As we reported in the last round-up, former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey of Clifton wrote a blast in last Saturday’s Daily Mail about Christians feeling that they were a “persecuted minority”. He quoted a poll by ComRes (also reported in the Mail) to the effect that two-thirds of Christians feel that they are part of a persecuted minority. According to the report,
“[t]he ComRes poll of 535 regular churchgoers, commissioned by the Coalition for Marriage (C4M), reveals that more than two-thirds (67 per cent) of Christians feel that they are part of a ‘persecuted minority’”.
The report also says that
“… if trends continue, Britain will no longer be a Christian country by 2030 when the number of non-believers will have overtaken the number of Christians. In the past six years the number of Muslims has surged by 37 per cent to 2.6 million, Hindus by 43 per cent and Buddhists by a massive 74 per cent. Numbers who choose to call themselves Christians fell by more than 4 million in a decade after 2001, the 2011 census showed. Fewer than six out of ten – 59.3 per cent – described themselves as Christian. A decade ago nearly three quarters, 72 per cent, did so. Some 33.2 million people said they were Christian in 2011”.
You can see the poll results on the ComRes website here. The first point to make about it is that 535 seems a small sample and one would like to know on what basis it was assembled. Secondly, what is regular churchgoing for the purpose of the sample? Every week? Every month? Four times a year? Finally, whom did the pollsters regard as “Christians” for the purposes of their poll: did ComRes include Unitarians, Quakers (of whom I’m one), Christian Scientists, Christadelphians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other fringe groups that the mainstream Trinitarian Churches tend to regard with a degree of doctrinal suspicion?
As to the Mail’s analysis, it made much of the fact that the 2011 Census data revealed that there are more Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists in the UK than there were six years ago. But we already knew that: it’s partly, in the case of Muslims and Hindus, because of a lower age-profile and higher fertility-rates and possibly, in the case of Buddhists especially, because of conversions. So? We live in a (fairly) free society, don’t we: Article 9 ECHR and all that? Precisely what concrete policy initiatives does the Mail propose, or is the whole thing just a bit of ritual Right-wing hand-wringing?
But to return to Lord Carey, he concedes that the fears expressed in the ComRes poll by more than two-thirds of Christians that they are part of a “persecuted minority” may be exaggerated “because few in the UK are actually persecuted”. But, nevertheless, he contends that “the Prime Minister has done more than any other recent political leader to feed these anxieties”, whether real or imagined. In support, he cites what he evidently regards as a series of actions that suggest that David Cameron is less supportive of Christianity than he might be:
- that in Eweida & Ors the Government’s legal team argued against Ms Chaplin and Ms Eweida;
- that the Equalities Minister, Helen Grant, has (apparently) supported the campaign of the MP for Rhondda, Chris Bryant, to turn the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft in the Houses of Parliament into a multi-faith prayer room so that same-sex couples would be able to marry there; and
- the Government’s plans for same-sex marriage, behind which “lurks an aggressive secularist and relativist approach towards an institution that has glued society together for time immemorial” and the absence of any conscience clause for registrars and school-teachers in relation to the proposals.
He also suggests that
“By dividing marriage into religious and civil the Government threatens the church and state link which they purport to support. But they also threaten to empty marriage of its fundamental religious and civic meaning as an institution orientated towards the upbringing of children”.
Needless to say, Downing Street strongly rejected Lord Carey’s attack. A spokesman said:
“This government strongly backs faith and Christianity in particular, including backing the rights of people wanting to wear crosses at work and hold prayers at council meetings. Christianity plays a vital part in the Big Society”.
Comment: I suspect that the underlying problem is that the nature of society in the United Kingdom (or at least in England and Wales) is changing in ways that Lord Carey would prefer it did not. If the number of people who declared themselves to be of no religion in the last Census went up, surely that is precisely because the number of people who declared themselves to be of no religion in the last Census went up – not because the Government of the day told them what to think or how to reply to the Census question on religion. The decline might be a symptom of increasing secularisation or it might simply be that people who do not have any religious views feel less diffident nowadays about saying so than they did hitherto – but, whatever the reason, it’s no use moaning about it.
Secondly, I do not understand how the Government’s proposals for same-sex marriage (whatever other criticisms may one have of them – and I have at least two of my own) threaten the link between the Church of England and the state. (Incidentally, is anyone seriously suggesting that the Scottish Government’s proposals for same-sex marriage threaten the link between the Church of Scotland and the state?)
Finally, one of the points of contention is that
“[c]ritics say court rulings against Christians who want to wear crosses at work, and legal action preventing prayers before council meetings, have helped make people feel marginalised”.
Possibly – or possibly not. But it wasn’t the Government that tried to prevent Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin from wearing crosses or crucifixes with their uniforms, it was BA plc and Devon & Exeter NHS Trust (and, it should be remembered, Devon & Exeter offered to let Ms Chaplin wear her crucifix as a brooch instead of on a chain round her neck). Similarly, the Government had nothing to do with the dispute about prayers before council meetings: it was the National Secular Society and a former Bideford Town Councillor that brought the case – see  EWHC 175 (Admin) – and the Government was mightily displeased at the outcome.
Once issues of conscience or religious observance get before the courts they simply have to do their job and set about applying the law as they understand it, objectively and “without fear or favour, affection or ill-will”. It’s what Conor Gearty has dubbed ‘The Important Inconvenience of the Rule of Law’ – and even if Governments of whatever political persuasion sometimes find it damned annoying, it’s crucial as the underpinning of a free(ish) society.