Loss of status and privilege can be painful. Although these qualities seem to have little to do with the 'Poor Man of Nazareth', they are woven into the thinking of the ecclesial bodies still wedded to the 'throne and altar' model which has changed little since Constantine made Christianity the religion of the state almost two millennia ago.
It is a mode of thinking unable to adapt to post-Christendom plurality and secularism and it found resonance in the words of the Pope during his September visit to the UK. It sees all secularism as 'aggressive', is intrinsically oppositional and unable to accept that many who do not share its view of faith are nevertheless people of good faith. It is a mind-set fighting a rearguard action against the very culture which protects its essential religious freedoms and in doing so, makes itself appear self-seeking and tetchy. Through indignation over the supposed unfairness of its own treatment, it fails to offer a sign of contradiction to the idolatry of market power, materialism and self-interest which are so destructive of our common living in a globalised economy. And as we emerge from the consumer orgy of the contemporary Christmas, this defect seems particularly painful.
We regularly hear of Christians who choose to see discrimination and 'persecution' where there is none. Many of these instances centre around outward symbols and equality legislation which, in requiring agencies to be non-discriminatory in the provision of goods and services, is an essential component of justice in a plural society. The health care worker who, for reasons of hygiene and safety, was prevented from wearing a cross at work. The housing officer - a public service worker obliged to place the needs of those he was employed to serve above his own opinions - reported to have been disciplined for distressing a terminally ill women by telling her to put her faith in God. Such cases are frequently over-hyped and misreported and when courts do not find in support of the grievance, the appellants represent that as further evidence of 'anti-Christian' sentiment.
The Christian groupings who bring these actions claim that the whole system of law is weighted against them and because it does not shift to accommodate their beliefs, portray themselves as 'marginalised'. They raise the stakes by resorting to law and publicity when mediation and conciliation would be the better, and arguably the more Christian, path. To respect difference and to co-operate in the cause of truth is a harder and higher calling than seeking advantage for a sectional interest.
The Judeao-Christian tradition has historically provided the framework of our morality. The Christian past is evident in our landscape, architecture, art and literature. In that sense, we have a Christian history. But today, this is a pluralist and secular country. Which is not to say that it is either an irreligious or immoral society. The secularism of our democracy prevents the embedding of a particular faith grouping in our systems of governance and that is the very attribute which protects the religious liberties of us all.
As a Quaker – a member of a dissenting and partly Anabaptist tradition – I do not look to the state to enshrine my beliefs in law or to privilege them above those of another tradition, but I do expect it to protect my right to freedom of worship and protest within the law. And that is what it does. I have been detained (and treated with great courtesy) during peace demonstrations. My faith leads me to criticism of government policy, both as a journalist and a private citizen, but the authorities have never sought to persecute me, intrude into the affairs of my Meeting House or in any way circumscribe my freedom of expression.
The erosion of the old Christendom model offers the opportunity for Christians to rediscover the original radical and subversive nature of their faith before it became comfortable in the corridors of power. The teachings of Jesus do not breathe the air of institutional influence: they call us to be agents of transformation and practitioners of justice for the poor. Their outward fruits are peacemaking, forgiveness, reconciliation, solidarity and the sharing of resources.
Those values have never been more important than at this time of growing inequality and social injustice, both globally and domestically. At the time of the year, when the consumerism and materialism of our society has been in sharp focus, we might reflect upon what happens when Christians appear to be more concerned by such irrelevancies as non-religious Christmas postage stamps or the imagined 'anti-Christian' intent of Birmingham City Council's 'Winterval', than about their calling to be one with the vulnerable.
The cuts which the Conservative-Liberal coalition has imposed upon those with the fewest resources with which to survive them, create injustices crying out for rectification. The market-led self-indulgence of the materialist Christmas and the New Year sales frenzy - a yearly reminder of that undiscerning acquisitiveness which was the root cause of the economic crash - should rebuke any obsession with the status of Christianity. All the signs of the times are there to be read: if we are fixated upon privilege or special treatment, we will miss the gospel message that transformational relationships are at the heart of the faith of Jesus. Defensiveness or a sense of grievance have no part in that faith; generosity and humility are its lifeblood. And if we fail to understand that, we will hollow out our own spiritual lives without any assistance from the 'secularists'.
This article is adapted from one which first appeared in the December 2010 issue of Reform and is reproduced with acknowledgement http://www.reform-magazine.co.uk/
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger