them here. Much more info: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/100

Best,

Jonathan

Jonathan, I have spent a

Jonathan,

I have spent a little while with your site (several years on and off) and I remember with some fondness discussions I had with your colleague Simon at Cliff. I would agree with the need to engage with political establishment on more fronts than just Christian ‘rights’; life science issues, abortion, euthanasia, the treatment of the elderly, restorative justice and a myriad other issues should exercise the minds of all Christians (as they do people of all faiths in our democratic country) seeking to engage with politics. Yet, for us to foster the kind of radical upside-down kingdom thinking we must as Christians retain a degree of freedom that allows us to express our convictions verbally and in our life together (as believers) and to share these as a witness to the world around us.

It is quite clear that Paul used his privilege as a citizen of the Roman Empire to further his ministry (his statement that he is a Roman citizen in Acts 22:25 and his appeal to Caesar in Acts 25:21 are just two examples). However, the early Christians were radical not because they accepted Caesar as Lord but allowed Jesus to be Lord of the other bits or to make recommendations but they were radical because they called Jesus Lord and defied Caesar! That seems a lot closer to the critical stance taken by some Catholic, Anglican, and evangelical laity and clergy than the sort of uncritical stance I too often read here. Now I’m not saying that every Christian who cries foul play is necessarily right to do that, nor am I saying that it’s not right for us to set the record straight on occasions (it is important to keep our own house in good order), but too often your conclusions on a whole range of issues deny the genuine conviction of many Christians and smack of trying to beat the Church on behalf of the State into a position of acquiescence.

The problem you will increasingly face as a Christian, or at least faith based, think-tank will be alienation from the constituency you claim to represent. Or as I suspect is already the case you will find yourself simply reiterating the same thing as any good liberal citizen of this nation, you may claim to have arrived at these conclusions from the distinctively Christian set of narratives that inform your worldview but that will appear incidental to anyone who has arrived at the same conclusion (often via a more direct route) without requiring your myths or stories! If salt loses its saltiness...

If the Tories and Labour support faith schools then that should be seen as a welcome acknowledgement that people of religious faith have an important role to play in education and it should be celebrated. You think somehow that the secular State should have a monopoly on raising and educating children (I doubt any of the apostles would be with you on that)? Moreover, look at this in relation to the Anabaptist tradition (the Mennonites, the Amish, the Plain People) you so admire, these communities have had to work very hard to maintain their freedom and independence.

On the admissions and employment issue in faith schools why shouldn’t a proportion of government tax go towards a proportion of faith schools (given 70% of this country designated themselves as Christian in the last census)? Should secular/agnostics/atheists have a monopoly on education as they seem to represent the default position? Perhaps you do not remember how many of these institutions were founded historically? Your current position on faith schools seems to be a perfect example of you standing against the majority of Christians on an issue that sees many non-Christians (certainly many non-church attenders) standing with them.

I have witnessed and helped to fund two Christian schools in India during the five months I was out there (I saw many more). Christians there are known for their pursuit of excellence in education and I do not regret that for a moment. The existence of these schools raises the bar of excellence and ultimately benefits society as a whole, perhaps you would rather institutions like Oxford and Cambridge had never been founded?

Anyway, again I have gone on too long... I’m sorry. I wish you and Simon God’s peace.

James

Jana, you could hardly

James - No, won't dismiss you as another Constantinian Christian. I would just encourage you to take a look around our website and see how much we advocate engagement by Christians in public life - indeed we probably do it more than perhaps anyone else.

Our question is not whether Christians should be in public life, but how. We feel that Jesus calls us not to a rights based discourse, but an approach of Christian love and justice. Indeed, it could be argued that an approach which is not based on this is 'secular' or at least 'sub-Christian' in that it buys into the idea of power and privilege which is alien to the Gospel.

The 'political establishment' - certainly both Labour and Tories - have formal policies which support discrimination in admissions and employment for faith schools, and want more to be built. They also both support the place of bishops in the House of Lords.

Jana, you could hardly

Jana, you could hardly accuse Nazir Ali of that!

I have just spent 5 months with Christians in India who are working for the good of all people. Just before I left that good was undone as a small spat between Christian youth and local shop keepers led to a BJP-Shiv Sena influenced riot in which two churches and a deacon's home were vandalised (he hid under the bed but his moped was taken burnt in the church). We do not face persecution like that and the program was clear on that much.

Yet, one thing I noticed about Indian Christianity (Indian faith in general) is that it is much more open. Colourful slogans cover cars, people march, sing and celebrate much more than Christians here would feel comfortable doing. This is true in a so-called secular democratic country that has a Hindu nationalist party as its main opposition party and laws that provide government job reservations for the poorest Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists but nothing for the poorest Christians or Muslims (not to mention laws that require but also make it difficult for a person who converts to be registered by local government)!

Now I'm not suggesting we follow their lead and establish Christian job reservations in the UK. God forbid that should ever happen as 'a. its not Christian and b. two wrongs do not make a right, Mr Nick Griffith!'. However, I do think that the differences that can be felt between the two countries, in terms of the presence of religious self-expression in the public sphere, do suggest that people of faith in the UK feel their freedom of speech is not being protected. It is another question as to whether this is true or just a general perception (encouraged by such programs).

The perception of rights trumping rights (the language of rights being it seems the language of public discourse and law), the comments made by the Oxford philosopher, and the issue of the freedom of conscience is real! One set of teachers, those who hold Christian faith, do feel unable to openly state their own conviction of conscience in schools (I know I have friends in that position) in contrast to Atheists/Agnostics and people of other religions who find the are welcome to talk personally about their faiths (or perceived lack of it). Your statement about faith schools being allowed to discriminate on the basis of faith seems quite frankly obvious - Christian schools in India are allowed to favour the employment of Christians too.

Anyway, I've gone on a bit and you'll probably dismiss me as another Constantian Christian who hasn't quite understood post-Christendom. The sad truth is that I was once very interested in how the church might shape its own agenda in post-Christendom society but Ekklesia's insistent capitulation to the political establishment has convinced me that the agenda is not a free expression of Christian faith and conviction of conscience (even if that means standing against the powers that be) but rather the facilitation of a transition to privatised and marginalised form of Christian faith! I will have no part in it.

Still I wish you God's grace and peace,
James

Thanks for this

Jon, thank you for this. The programme made me so angry that I've complained to the BBC.

Real Persecution

Thanks so much for your commitment to the truth at risk of losing work (by the definition offered by so many Christians, would this not also count as persecution?)

What is so frustrating to me about this discourse, is that it ignores the real victims of Christian persecution in the UK. These are more often immigrants, many who have come here fleeing persecution and some who face it here! Unfortunately I have seen the established church time and again display a shocking disaffection with persecution when it does not fit into the prejudiced narrative.

Migration and Asylum has the potential to connect the British Church with it's bothers and sisters who are facing and have faced real persecution, unfortunately those same Churches who are most vocal on Christian persecution around the world and so-called persecution of the established church here in the UK are incredibly unwelcoming of even their own persecuted Christian brothers and sisters when they turn up on a Sunday morning. Much of the Church seems obsessed with this discourse around persecution yet their disinterest in those who have endured real Christian persecution even in our own cities is simply incredible.