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.
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.