Trojan Horse: Real religious persecution is happening in Iraq, not Birmingham
I have lost count of the number of times I have been in a church when it seems that the intercessions have been lifted straight out of the Daily Mail. The pitch of the speaker rises, an expression of outrage fixes upon their face (sometimes I pray with my eyes open, sorry), they become more earnest, and less in touch with reality. God is warned of the rising threat of the persecution of Christians in the UK today, a sign that 'Christian Britain' is dying, that the end times must surely be at hand. A little piece of me dies inside.
I'm not saying that Christians shouldn't read the Daily Mail. It is the UK's second-biggest selling paper and claims to be the world's most-read news website. If we don't read it at least occasionally we'll find ourselves out of touch with what our friends, colleagues and congregants are reading and discussing. It's practically a Christian duty to pick it up from time to time.
But we certainly shouldn't read any news source without a healthy dose of scepticism. Especially during silly season when parliament is in recess and journos are wildly casting around for something - anything - that might fill the column inches.
From a PR perspective, silly season is a bit of a gift - it's far easier to sell a story and guarantee coverage for your cause. Some charities take advantage of it to very good and praiseworthy effect. Others, frankly, use it to take the mick. On this latter charge, I'm afraid the Christian Institute is a frequent offender.
The latest case in point is Tuesday's story about proposals from the Independent School Standards Consultation of the Department for Education, which has come in the wake of the 'Trojan Horse' affair concerning a group of schools in Birmingham. The scandal began with an anonymous letter (now widely believed to have been a hoax) which alleged an Islamist plot to influence 16 schools in the Birmingham area by marginalising, forcing out and replacing existing headteachers with teachers who would impose a strict interpretation of Islam. Investigations by OFSTED and the Education Funding Authority revealed some evidence that there had indeed been some kind of organised campaign targeting certain schools.
Many are now warning the government against overreacting to the situation and a number of valid concerns have been raised by education groups about the consultation. According to the Christian Institute, the proposals will almost certainly lead to the cancellation of Christmas in schools across the nation and the banning of the terms 'husband' and 'wife'. Were this true it would, indeed, be a terrible thing.
In fact, the proposals would give the Education Secretary power to take regulatory action in schools where girls are disadvantaged because of their gender, where there is failure to address homophobia, or where prejudice against other faiths is encouraged or not adequately challenged.
What the Education Secretary is asking for is that all schools – including independents – actively and conscientiously foster an atmosphere of respect in which students are not discriminated against because of their gender, sexuality or religion.
Never knowingly respectful, the Institute is mounting a legal challenge. They argue that the six-week consultation period has not been long enough. Some agree with them on this point, but the assertion that the call for respect is tantamount to 'actively promoting' homosexuality and downgrading Christmas for fear of offending atheists or those of other faiths is nonsensical scaremongering.
Such allegations (described by the Department for Education as 'simply untrue') are so ridiculous as to preclude the possibility of constructive engagement between the Institute and the government on the issue of education. I don't believe that Christians should be uncritical of government policies, or that they should only work for change behind the scenes. But the reality is that there are thousands of Christians across Britain who make a real and positive contribution to the education system and whose voices are obscured by news coverage like this.
Enough, already. Enough of this shrill, self-serving, self-entitled, self-obsessed violation of gospel values. Enough of this scaremongering which has the faithful fearing for their rights and clutching their prayer books for comfort. Enough of this misrepresentation of our Messiah who prioritised the poor, the marginalised and the despised. Is this really the best use of the Christian Institute's considerable resources and expertise? Christians should demand better from those who claim to represent us.
Arguably, at no other time in history have we ever been more aware of the horrors of religious persecution. We should look to Iraq, Syria and Pakistan with tears in our eyes, prayers in our hearts and our hands in our wallets. That should be what dominates our intercessions this Sunday. We know what persecution and marginalisation looks like and the latest report from the Department for Education is not it.
Anna Drew is an Anglican working for the Methodist Church in Britain as lead media officer.