Speak freely about your faith, Prime Minister tells Christians

09 December 2016

AP

Oceangoing: the Prime Minister on board HMS Ocean, on a visit to Bahrain, on Tuesday

Oceangoing: the Prime Minister on board HMS Ocean, on a visit to Bahrain, on Tuesday

THE Prime Minister has welcomed a report that seeks to encourage Christians to share their faith and invokes the adage that a Christian is “either a missionary or an imposter”.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday of last week, Theresa May said: “We have a very strong tradition in this country of religious tolerance and freedom of speech, and our Christian heritage is something we can all be proud of. I am sure we would all want to ensure that people at work do feel able to speak about their faith, and also feel able to speak quite freely about Christmas.”

Her defence of the right to speak about faith in the workplace was prompted by comments by the chairman of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), David Isaac, who said this week that many employers had become “really worried” during Christmas about offending Muslim or Jewish staff.

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, has since joined the discussion, suggesting that it is not people of other faiths who have a problem with Christianity, but liberal secularists. Some Christians felt “a little picked on or beleaguered”, he told the Press Association, and warned that “Liberalism can become very intolerant of anything that doesn’t fit its own parameters.”

In the Commons, the Conservative MP for Congleton, Fiona Bruce, said that Christians were “now worried, even fearful, about mentioning their faith in public”. She prefaced her comments by referring to an interview given by Mr Isaac.

“Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right,” he told The Sunday Times, “and shouldn’t be suppressed through fear of offending.” It was “OK to hold a party and send Christmas cards. Most Muslims and Jews that I know adhere to their own religious beliefs, of course, but to some extent acknowledge that Christmas happens, and to some extent, with a small ‘c’, celebrate it.”

In her Commons question, Mrs Bruce asked the Prime Minister to welcome a report, Speak Up: The law and your Gospel freedoms, published in September by the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship (LCF) and the Evangelical Alliance, which “confirms that in our country the legal rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech to speak about one’s faith responsibly, respectfully and without fear are as strong today as ever”.

Mrs May was “happy” to do so, and said that Mrs Bruce had raised “an important issue which matters both to her and me”.

On Thursday, Bishop Baines said: “Clearly, there are some Christians who are concerned about whether they are free to talk about their faith in a respectful and appropriate way in the workplace.

“Equally, there are plenty of people who are not Christians who think that Christians shouldn’t, or think there is an issue around it. I call it religious illiteracy.

“There are people who have been disciplined, or threatened with discipline for talking about their faith, even though they have been asked about it. Someone makes a complaint, and says they have been inappropriate. This is absurd. . . I think, if you claim to be open-minded and liberal, why are you so frightened of religious expression?”

Most people of other faiths had “absolutely no problem with anyone talking about their faith”, he argued. “It’s the secularists that have a problem. It is a Christian festival. Are they going to tell Muslims they have got to strip Islam out of Eid? It’s just ludicrous.

“Liberalism can become very intolerant of anything that doesn’t fit its own parameters.”

The Speak Up report assures Christians that “the commitment of the law to freedom of speech and freedom of religion is as strong as it has ever been. It is a jealously guarded principle.” It blames the media for creating a perception that faith cannot be shared in public.

“Small but vocal humanist and atheist organisations would have us believe that Christianity should be kept as a private matter, and that speaking about faith with non-believers will be unwelcome,” the vice-chairman of the LCF, Thomas Cordrey, writes. “The media seize on, and report, the rare cases where talking about Jesus has led a Christian into legal hot water.” In fact, “Christians are protected from religious discrimination by strong domestic and European legislation.”

The report goes on to offer guidance on sharing faith in the workplace, with reference to legislation, including case law. It highlights the European Convention on Human Rights as the “primary source of legal protection for Christians’ wanting to share the gospel”. The protections afforded by the Equality Act are also noted.

In “rare cases where a Christian is penalised in some way for speaking about Jesus the law will offer no protection”, the report says, comparing this to the situation faced by Christians in the Early Church.

Reassurance is offered to those who seek to share their faith at work: “In the vast majority of cases, employers will have little problem with Christian employers’ sensitively discussing Jesus and religious issues with workmates in the same way that you might talk about sport, hobbies, and family life.”

Principles for doing this with “wisdom and consideration” are set out, including not doing it at the expense of work, and not abusing one’s authority: “Consider differences in workplace status and the potential vulnerability of your colleague.” The authors advise that Christians should “seek to share and discuss rather than lecture”, and “avoid passing judgment on others”.

Pursuit of a discussion that is “obviously unwelcome” — which could be expressed non-verbally — could be deemed “unlawful harassment”, it warns.

The report includes advice on controversial issues, and suggests that it may be wiser to steer conversations away from them. Some interlocutors may have “negative or hostile motives, wanting to trap you”. But Christians have “robust legal protection” to speak on topics including sexual morality and other religions, it notes, and the threshold for whether something is “grossly offensive” is “high”.

The report is clear on the duty to take up the call to evangelise, and quotes Charles Spurgeon’s dictum: “A Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.”

“The more common it is for Christians to wisely and lovingly speak or write about the message of the gospel, the more it will be an accepted and uncontroversial part of British life,” the authors advise.

After acknowledging the freedoms enjoyed by Christians, the director of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance, Dave Landrum, warns in his closing remarks that “they can also be easily lost. If not attended to, they will wither away. Like a muscle, without exercise they will atrophy.”

In an endorsements section, the report is welcomed by judges, church leaders, and MPs.

Last year, the Talking Jesus report, commissioned by the Church of England, the Evangelical Alliance, and Hope UK, which explored attitudes to sharing the Gospel, and reactions from non-Christians (News, 6 November, 2015), found that a third of the practising Christians surveyed were afraid of causing offence to non-Christians by speaking about Jesus.

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