A series of high-profile legal battles and workplace rulings during the past several months has kept Christianity, or its lack, in the headlines in Great Britain. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, caused outrage last year when he suggested that Shari'a law might replace British common law in some cases. But the piecemeal persecution of Christians in Britain is even more damagingand it has now become routine.
The growing crime rate and out-of-control teenage pregnancies (the highest percentage in Europe and rising) are among the social problems that have created national anxiety. But what has caused the recent headlines are the major legal battles and workplace problems that reveal the existence of anti-Christian bias in Britaina bias manifested by censorship in public debate and a media antagonistic to all things Christian. Is it too much to think that the social problems and the bias are related? By making Christian practice difficult, if not outright illegal in public life, the British courts and public authorities have contributed to an increasing awareness that a vacuum exists where the nation’s Judeo-Christian spine used to be.
How else to read the story, in November 2008, of a foster mother struck off the register by her local council for “allowing a Muslim girl in her care to convert to Christianity”? The woman had looked after as many as eighty children over the previous decade. Although she was a practicing Anglican, everyone agrees that she put no pressure on the girl. The woman testified, “I did initially try to discourage her. I offered her alternatives,” including “finding places for her to practice her own religion.”
Eventually though, at her own insistence, the girl was allowed to attend church with her foster mother. Within months she asked to be baptized (under Shari'a Law, an act of apostasy for which the death sentence is prescribed). Local officials ruled that the foster mother had “failed in her duty to preserve the girl’s religion and should have tried to stop the baptism.” Council officers subsequently barred the woman from foster parenting, her sole source of income.
This case was matched by that of Caroline Petrie, who was suspended from her post as a community nurse when she offered to pray for an elderly patient. (The public furor eventually led to Petrie’s reinstatement.) In another case late last year, a registrar of marriages asked to be relieved of the duty of officiating at “gay marriages.” She was refused and threatened with dismissal.
Reports of Christianity under attack in British schools are common. The introduction of multi-faith assemblies into a school in Sheffield led to vitriolic harassment of the headmistress by four Muslim school governors. They accused her of being racist, as the assemblies were primarily Christian in tone. The fact is, however, that religion and religious ceremonies in British schools are, by statute, to be “predominantly Christian in character.” Though the headmistress was exonerated by an independent inquiry, she continued to be harassed by the Muslim governors. As Britain’s Christian Institute reports, “In recent months we have seen a nurse, adoption agencies, firemen, registrars, elderly care homes, and now a foster carer, being punished because of the Christian beliefs they hold. It has to stop.”
Jeremy Vine is a highly visible BBC broadcaster and a practicing Anglican. In a recent interview, Vine explained how difficult it had become to speak of his faith on air. It is, he claimed, now “socially unacceptable” to mention one’s Christian faith in public. Society in Britain has become intolerant of the freedom to express the religious views that were “common currency thirty or forty years ago,” Vine added. “The parameters of what you might call ‘right thinking” are closing. Sadly, it is almost socially unacceptable to say you believe in God.” All of which is unsurprising, given that last year Mark Thompson, director-general of the BBC and a practicing Catholic, issued an edict stating that the BBC should treat Islam “more sensitively” than Christianity.
The Vine interview took place in the wake of the publication of a new survey that showed two-thirds of the Church of England’s general synod believes Christians are victims of discrimination in the workplace, while 59 percent of Anglican leaders also believe they had seen a decline in religious liberty over the past ten years. In February Cardinal Murphy O’Connor, the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, openly criticized “the new intolerance directed against those who maintain pro-life and pro-family views.”
There is strong evidence to back the claim. A pro-life group recently announced that it has been forced to take the Labour government to court after members of the group were barred from a hearing over whether the number of abortions “because of physical disabilities” should be published. The government wants the figures kept secret, and so religious believers were locked out of a hearing about issues plainly in the public interest. Writing in The Independent, the cardinal claimed religious belief is today treated as a “private eccentricity” rather than as “the central and formative element in British society that it is.”
The strangest thing of all, however, is that British Christians already have the cultural and legal benefits afforded them by a state church and a monarch who is still “Defender of the Faith” and head of the Church of England. How a religion with so many national advantages should find itself in such straits is a mystery. If Britain, with all its history, can fall so easily, then the other English-speaking countriesCanada, for instance, as its human-rights commissions have made clear in recent yearsmay soon join the club.
The problem is that the government and media of Great Britain have put in place over the last few decades a determined program to abolish the influence of Christianity. It’s a little late now for believers to pretend surprise that such a program exists and has consequencesto be shocked that a community nurse should be fired for offering to pray for a patient or astonished that a culture that set out to devalue its values should find itself awash in crime, sex, and social discord. We need, rather, to do as the archbishop of York, John Sentamu, insisted when he asked his congregants to “wake up” and defend their faith before it is further marginalized. “Christians should reclaim,” as the Anglican bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, recently demanded, their “place in the public square.”
Peter C. Glover is a British journalist and the author of The Politics of Faith and other works.