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Faith in public life

13 July 2012

THE General Synod has called on Christians to "manifest" their faith in "public life"; but it declined a request to embody this precept in a new addition to canon law.

Moving his private member's motion, which was the basis of the debate on Sunday evening, the Revd Stephen Trott (Peterborough) said that it would be "nonsense, as things currently stand, to describe the situation of the Church in England as being one of persecution".

Nevertheless, "profound changes" had taken place in the governance of the country, which had resulted in "very determined attempts" to "drive the Church out of the public square". This was despite the "massive contributions" that the Church made to public life. Christian moral values "still underpin much of the constitution of this country", he argued; and Christian faith was still shared by a "very significant proportion of the population".

Mr Trott expressed concern about the potential formation of a "monolithic state, which imposes a conformist ideology on all aspects of public life". Although Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights set out freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, Christians were not, he suggested, permitted to manifest their faith, nor "live and work according to our conscience", for fear of being branded as "discriminatory". He gave as an example the stripping of Christian symbols from hospital chapels.

Christians were, "chillingly", being accused of "hate crimes" for speaking about their beliefs publicly. It was the General Synod, not the Government nor the courts, that should decide whether wearing the cross was a requirement of the Christian faith. "When we choose to wear the cross publicly, we identify ourselves as citizens of the Kingdom of God." By passing the motion, the Synod would be "saying to Christians everywhere that they should not be bullied into silence and anonymity".

Philip Fletcher (Archbishops' Council) said that "there are real problems about balancing one right with another" in society. But "it is wrong to talk of persecution of Christians in Britain today. To do so demeans the experience of fellow Christians in other countries [who are facing persecution]."

John Barber (Manchester), in a maiden speech, said that this was not a new challenge for Christians: scripture and 2000 years of Christian history showed that Christians had to endure trials. "The true nature of the Church and Christianity can only be proved in how we express our faith."

The Archdeacon of Norwich, the Ven. Jan McFarlane (Norwich), said that Christians should be "discerning" when reading press stories about supposed instances of the persecution of Christians. "Looking to the structures to defend us, complaining that we're being sidelined, frankly isn't very attractive. Living out a confident, upbeat, life-affirming faith is more likely to do the trick."

The Revd Professor Richard Burridge, Dean of King's College, London (University of London), supported the motion, and explained why he was proposing an amendment to add "following the example of Jesus Christ" to the motion. He asked: "Have we become embarrassed to mention the word 'Jesus' tonight? . . . I wear a cross because I want to follow Jesus as Lord, not because it is a philosophy or religious system I want to defend."

Dr Philip Giddings (Oxford) proposed an amendment requesting the Archbishops' Council to bring forward draft legislation to embody the conviction of the motion in the canons. He said: "If we express it in a canon, we're saying it to ourselves as well as rest of our community." Society, he said, was suffering from religious illiteracy; and the view that religion was a private matter was "increasingly to be found in public service, local government, central government, and the media. This inhibits the ability of Christians to speak in the public square about the implications of following Jesus."

Joanna Monckton (Lichfield) reminded the Synod that at a previous group of sessions she had asked for representations to be made to Government to ensure Christians could manifest their faith in the workplace. The answer she had been given, she said, was that the law did not prohibit the manifestation of faith in the workplace. However, there was a "chill factor that leads employers and others to believe the law is more restrictive than it is." She went on: "I'd like to know what practical response the Church has received, if any. This is a Christian country, and we should be able to express our faith without fear."

The Revd Dr Mark Chapman (Oxford) said that, although the motion was "unobjectionable", the assumptions in the background paper - that Christian faith was being silenced by European institutions and human-rights legislation - were "questionable". The danger was that headlines would appear tomorrow reading: "Church of England abandons human-rights legislation."

The Bishop of Dorchester, the Rt Revd Colin Fletcher (Southern Suffragans), said there had been "much more" resistance 20 years ago to getting the Church involved in public affairs at a local-government level. Now, local-government officers were prepared to get engaged with churches, "because they see that churches do things". He hoped, however, that the motion would be passed "near to unanimously", because not to pass it "would send a very, very bad signal . . . particularly to those around the world who really are suffering persecution". They would feel "abandoned".

Dr Chik Kaw Tan (Lichfield) said that it was "logical, reasonable, rational, and honouring and pleasing to Christ" to proclaim the gospel. The good news was "good news for society". The gospel should be proclaimed boldly, graciously, and without compromise, even if it was counter-cultural and unpopular.

Margaret Condick (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) said that her enthusiasm for the motion "waned" when she read the background paper, which, she said, promoted a "growing mythology of slights against Christians". She despaired when she heard "myths" about the marginalisation of Christians repeated. "Just because the Daily Mail keeps repeating these stories doesn't necessarily mean they're true." Christians should not be insisting on their rights.

The Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes (Northern Universities) said the motion did not "do justice to the complex ways Christianity and culture have interacted with each other". Given the C of E's history of preventing other manifestations of the Christian faith from speaking out, "we need to earn the right to speak out, and to use the right responsibly."

Professor Burridge's and Dr Giddings's amendments were voted on and lost, and debate resumed on the main motion.

Anirban Roy (London) argued that Christians were able to manifest their faith in public life. For example, on Palm Sunday, the congregation of St Martin-in-the-Fields had marched around Trafalgar Square singing hymns and waving palm fronds. "If I can manifest my faith publicly with a donkey, what do the rest of you want to do?"

The Revd Stephen Coles (London) said that he did not recognise "what a lot of you are talking about", and did not understand "the language of 'them' and 'us'". The whole area of "conscience and law" required "serious theological reflection", which should be undertaken by the Faith and Order Commission.

The Synod carried the motion by 263 to 25, with 52 recorded abstentions. It read:

That this Synod express its conviction that it is the calling of Christians to order and govern our lives in accord-ance with the teaching of Holy Scripture, and to manifest our faith in public life as well as in private, giving expression to our beliefs in the written and spoken word, and in practical acts of service to the local community and to the nation.

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