Is Britain really marginalising Christianity or, worse still, developing an antagonism towards Christianity? Is this just paranoia on the part of “Disgusted of Tonbridge” who is an avid reader of the Daily Telegraph? A recent ComRes poll found that 75% of churchgoers believe anti-Christian attitudes are growing and 66% believe there is more discrimination against Christianity than other faiths.
David Suchet said: “Christianity is being marginalised.” Cherie Blair said: “Christians are often being marginalised and faith is something few people like to discuss openly.” Baroness Warsi spoke of “a growing intolerance and illiberal attitude towards those who believe in God.”
What are the facts?
There is no doubt about it that there are a growing number of worrying trends:
1. Christians being disciplined or taken to court for expressing their faith.
- A Christian nurse suspended for offering to pray for a patient’s recovery.
- A Christian school receptionist disciplined for emailing church friends about her young daughter being reprimanded for conveying to a fellow-pupil that Christianity is true.
- A Christian foster carer struck off for allowing a Muslim teenager in her care to convert to Christianity.
- A Christian British Airways worker, disciplined for not hiding a cross she had on her necklace.
- Christian hoteliers charged with a public order offence for criticising Islam.
- And so on …. Although it took place in America, it is likely to happen here: a young single Christian woman advertised in her church for a Christian roommate and was taken to court for expressing “an illegal preference for a Christian roommate, thus excluding people of other faiths”.
- 2. Local councils preventing Christians advertising Christian events.
- Brighton Christian prevented from advertising a Christian event in her local library because the council does “not accept any material promoting a particular religious view point.”
- Sunderland church prevented from putting up a church poster because it may offend other faiths.
- Sunderland church banned from advertising the Women’s World Day of Prayer in libraries. (Local Sunderland Muslims and Sikhs criticised both these bans).
- Churches in two areas prevented from advertising a meeting about Religion and Climate Change in libraries unless they removed the words “Christian” and “God.”
- 3. Minimising major Christian festivals
- For some time certain councils have tried to ban the use of the term “Christmas” and to replace it with some rather silly secular term. A gvernment minister commented: “Can you honestly tell me someone has ever said to you ‘Merry Winter-ice’? No they have not. Winter festivals exist only in the minds of beanbag-sitting weirdos.”
- A survey discovered that a third of schools were moving to a fixed Spring break, many of them not coinciding with Easter.
- The C of E launched The Real Easter Egg which bears a hill with three crosses and has an explanation that Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and resurrected on Easter Day. But they have discovered that supermarkets are reluctant to sell them.
It may be thought that these three examples are relatively superficial but I’ll return to this later.
4. The failure of schools to teach the Christian Faith
- OFSTED has reported that schools are failing in RE. The teaching is superficial: “In many cases, the study of Jesus focused on an unsystematic collection of information about his life, with limited reference to his theological significance within the faith”. The report was based on a study of some 200 schools in 70 local authorities, which included attendance at over 600 RE lessons between 2006 and 2009.
- The 2009 National Biblical Literacy Survey 2009 polled more than 900 people and found 60 per cent knew nothing about the Good Samaritan, and 57 per cent were ignorant of Joseph and his brothers.
- Another survey, discovered that the Lord’s Prayer was no longer being taught in many primary schools.
Educationally, this does not make sense. A person cannot claim to be educated if s/he does not understand the major role Christianity played in the history and developing culture of this nation, quite apart from the fact that a person who does not have good grasp of religion cannot claim to be properly educated. Even to reject religion intelligently requires a good knowledge of what one is rejecting. Otherwise it is merely anti-religious prejudice or unthinking apathy.
5. The decline of religion on television
The General Synod of the Church of England expressed deep concern about this. It resulted from a private member’s motion from Nigel Holmes, an ex-BBC radio producer. He said that “in television, lack of innovation combined with marginalised scheduling” suggests TV controllers had largely “shunned” spiritual subjects. He added that over the past decade ITV had “virtually withdrawn” from religion whilst televised worship was “seldom” shown on the BBC.
6. The widespread apathy about Christianity
- Christians frequently claim that the majority of the country, especially the young, are apathetic about Christianity. A recent book The Faith of Generation Y, a sociological study of 300 youngsters born after 1982 states that this age group are “benignly indifferent to religion.”
7. The views of political leaders
Our political leaders, like everyone else, have the freedom to choose their own religious views. Ed Miliband, although he comes from a Jewish background, said: “I don’t believe in God personally but I have great respect for those people who do.” Nick Clegg said the same thing, but added: “I’m married to a Catholic and am committed to bringing my children up as Catholics. However, I myself am not an active believer, but the last thing I would do when talking or thinking about religion is approach it with a closed heart or a closed mind.” David Cameron said in an interview: “I believe in God and I’m a Christian and I worship – not as regularly as I should – but I go to church. Do I drop to my knees and ask for guidance whenever an issue comes up? No, I don’t. But it’s part of who I am.” However, their views will influence their opinions and actions in certain ways, try as they may to be objective. So, for example, Ed Miliband was against the free speech law which allows Christians and others to express the opinion that homosexual practice is wrong. Were the law to be changed, that could create real difficulties for many Christians.
On the other hand, Baroness Warsi criticised the previous Labour Government for marginalising faith and encouraging intellectuals who sustain “a vocabulary of secularist intolerance.” She also criticised “secular fundamentalists” who claimed faith communities were intolerant and exclusive in their welfare provision. She referred to research by York University which showed they were more open and inclusive than other agencies.
Labour party member Andy Burnham acknowledged that the previous government marginalized Christianity.
Other politicians take the view summed up by the Lord Mayor of Leicester who has written: “I am delighted to confirm that I …. will be exercising my discretion as Lord Mayor to abolish the outdated, unnecessary and intrusive practice [of prayers before the Council meetings]. I personally consider that religion, in whatever shape or form, has no role to play at all in the conduct of council business.” The Lord Mayor is to be congratulated on showing his ignorance of what religion is and his total disregard for the historic culture of this country in such a succinct way.
However, there is some good news to balance the negatives:
1. The majority of Britons consider themselves Christian
A 2010 survey found that 65% of the population consider themselves Christians. Nevertheless average weekly attendance in the Church of England fell from 1,160,000 in 2007 to 1,145,000 now. However the average number of children and young people in services each week rose from 219,000 in 2007 to 225,000 now. Overall 10% of the UK population attend church regularly and a further 15% attend occasionally.
The Church’s head of Research and Statistics, the Rev Lynda Barley, said: “We live in a society where people are reluctant to belong or become members of anything. Political parties have seen their membership fall by around 40 per cent in recent years. You could say that that phenomenon is true in all sorts of areas. I think the only membership organisation we found that was growing was the National Trust.”
2. Record numbers choose to do RE
The number taking GCSE RE has increased for the 12th year running, with a 3.5 per cent growth from last year to 188,704 students. RE has entered the top 10 league table of subjects in terms of the number of candidates, and remains in the top five of growing subjects.
For the last seven years the number of students taking Religious Studies A-level, has increased by 47.3% overall.
In another survey 75% of respondents said they owned a Bible and 31% said the Bible was significant in their lives.
It is easy for Christians to become paranoid and imagine that things are worse than they are. If two thirds of the population claim to be Christians (whether or not they understand what that entails), three quarters own a Bible with a third saying it is significant in their lives, it is difficult to conclude that the whole country is deliberately marginalizing Christianity or even antagonistic towards it.
However, there are powerful anti-Christian forces at work. I have long maintained that in the church there are liberal liberals (people who have liberal views but respect and tolerate conservatives) and illiberal liberals (those who are intolerant and antagonistic towards conservatives). Doubtless there is the same distinction in society with secularists. Liberal secularists are genuinely atheistic or agnostic but show respect and tolerance towards religious people. But there are also some very influential illiberal secularists – “secular fundamentalists” – who are antagonistic towards religion and are seeking to marginalize and exclude Christians. Some politicians, educationalists, journalists and other media people and even judges are secular fundamentalists, and they are have enormous and increasing influence in our nation which, although nominally Christian is in many ways post-Christian.
It does not help that many of those calling themselves Christians do not appreciate the essential corporate nature of Christianity which makes the church crucial. Without perhaps meaning to, these people can contribute to the marginalization of the church and of organized religion.
Is Britain anti-Christian? Most British people are not but the overall trend is increasing antagonism towards Christianity and Christians need to be aware of it. The church should not seek political power or to coerce individuals. Such power-seeking is alien to Christianity and has led to various evils in the past. But, Christians should take a stand to preserve freedom of religion and freedom to evangelize (respectfully and without pressure). However much we should respect other faiths, we must work to preserve the right to say (again respectfully and sensitively) that Jesus is the only Saviour. [Written in 2013]
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction