Church speaks up for public faith
Published 09 July 2012
The Church of England’s parliamentary body last night passed a motion reaffirming the call on Christians to manifest their faith in public as well in private.
Presenting the motion to the General Synod, the Rev Stephen Trott said that although it was “nonsense” to suggest that Christians in England were being persecuted, there were “very determined attempts to drive the Church out of the public square”.
Rev Trott described his motion as a “declaration which leaves no doubt that what we believe in the Bible and what we practise as Christians belong very much to the public domain and not private conscience”.
The motion asked that “Synod express its conviction that it is the calling of Christians to order and govern our lives in accordance 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”.
Rev Trott pointed to recent examples of Christians being challenged for publically expressing their faith, including nurse Shirley Chaplin, who was taken off ward duties after she refused to remove her cross necklace.
Mrs Chaplin lost her appeal in the British courts and is taking her case to the European Court of Human Rights, along with Gary McFarlane, a relationship counsellor dismissed by Avon Relate because he said he could not in conscience conduct sex therapy with same-sex couples. The ECHR is to hear their cases on 4 September.
Rev Trott said: “Now we are not to be permitted to manifest our faith, or to live and work according to our conscience as Christians, because to do so is increasingly and mistakenly classed by government and the courts as ‘discriminatory’.”
He called for a “genuine plurality” of ideas instead of a “conformist ideology” imposed on all.
Although many Synod members supported the motion, there were some who challenged Rev Trott’s contention that Christians are being marginalised.
The Archdeacon of Norwich, the Rev Jan McFarlane, suggested Christians need to be more discerning when reading press reports of discrimination cases involving Christians.
“The question I always ask is ‘What really happened?’,” she said.
“I’m not saying there isn’t a problem, but what I am saying is that we shouldn’t get too carried away with what we read in the press and we shouldn’t be too quick to comment, not unless we are confident that we know the whole story.
“If there are rules spanning the wearing of jewellery, then why should Christians be exempt? I’m not wearing a cross today but it doesn’t make me any less of a Christian.”
Rev McFarlane also suggested that in some cases, the fault lies with Christians.
“Don’t start me on Easter cards. Have you ever tried to buy a half decent one? They are embarrassingly twee.
“Where are our Christian artists, where are the Christian printers and publishers? Give us something decent to buy and demand will increase and the supermarkets will rise to meet that demand.
“Is it the case that supermarkets are actively banning cards with a religious theme? Or do they not want to stock them because they are so hideous no one will buy them?”
She added that there was a lot more Christians could do to witness their faith on a day-to-day business.
“The opportunities are there but we’ve got to use them.”
Similarly, Margaret Condick, of the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, raised objections to the paper accompanying the motion, which highlighted cases against Christians.
“This paper repeats the growing mythology of slights apparently done to Christians,” she said.
Referring to the recent case involving Bideford Council, Mrs Condick said she was surprised any Christians would want to “force their prayers onto unwilling participants”.
She also observed that the objection to Shirley Chaplin was directed towards the necklace as a health and safety hazard, and not the cross.
“I despair when I hear these and other myths repeated. Just because the Daily Mail, for instance, keeps repeating these stories doesn’t necessarily mean they are true,” she said.
“If Christians break the law they must be prepared to take the consequences. I don’t think we should be insisting on our rights. Instead we should show our Christian faith by how we behave towards each other.”
She went on to list examples of the engagement of her local Churches Together, which includes being asked by the local council to support a community networking event and an invitation from the police to join a crime prevention panel.
“Far from being marginalised, we are actually involved in consulting our public bodies,” she continued.
“We don’t feel marginalised. We are certainly not persecuted. We don’t have gunmen bursting in to take us away because we are Christians. That’s persecution.
“We shouldn’t be complaining but instead find ways to serve our fellows.”
The Bishop of Dorking, the Rt Rev Colin Fletcher, supported the motion but also stressed that churches were playing a role in the public square.
He gave examples of churches being supported by their local authorities and receiving council grants for their projects.
“I think there was much more resistance in my experience to get churches involved in public affairs 20 years ago,” he said.
“I thank God for a new generation of local government officers who are prepared to build relationships and are prepared to get engaged with churches because they see that churches do things.
“And as Faith in the City and other [initiatives] have proved, we do things and we do it successfully. That generation is much more open than the previous generation who got terribly frightened of engaging with religion in the public space.
“It seems to me we have an opportunity in this generation that a previous generation didn’t have and let’s seize it and use it because it is there for the moment.”
The Dean of King’s College, London, the Rev Professor Richard Burridge said Christians should “go to our nation confidently, not defensively”.
Dr Philip Giddings, of the Diocese of Oxford, said there was increasing religious illiteracy in society, including in areas of public service, local and central government, and in the media.
“That inhibits the ability of Christians to speak in the public square about the implications of following Jesus,” he said.
More news from the Church