We need mediators not agitators

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
2 Mar 2009

For those who have been listening to the growing clamour and cries of "persecution" amongst certain groups of Christians over the last few years, the latest examples come as no surprise.

In 2007 one evangelical MP even raised the spectre of "Christianophobia" in a debate in the House of Commons. I was asked to come on Radio 4's Sunday Programme to discuss the idea with Mark Pritchard, the Tory in question, and dispute his claims. However I was subsequently called by the producer to say that the MP had refused to debate with me. Apparently Pritchard doesn't believe that Christians should be seen to disagree publicly.

But the MP has been quite prepared to publicly criticise the Archbishop of Canterbury – so it seems there must have been another reason. When examined carefully, the alarmist claims being made simply don't stand up to scrutiny. As others have observed, it is a few small groups of Christians who are fuelling the scare stories of Christian marginalisation that appear in the rightwing press.

These usual suspects are actively seeking out potential cases of discrimination which they can then publicise, make a political campaign out of, or pursue in the courts. They are even drawing advice and training from the US, where similar strategies have been carried out.

Ekklesia has been watching these developments since 2004. The agenda is a desperate attempt to win back, or at least try to maintain, many of the special privileges and exemptions that Christianity previously enjoyed, but which society is no longer willing to grant. The argument is that since Britain is a "Christian country", their faith, and its adherents, should have special recognition and dispensation.

In my book Faith and Politics After Christendom I have explored in more detail how and why this 'victim mentality' among some Christians is emerging. In a piece I wrote last year I suggested that there is indeed something for Christians to be concerned about. Not shoring up privilege (hardly a suitable occupation for followers of Jesus), but putting the self-giving, neighbour-loving dynamic of the Gospel into action in the public arena.

Meanwhile, the British groups who are crying 'persecution' (with little apparent awareness about how tasteless this is for those who really are under the cosh) have now created a self-fulfilling prophesy. If they "win" their case, it is a victory that encourages them and shows that they can defeat their foes. If they lose, their failure only serves to reinforce their conviction that Christians are being marginalised and that they must fight ever harder.

But there is another group stoking the flames of controversy – those who call for the complete removal of all religion from public life. Calls from die-hard secularists only serve to add to the fear and angst of the martyr mindset.

The way to halt this Christian juggernaut of paranoia is to bring a lot more light, and far less heat to the situations when they arise. In 2006 Ekklesia wrote a report (http://ekklesia.co.uk/research/papers/unitedwestand) which looked at the claims that a handful of Christian Unions in universities were being persecuted by Student Unions.

What we found was that the involvement of external groups was only serving to raise the stakes, entrench positions, and satisfy external agendas. No attempts were being made to find a genuine solution in which all parties were satisfied.

We suggested mediation, and a plan involving a little compromise and understanding on all sides. Such an approach is based on the belief that the overwhelming majority of Britain accepts that we need to foster equality, diversity and respect. It also requires the recognition that it is taking time for everyone – particularly those in public institutions – to come to terms with the disappearance of old ideas about privileging religion, whilst respecting religious sensitivities. This is not about persecution, but attempts to navigate uncharted waters.

In the case of the Somerset nurse Caroline Petrie, who was suspended for asking an elderly patient whether she would like to be prayed for, the hospital, keen to protect its patients, probably overreacted. But the nurse was reinstated, and the hospital says it is now "keenly aware of the importance of an individual's spiritual belief" and recognises "that Caroline felt that she was acting in the best interests of her patients."

In Landscore Primary School in Crediton, where a young girl upset a classmate by saying she'd "go to hell" if she didn't believe in God, the school was attempting a balancing duty to parents, pupils, staff and community alike: that of ensuring an atmosphere in which children can learn and play together without feeling threatened.

Similar cases will continue to arise in schools and hospitals, universities and local authorities. But what is needed are calm heads, not campaigners who will polarise and raise the temperature with inflammatory comments to the press.

Campaigners may say that their involvement has led to happy outcomes for those involved. Actually what has resulted is a lot of heartache and misery, stress and anxiety. Resolutions have come in spite of the best efforts of campaigners, not because of them.

We need mediators, not agitators. So here's an offer to the secularists. When the next controversy emerges, and the usual suspects begin to shout and cry on both sides, rather than fuelling their frenzy, let's work together and offer to facilitate some reconciliation, and a way forward. If nothing else, it'll show that perhaps everyone isn't out to get them after all.

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(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from one that appeared on the Guardian Comment-is-Free website, and is reproduced with acknowledgement.

Faith and Politics After Christendom is available here: http://tinyurl.com/d2n99k

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