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01 July 2010

Engage with a secular society

Engage with a secular society

Christianity seems to be increasingly at odds with UK society. Is going to court the answer? Hazel Southam explores the options...

Over the past few years Christians have been making national newspaper headlines, and not in a way that they would have wanted. It's easy to find plenty of examples of this.

In October 2007 a Christian magistrate who felt forced to resign because he opposed adoption by gay couples lost his appeal, but vowed to fight on. Last year, a woman resigned from her job as a blood collector at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital rather than remove her cross necklace, which bosses said "could harbour infection".

This January, a teacher sacked for offering to pray for a sick girl was reinstated after her story made the front page of The Mail on Sunday. In March, a Christian registrar who was threatened with the sack for refusing to perform civil partnership services for gay couples lost her latest court battle. In the same month, two Christian hoteliers who were cleared last year of insulting a Muslim guest announced that their business had subsequently collapsed.

"Are Christians really being marginalised in Britain?"

By Easter, Radio 5 Live presenter Nicky Campbell was warning that a minority of Christians felt persecuted by human rights laws and local councils. They believe they "are being sidelined and victimised," he said.

So are Christians really being marginalised in Britain? How and why have things changed? And crucially, how do we engage with the changing society around us? 

On a knife-edge 

The Daily Telegraph reported in April that "a top judge was warned that court rulings against Christian workers risk causing 'civil unrest' as he heard the case of a relationship counsellor who was sacked after refusing to give sex advice to homosexual couples."

Civil unrest? Christians aren't taking to the streets mobbing mounted police and throwing stones. But according to the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, the country is on a knife-edge. We are, he said, "but a short step from the dismissal of a sincere Christian from employment to a religious bar to any employment for Christians." 

The head of the Christian Legal Centre, Andrea Minichello Williams, agrees, calling the recent court cases "a tragedy". She says, "They underline the scale and speed of change in our society's attitude to Christian truth - an attitude which is increasingly characterised by ignorance, suspicion and even hatred.

"It is vitally important that the Church recognises this trend; turning a blind eye is not a solution. What begins as 'marginalisation' develops into 'discrimination' and then 'persecution'. If we don't speak up now then we will see things decay further."

Other observers disagree with this view, saying Christians are not under siege, and that fighting back will only make us more unpopular and misunderstood.

Dr Steve Holmes, chair of the Alliance's Theology and Public Policy Advisory Commission, is one of them. These court cases are "isolated instances", he says. "You would look hard to find a profession where you couldn't work as a Christian because of your faith." He believes that the problem could be that Christians are being insufficiently "sensitive" in the way they express their point of view.

Dr Trevor Cooling, director of the National Institute of Christian Education Research agrees. Speaking about Christians working in education, he says, "There are huge opportunities for Christians involved in education if we can get these things right. But we won't find that we will be welcomed if we bang on the door and say, 'This is a Christian country, you must listen to me.' We will get a welcome if we are saying we want to contribute to the community and the schools: 'How can we help? '"

Better understanding

Perhaps the first reason is a lack of residual knowledge of Christianity through RE lessons or Sunday school. A survey from the religious thinktank Theos in 2007 found Britons' understanding of the Christmas story was pretty shaky. According to the survey more than one person in four didn't know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The same number didn't know that an angel told Mary that she would give birth to a son; some thought it was the shepherds who told her.

Theos Director Paul Woolley says, "The fact that younger people are the least knowledgeable about the Christmas story may reflect a decline in the telling of Bible stories in schools and the popularity of nativity plays. No-one seriously thinks that being a Christian or a member of the established Church is the same thing as being British today."

Andrew Graystone, director of the Church and Media Network, believes that this increasing ignorance of Christianity and its tenets is causing the problem. But he says the responsibility for this lack of knowledge in the wider community can only be laid at the door of Christians: we can't blame society for not knowing about Christianity if we haven't told them.

"One of the things that's happened is that Christians have spent the last generations talking to themselves," he says. "We forgot that we had a job to do in speaking to the rest of the world and listening to it. We thought we only had to talk with our own kind. We got out of touch."

Like Andrea Minichello Williams, Graystone sees the recent court cases as "a tragedy", but for different reasons. "This is an age of more opportunity to tell Christians' stories than any other time in history," he says. "The channels of communication are more open than they have been. We are no longer dependent on a few people sitting in offices in London to decide what stories get told. We can tell our own stories. "I want Christians to shut up about defending their rights and to speak up about serving others. If we don't, after a while Christians will become famous for nothing but standing up for their own rights. But we should want to be famous for laying down our lives, forgiving the unforgiveable, going the extra mile and standing up for other people's rights."

That way, he says, we will be engaging with society and creating the kind of headlines that we want to see.

Stephen Cave, the Alliance's director for Northern Ireland, said, "Even with our different approaches to these issues, most Christians agree that going to court is the last resort. As a community we need to support the individuals involved, while at the same time finding the response that will most glorify God. Where possible we should engage our society in conversation rather than confrontation."

10 tips...

  • Don't expect people to know much about Christianity. Be ready to explain.
  • Be wise and act appropriately to the situation.
  • Ask your church leader to train the congregation in mission work.
  • Understand the culture that surrounds you: watch TV, films and read the papers.
  • Meet people where they are: offer to help in the local community.
  • Spend time volunteering.
  • Ensure that you have enough time outside the church walls.
  • Defend the rights of others before your own.
  • Be positive: Christianity has a lot to offer.
  • Use language that people understand, not Christian jargon.

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