It seems you can barely pick up a newspaper at the moment without reading that such and such a Christian has been suspended or sacked for speaking about their faith or praying, or that a Christian organisation has been denied funding or told to take down a cross or other religious symbol, etc, etc. These stories are being seized upon to suggest that Christians in the UK are becoming a persecuted minority.
I have three issues with this. The first is that Christians in the UK seem all too readily to be buying in to the cult of the victim that has overtaken Western culture in the last two or three decades. It seems unless you are from a persecuted minority, you have nothing of value to say about life, so everyone seeks to be a victimised minority – including now white heterosexual males and Christians. In fact, the result of this is to trivialise the genuine suffering of minority groups that are excluded by wider society, and leads to a negative mentality that looks for signs of offence or exclusion when there may not be any.
Secondly, this trivialises the genuine persecution that fellow Christians do experience in many parts of the world. It is a widely quoted statistic that there have been more Christian martyrs in the twentieth century than in all the history of Christianity in the previous 19 centuries. If that is true then the reality of persecution is not trivial. It involves people being imprisoned, tortured and murdered or executed for their faith – and there is plenty of documentary evidence that this is happening in many countries of the world even as I write (see the Persecuted Church Blog as one example). To suggest what Christians are experiencing in this country goes anywhere near that is, frankly, arrant nonsense.
Finally, labelling this as persecution misses the point. What is happening is a complex readjustment from a culture where the Christian church was seen as mainstream and privileged, to one where it is but one of a plurality of religious and secular voices. It is a confused time, and a confused process – neither Christians nor secular culture really know how it works any more – the rule books are not only ripped up, but are being re-written by different people in different places in different ways. As a result some silly cases do occur, and people genuinely fall foul of the system.
There are genuine cases of discrimination, based on Christians stepping outside the boundaries, or by secular authorities not being sure what the boundaries are and tightening them unnecessarily. There is no doubt that some of the cases cited show examples of genuine discrimination and prejudice against Christians. What they do not add up to is a systematic persecution of the church in modern Britain.
The example that I am closest to is that of the nurse suspended for offering to pray for a patient. The story is reported in detail here, and what emerges is less persecution of a nurse offering care to her patient than a misunderstanding over the role of spirituality in nursing care. Nursing has deep roots in the Christian faith, and unlike medicine has always tended to see people as whole human beings rather than isolated systems. Nurses are required to assess and care for the spiritual needs of their patients in the same way as their physical, social and psychological care. But they are not well taught in how to do this. When a nurse asks a patient if they want prayer, it should be in the context of an assessment of the wider spiritual needs of that individual – but only once it is clear that the patient has a faith and/or would appreciate some support in that area. To suspend a nurse for making such an enquiry was based on a misunderstanding what was going on. Her reinstatement was with explicit guidelines about the context within which that enquiry into a patient's needs was made, and the misunderstanding has been cleared up in this instance. That I know of other cases where this is still happening shows that there is a long way to go!
A lack of training in spiritual care means that hospital chaplains do not get asked to see patients who want to see them, because the nursing staff do not want to explore that issue, either through a lack of personal understanding or a lack of training and awareness. A recent Nursing Times survey highlights this problem – with a majority of nurses seeing prayer as a appropriate care in the right context, but expressing a concern that they are not well enough trained nor do they have adequate guidelines in which to conduct spiritual care.
As we have become a more secular and pluralist society, we have not become any less human and spiritual, but it has become more complex to address those needs. We need a new engagement by our healthcare system, and by all levels of society, with the spiritual reality of our human nature.
We need not be fearful or apologetic about this. A recent poll suggests that the majority of the population would like to see faith at the centre of our ethical and legal frameworks as a nation - indeed even amongst members of Britain's non-Christian faith communities there seems to be a support for a Christian framework to remain central. It is interesting that secular India keeps a religious framework at the centre of its national identity, and does so as a one of the most culturally and religiously plural nations on Earth. Maybe we have lessons to learn about holding the tension between secular and spiritual from the developing world?
As Christians we should not be sitting on the sidelines in all of this, pointing to all the injustices we are apparently suffering, but rather we should be using these cases as opportunities to show grace and engage with the secular systems, helping them to see that there are gaps in their understanding and provision that we, among others, can help them bridge.