Home > General Politics, Religion > Christians aren’t persecuted, and they aren’t disrespected

Christians aren’t persecuted, and they aren’t disrespected

Lord Carey, about whom I have had impolite things to say in the past, seems determined to storm about in his tea cup, whipping up a righteous indignation amongst tabloids and those predisposed to such indignation. His most recent stunt is another high profile letter, this time to the Sunday Telegraph (predictably) complaining of bias against Christians.

The letter, which can be read in full here, begins thus:

SIR – On March 29, a Christian nurse, Shirley Chaplin, will take the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust to the Exeter Employment Tribunal.

This dedicated nurse, who has cared for thousands of patients over 30 years, was told by the trust to remove from her neck a cross she first wore at her confirmation service over 40 years ago.

She has worn the cross every day since her confirmation as a sign of her Christian faith, a faith which led to her vocation in nursing, and which has sustained her in that vital work ever since.

Mrs Chaplin refused to remove her cross and, as a result, was prevented from working in a patient-facing role.

It would seem that the NHS trust would rather lose the skills of an experienced nurse and divert scarce resources to fighting a legal case, instead of treating patients.

The uniform policy of the NHS trust permits exemptions for religious clothing. This has been exercised with regard to other faiths, but not with regard to the wearing of a cross around the neck.

Even the Daily Mail managed to report that this woman was asked to remove her cross for ‘elf’n’safety reasons. She wore it above her clothes, and refused to put it underneath them. Judging by the picture attached to that Mail article, it exists on a fairly long chain and is in danger of contact should a nurse lean over a patient.

In 2006, the BMA recommended that doctors stop wearing neckties for precisely this reason, as they were washed less frequently than other items of clothing and had greater risk of contact. This was recommended as a means to inhibit the spread of MRSA. No doubt there is a similar medical logic to this officious move against a nurse’s cross.

So far as I’m concerned, the item either is a risk to health, in which case it should be banned across every hospital, or it is not and it should be permitted. Things don’t get much simpler. Far be it from me to step in the way of some religious crusade, against an imaginary slight, on the part of crusty Anglican relics.

The letter continues:

Furthermore, Mrs Chaplin has been informed that the Court requires evidence of the fact that Christians wear crosses visibly around the neck. It cannot be right that judges are unaware of such a basic practice.[...]

The cross is ubiquitous in Christian devotion from the earliest times and clearly the most easily recognisable Christian symbol. For many Christians, wearing a cross is an important expression of their Christian faith and they would feel bereft if, for some unjustifiable reason, they were not allowed to wear it. To be asked by an employer to remove or “hide” the cross, is asking the Christian to hide their faith.

Any policy that regards the cross as “just an item of jewellery” is deeply disturbing and it is distressing that this view can ever be taken.

In deciding whether or not something should be covered by the religious exemptions, the existence of which Carey acknowledges, surely it makes sense to have testimony from people of a given religion that an article of clothing is important to their faith. In the case of Sikhism or Islam, specific holy documents cover the topic.

There is no similar elevation of the wearing of a cross on a necklace for Christians by the New Testament. Now, I don’t agree with this method of approaching the subject; in the case of health professionals, either something is a danger to patients’ health or it is not. If not, allow it; if so, ban it. But this is not Lord Carey’s objection.

Carey specifically objects to what I’ve suggested – that the cross on a necklace be treated like any other piece of jewellery.

His problem is that Christianity no longer has the right to unthinking exemptions from the same sort of rules which everyone else has to follow. It is with the decline of Christianity in the UK, and the ebb of its control over the State, as implied by Carey’s evident desire that judges treat Christian icons as deserving of special treatment.

Reproduced from the Daily Mail article listed above

There is another section, from the elipsis above, which deserves comment:

This is yet another case in which the religious rights of the Christian community are being treated with disrespect. We are deeply concerned at the apparent discrimination shown against Christians and we call on the Government to remedy this serious development.

In a number of cases, Christian beliefs on marriage, conscience and worship are simply not being upheld. There have been numerous dismissals of practising Christians from employment for reasons that are unacceptable in a civilised country. We believe that the major parties need to address this issue in the coming general election.

I have a lot of sympathy for people dismissed for upholding their conscience. After all, if we remove religion from the equation for a moment, isn’t asking other workers not to cross picket lines an example of appealing to the conscience of the individual? This type of thing calls for a new departure in industrial democracy.

In the second example, where an Islington Council registrar was dismissed for essentially refusing to do her job, we may not agree with or admire the homophobic sentiments located there. On the other hand, we shouldn’t make common cause with an overbearing State; we should instead ask a) was there enough work on regular marriages to keep her busy elsewhere and b) were her colleagues willing to make accommodation for her?

Instances such as these are not ones where medical science will be called on to judge health risks potentially occasioned by clothing, or whether safety risks are possible due to carrying what may be considered a weapon in public spaces, where it can represent a serious problem. They can be resolved with understanding.

What they shouldn’t be used for, as Lord Carey as well as Dr. Sentamu and the Catholic prelate of Westminster, Vincent Nichols have all done, is to attack ‘secularism’ and on several occasions atheism. They are not the result of these things – and many of them will not be resolved by the abandoning of Labour’s Equality Bill – which has been a recent hobbyhorse for this type of sentiment from clerics.

Nor should we draw the conclusions that all the signatories to this letter have done, that ‘the religious rights of the Christian community are being treated with disrespect.’

People still go to worship without trouble. They are free to live according to their beliefs – to the point of being according specific exemptions in many fields, e.g. the right of a Doctor to refuse a woman an abortion on grounds of religious belief. Key Christian festivals are still national festivals – Easter and Christmas for example.

By and large, Christians have little cause for complaint. Letters such as Carey’s, and his many co-signatories, simply serve to create a lot of noise without ever actually solving anything.

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  1. March 30, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Agree completely. What Carey is protesting against is not persecution or even disrespecting Christianity. He is bemoaning the removal of historic privileges granted to Christians above those of other faiths and none, which in the end have tied Christianity to the state and harmed it, as well as being unfair in themselves.

    All these issues should be treated as issues to do with workers rights & conditions, and of course we should be pressing for the fullest rights in the workplace possible providing workers are not harming public service users or each other.

  2. March 30, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    You’re right Dave, as ever. Particularly on the point of scripture – noting that scriptural justification is not your bag, but that there is no common cause with Lord Carey who can’t see where extraneous items of clothing can be in breach of health and safety. How surprising it is to learn that the Mail were almost rounded about this subject.

    If right wing Christian types are worried that their moral/political outlook has little currency in this country anymore, they can be rest assured that our forces, and the forces in the US, were engaged in a war whose architects (Bush and Blair – the latter being the chap whose return a great deal of labour supporters are cheering, fools!) said things like this:

    “The enemy has got a face — he’s called Satan, he’s in Falluja, and we’re going to destroy him” (Lt Col Brandl)

  3. March 31, 2010 at 10:59 am

    I have a child with a severe speech disability limiting to a few words at the age of 10. He attends a special school that has a head teacher who is a particularly enthusiastic follower of the Nazarene sect. Last week the teachers proudly told us that our child was now able to sign along with the morning prayers thanking god.

    We were supposed to be pleased to hear that they were teaching him to talk to an imaginary being, when his real need was to talk to people. In 5 years of schooling they have only just got round to providing speech therapy, but never mind, at least the poor children have been taught to thank a deity for their miserable plight.

    It would be as rational to teach them to call down titanic curses on the gods for the afflictions with which they were born!

    Children in special schools are subjected to an intensity of religiosity that other schools would not get away with.

  4. March 31, 2010 at 11:25 am

    “e.g. the right of a Doctor to refuse a woman an abortion on grounds of religious belief.”

    Which is a fucking disgrace.

  5. March 31, 2010 at 11:34 am

    I’m not sure I agree that it’s disgrace Paul. Someone who thinks abortion is murder shouldn’t be compelled to be involved with it. Abortion is not integral to being a doctor – and I know many who oppose the practice. I disagree with them; I believe in the right of every woman to choose what to do with her own body or its tumours. So long as that right is protected not just nominally but in fact, as in, there are enough doctors to perform abortions, there’s no need for compulsion.

    • March 31, 2010 at 11:49 am

      One of the best attributes of the original article is that it avoids the mutual slanging-match that passes for debate on topics such as this. Paul’s response does not avoid this pitfall. Is he saying that it is right for an individual to be compelled to act in a way that they find unconscionable? This question must be answered without respect to whether or not one agrees with that which another person finds unconscionable. We are rightly appalled by the “I was only following orders” defence when someone behaves barbarically without applying their own moral judgements to what they are being asked to do. Either we believe in the fundamental right of individuals to act according to their conscience, or we don’t. Picking and choosing dependent on our personal moral judgements about that other person’s moral perspective is simple hypocrisy.

    • March 31, 2010 at 10:24 pm

      Think I was a tad confused; thought you meant “can refuse to refer women for abortions”, but now realise you mean “can refuse to perform abortions themselves”.

      In which case, you’re obviously right.

      Sorry.

  6. March 31, 2010 at 11:58 am

    To be fair, though, Billy, I myself think that there is a line to be drawn some way short of a fundamental right of individuals to act according to their conscience. Insofar as it is practical, within the constraints set by external factors such as staffing rotas etc, or the willingness of colleagues to accept the views of the individual and to reorganise their lives accordingly, I support the right to be guided by conscience.

    But say it came to threaten the lives of women, who could not find someone to conduct a safe abortion – or gay men, who could conceivably be put at risk as the result of views that can be attributed to conscience? In those circumstances, compulsion is almost inevitable – and I would argue such situation supercede the right of the individual not to be forced to act against their conscience.

    • March 31, 2010 at 12:16 pm

      Of course. There are many circumstances in which there is a real conflict between competing rights, and in which some kind of “trade-off” has to be made. But that does not make either of the competing rights not a right. I suspect that there are no absolute rights that can be applied without limit. What I am objecting to is the kind of thinking which either explicitly or implicitly operates as if rights are merely those things that I happen to agree with. This is a charge which is often, and with justice, made against “people of faith”; indeed, your original post is an elegant rebuttal of just such a religious claim made by Bishop Carey. Unfortunately, this is a fault as often demonstrated by those with no faith, or with strong anti-faith views, as it is by the religious. Hypocrisy is not confined to the Church!

  7. March 31, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    frogive me for grinding my own anti-religion axe but i’m going to do it anyway. i get especially pissed off when rowan williams (who seems a not-unreasonable sort of bloke in the round) reckons i am destroying society by refusing to get married and bringing up my children in an ‘unstable’ home without values.

    and anyway; doesn’t he know that i am destroying society by being a godless commie!

    now that was off-thread except to agree that it is the removal of the assumption of christianity, heterosexuality, marriage, etc as a norm to which they are in fact objecting.

  8. Dalbir Singh Sagoo
    April 4, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    I am a Sikh living in Leeds, West yorksire and have great respect for all religion. Religion takes us out of darkness into light and gives the strength and guidence to carry out our daily work with honestly. The politicians and the so called ‘do-gooders’ should leave our religions out of their personal agendas as religion has done no harm to anybody. I and my Sikh frinds fully support Shirley Chaplin in her wearing her CROSS. The Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust should not waste the public funds on trying to prove their point. A small cross round the neck does no body any harm but brings hope to those who believe in Jesus. The Cross is spiritual medicine which works miracles where other medicines stop. Shirley do not give up and don’t lose hope. Let us start a nationwide protest to change this ruling.

  9. April 4, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    And what has that got to do with anything, Dalbir? Clearly you didn’t read the article, as it lays out ample reasons why wearing the cross in the fashion that Chaplin did might lead to problems.

    You and your Sikh friends should not waste my time with pointless religious pontifications.

  1. April 3, 2010 at 7:08 am
  2. April 15, 2010 at 10:14 am

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