SIX BISHOPS and a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, have expressed their concern that the religious rights of Christians in the UK “are being treated with disrespect”. They spoke out as a Christian nurse, Shirley Chaplin, took her hospital trust to an employment tribunal, after it had ordered her to remove a crucifix from around her neck in the workplace (News, 25 September).
In a letter to The Sunday Telegraph, Lord Carey, with the former Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, and the Bishops of Winchester, Chester, Hereford, Blackburn, and Lichfield, wrote that they were “deeply concerned at the apparent discrimination shown against Christians”. They called on the Government to “remedy this serious development”.
They said that “Christian beliefs on marriage, conscience, and worship were simply not being upheld,” and cited the case of Mrs Chaplin as an example of discrimination faced by Christians in the workplace.
During the first day of her employment tribunal on Monday, Mrs Chaplin, who is claiming religious discrimination against the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust, said she had been forced to choose between her faith and her job, when asked to remove her crucifix.
Mrs Chaplin told the tribunal that she believed the headscarves of two Muslim colleagues presented more of a health-and-safety risk than her cross on a chain. She said she had been told that she could pin the cross to the inside of her pocket, which proved that the Trust “simply wanted to remove the visibility of the crucifix”.
The Trust says the issue is about compliance with its uniform policy.
The Bishops’ letter has received a mixed reaction from other church leaders. The Bishop of Lichfield, the Rt Revd Jonathan Gledhill, one of the seven signatories to the letter, explained that he felt motivated to sign it because of a “creeping secularisation” that he perceived.
“The Government seems to be ignoring the Christian conscience and teaching about marriage, and treating us as if we are a minority, when in fact 72 per cent of people say they are Christian.” He called for a debate on the place of Christian faith in public life. The next logical step from the secularists, he argued, would be to remove the cross from the St George’s flag.
Dr Philip Giddings, chairman of the Church of England’s Mission and Public Affairs Council, said he agreed with the content of the Bishops’ letter, and would have liked to have signed it in a personal capacity. There needed to be a “thorough and careful examination” by the Government of the situation for Christians. It was a question of balancing “rights and responsibil-ities in a society of many faiths and none”.
The current situation reflected a “rather impoverished understanding of equality and fairness by members of the Government and their advisers”. Dr Giddings acknowledged that not all members of the Church of England would agree on the level of discrimination against Christians in the UK, but said he believed that there was agreement about a “growing secularisation within Government as an institution, which threatens to undermine the important position of faith”.
He predicted challenging times ahead for Christians, but said that this would bring “lots of opportunities. The Christian community is going to have to face quite a number of vigorous challenges, which in a way will be quite good for us, as there are a number of things we take for granted and need to think through.”
Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former Bishop of Oxford, was keen to emphasise that he believed other faith groups were “amongst the strongest defenders of the place of Christianity in our culture and morality”. He said that the marginalisation of Christians was coming from “a few shallow-minded secularists who have a thin understanding of our history and culture”.
He called for a sense of perspective. “There are Christians being oppressed and killed for their faith in some countries of the world.”
The Bishop of Lincoln, Dr John Saxbee, commented: “Christianity is a robust religion, which has survived and even been strengthened by periods of active persecution or even benign neglect.” He described recent instances of Christians’ having been inhibited from wearing symbols of their faith as being “as silly as they are insulting”.
He called on Christians to take every opportunity to “promote marriage and resist all attempts to undermine it”, but warned that this “must never be used as a cover for anti-gay agendas”.
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