Recently we saw cases in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) about workplace discrimination against Christians. If I heard it right (that was a busy day, so forgive me if I misheard) the basic results were
- A lady working for BA had been improperly suspended for wearing a cross; the court felt that a discreet cross did not affect her performance in the job.
- A nurse wearing a cross failed in her case because it was deemed possible in that context that the cross – or any jewellery – was a hygiene risk.
- A registrar who refused to conduct gay civil partnerships and a marriage counsellor who refused to counsel gay civil partners failed in their claims that they had suffered discrimination.
All the ‘ifs and buts’ of the ‘gay marriage’ cases would make a long and tedious essay here; I’ll just make one point. There has been a long history of Christians lording it over others in so-called ‘Christian countries’, and that has included making homosexuality illegal and subject to all manner of persecution and discrimination. With Christianity largely losing that place in the state, despite the nowadays rather nominal ‘establishment’ of the Anglican church, gay people are essentially ‘fighting back’ and understandably are not willing to make any concessions to their erstwhile persecutors. I invite my readers to consider how different things might have been if Christians, though still not approving of homosexuality, had not claimed such a place in the state and thus both Christians and gays had faced the state as bodies who dissented from the majority in the state and who also happened to disagree with one another. Not a friction-free situation, I grant – but very different dynamics, I suggest, and as you’ll have gathered, my blog is advocating that different kind of church and different relationship of church and surrounding society.
Anyway, according to a newspaper today, the diversity quango[i] has been speaking again about such issues as the business of wearing crosses and other overt religious symbols, styles of clothing, etc. So I’ve brought back thoughts I wrote at the time of those cases and I’m posting them now.
And my first question – where in the New Testament does it say we are to wear crosses like jewellery to show our faith?
In fact Christianity is remarkably free of any such obligatory symbolism; there are no dietary requirements, no dress code except reasonable modesty and no cross-dressing, no compulsory days of worship (Colossians 2; 16). Even our one formal-ish ceremony, the communion, is a meal – and I’ve attended a fair few which have taken place in meal settings rather than as church services. Anything of that kind that we do is voluntary, we’re not required to stand as martyrs for such things in the way that Jews have at times over Sabbath observance. Yes, I know various denominations have over the years developed traditions about these externals, even among Anabaptists, but these are not truly biblical.
‘Bearing the cross’ is sort of compulsory; but that’s not about jewellery or symbolically carrying a big cross around like Arthur Blessitt used to; it’s about risking martyrdom by being faithful to Jesus as Lord and facing the possibility that you too may be crucified or whatever penalty your country applies to the non-conformist. ‘Bearing the cross’ has in the past meant being literally crucified by Nero, thrown to the lions by other Roman emperors, being drowned as an early Anabaptist or imprisoned like John Bunyan, sent into Hitler’s concentration camps or Stalin’s ‘Gulag Archipelago’ or more recently facing either a legal death penalty or an illegal lynching in many Muslim states. To say you are being persecuted because you aren’t allowed to wear a cross at work is, I fear, trivial in comparison.
Not totally unimportant, of course; it is at any rate an indication of changes in the status of Christianity in Britain. It is because of such changes that many believe we are entering a period that can be described as ‘Post-Christendom’, the fading of the era when Christianity dominated in the West. Of course we still see many aspects of that era including big ones like the continued existence of an established church in England, but it seems that society has now changed so much, passed through so many ‘tipping points’, that it’s unlikely the trend will be reversed.
For ‘Anabaptists’ like me (See Setting out my Stall for a brief explanation) the decline of Christendom is seen as a good thing; the start of it when Constantine nationalised the Church in his Empire we regard as a mistake. We do see it wasn’t all bad, but it ultimately distorted much of what the Bible teaches about our faith, and we believe it is now long overdue to abandon that idea and return to a more biblical way to run God’s church. When Britain was a ‘Christian country’ other religions (including for a long time non-conformist Christians), agnostics and atheists could face discrimination, even into my lifetime. Now the balance has shifted and atheists and agnostics particularly have started aggressively attacking many things Christians used to take for granted – like wearing crosses as jewellery. Often the pretext is political correctness supposedly not wanting to offend Muslims etc., but often those of other religions say that it doesn’t in fact worry them, so it looks as if really this is unbelievers getting their own back for the time they were subjected to discrimination.
Those who still think in Christendom terms are often very upset by these attacks; and respond by loud complaints about ‘persecution’ and by trying to reassert that old privilege – look at George Carey the other week. To me, this is unhelpful, and likely to have a ‘Cry Wolf’ effect so we don’t get taken seriously over things that do matter. It would be better to admit the wrongness of Christendom and recognise these minor irritations as the pretty much deserved response to the improper privileges Christians used to enjoy and the discrimination they used to practice themselves.
Rather than aggressively fight for minor issues we need to take some time out and work out far better which issues really matter. Where they don’t matter so much we should sit light to them and be ready to give them up ourselves voluntarily before others even start harassing us; meanwhile in the ones that really matter we will be ready to ‘obey God rather than men’ and in those cases meaningfully ‘bear the cross’ following Jesus.
Not for our own sake but for our fellow-citizens we Christians should be giving thought to the right and just way to handle these issues in the state. But face it – we’ll have no credibility if it looks like we’re just trying to hang on to the rags of former privilege; that we need to give up, and not as a ‘sacrifice’ but as a recognition of something we shouldn’t have had in the first place. We need to repent towards God for the things we and other Christians have done in his name.
[i] When I put ‘quango’ in, my spell-checker didn’t like it, and suggested ‘guano’ as an alternative. Hummm!