Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Persecution or privilege: the Church Defensive

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Not PersecutedDuring Holy Week, I had a couple of episcopal moments. On Palm Sunday, six bishops signed a letter in the Sunday Torygraph that didn’t use the word ‘persecution’, but the resulting headlines did, and one sermon I’ve heard since has. Archbishop Rowan felt it necessary to say publically that they should get things in perspective in his Easter Letter: hear, hear!

The next day, on Maundy Thursday, the Bishop of London felt it necessary refute ‘persecution’ claims in his chrism sermon, but then he went on to talk about how Christians have to fight against the discrimination aimed at us and battle the tide of secularism (this clunkily segued into the twice-repeated materialist motto ‘love is not an emotion’).

On Easter Sunday evening, Nicky Campbell brought out a TV documentary asking whether Christians are persecuted. The show gave fairly free reign to those who wanted to ramp up the persecution fears, but also got the sane voices of the Bishop of Oxford and Theos think-tank in there. I quite liked the clear outline of why the persecution fear exists: that it is based on

  1. the complex secularising of hegemony,
  2. increased non-Christian immigration
  3. and human-rights legislation.

Whereas the fearmongers, like Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, would point to the secularisation of society as the cause, and crusade for the re-Christianisation of our public spaces, the documentary’s outline gives us more substantial handles for what is happening.

The church is in desperate need for a theology of human rights. We find ourselves in a world in which religious leaders do not have a monopoly on morals, and do not dictate the ethical framework that is the scaffolding of our lives. The non-religious ethics of our world are oft belittled as ‘secularism’ or ‘political correctness’ (do those who think it’s gone mad, really want to go back to calling black people by the n-word?). However, these non-religious ethics have often grown to greater popular esteem than increasingly ragged religious ethics, which struggle to move away from classic homophobia, sexism and authoritarianism. It is increasingly problematic to see the non-religious ethical frameworks as something ‘other’ as this leads to an entrenchment, marginalisation and a petrified dogma of ethics. The truth is that the Enlightenment principles on which human rights are based, although often perceived as being atheistic, secularist and anti-religion, were mostly hammered out by Christians who upheld religious liberty as the only right means to sincere faith, and other liberties followed. When the Tory frontbencher Chris Grayling suggested that Christians should have the liberty of denying others’ liberties (specifically, Christian B&B owners refusing to accommodate gay couples) he constructs an ugly monster of an ethical framework, in which certain favoured positive liberties (the right of Christians to do something) trump negative liberties (the right of gay people not to be discriminated against). To think that Christians might support such an ethic disgusts me.

Immigration is a topic that I’ve covered on this website from a number of angles, but not from the angle of how the settlement of people of non-Christian faiths has moved us away from a mostly Christian monoculture. Christians remain the overwhelming majority in the UK, but we have visible Muslim, Hindu and Sikh minorities in our towns and cities. The situation is often posed as if there are only two approaches to public religion: either Christianity lords it over all or it gets evicted, forcibly if necessary. It is entirely possible to be confident and proud in one’s own faith and yet be welcoming, generous, encouraging and mindful of other religious (and non-religious) views. John Pritchard’s few minutes in the Campbell documentary clearly showed the benefits of this progressive and magnanimous approach. The factor of immigration in some misguided Christians’ persecution complex makes an ugly connection with Nick Griffin’s Question Time ranting about ‘Christian Britain’. Of course, Griffin’s idea of Christian Britain involves homophobia and xenophobia for all. I really do wonder if the episcopal signatories to that letter realise that this is perfect ammunition for fascist extremists.

Christian angst about secularism often treats it as a thing, a somewhat disease-like contagion that needs to be excised. However, secularism is a rather ill-defined collection of ideas. It is often depicted as being the vanguard of an atheistic assault on the place of religion in society. Secularism is an approach, or set of related approaches, to the tricky question of the place of religion in the public sphere. The two major models in play are the French laïcité and the US freedom of religion; the first is an attempt to free the civic space of religion, while the other attempts to acknowledge a plurality of belief in which each is treated equitably. Both systems have their imperfections and difficulties, but they are serious policies for formalising the place of religion in our societies.

In POWER2010’s mass e-mailing of Church of England bishops, that they should be at the forefront of reform of the House of Lords rather than continuing to try to justify their ex officio seats, it was clear that many of the bishops did not realise the extent of their privilege and the theological difficulties in sustaining such exclusive privilege. The case of Shirley Chaplin, the nurse moved to admin for refusing to remove her crucifix on a chain, was about hygiene and safety rather than anti-religious secularising, and the persecution narrative has been wholly imported from the US religious right (a persecution spearheaded by the election of a black, liberal president). So, perhaps it is the Church Defensive that blindly persists in privilege while manufacturing a fear of persecution. This is not the path of our Lord; it is not the path of glory.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

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