There’s been a lot of talk over recent weeks about religion in general, and Christianity in particular being under attack.
A number of events have contributed to this contention.
There was the decision by the High Court that it was not lawful for Bideford Town Council to include prayers on the formal agenda of meetings which all councillors were summoned to attend. In spite of the fact that the judges decided that having prayers didn’t breach anyones human rights or discriminate against non-Christians, and was decided on the technical interpretation of a clause in the Local Government Act, it was hailed as a victory by the National Secular Society and an attempt to outlaw religion in public life by some clergy and politicians.
It was neither. Many councils still have prayers at the start of meetings. Most have them before the formal agenda business starts, so that attendance is voluntary. I was invited to say prayers before the meeting of our local district council once, when a parishioner was leader of the council; I tried to do so tactfully, so as to include members of other faiths. Those who didn’t want to pray entered after prayers. I gather from a current councillor that ministers of different world faiths are invited to take the prayers these days. That is how it should be. The Bideford case seems to me to be a case of two groups each trying to impose their beliefs on others. The only people who have gained from this case were the lawyers, and I hope the people of Bideford will decline to vote for both the councillor who brought the action, and the councillors who chose to defend it (and may appeal) when the next elections come round.
Christianity has a very privileged position in this country, and the Church of England is particularly privileged. The monarch must belong to our church, and bishops are part of the legislature, with the power to delay or amend legislation. Collective worship must be ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’ and the C of E administers many schools supported by the state. Although the majority don’t belong to the Anglican Church, very few actually want to change this state of affairs. When it comes to the crunch, people like to have the church there, particularly at times of personal or national tragedy and rejoicing. Those who believe the Christian faith is under attack really ought to look abroad, to places where Christians are unable to follow their religion openly, or evangelise, and who are in constant danger of being imprisoned or killed.
A second event which prompted headlines about religion being under attack was the publication of a survey carried out under the auspices of the Foundation for Reason and Science led by Richard Dawkins, which tried to prove that the people who put down “Christian’ as their religion in the 2011 census weren’t really Christians at all. This was because they didn’t know certain facts, or believe certain things which Dawkins had decided were what made a ‘real’ Christian.
When I heard about the survey, I immediately thought of that episode from the classic comedy “Yes, Prime Minister’ when Sir Humphrey demonstrated that it is possible to get any answer you want from an opinion survey if you ask the right questions in the right order.
This should be compulsory viewing for everyone who argues for any change based on survey results in my opinion!
All that the survey demonstrated is that people who call themselves Christians have a wide variety of believes, and some have very little knowledge of the Bible or even of the core doctrines of the creeds. Anyone who belongs to any Christian congregation could have told them that! But it is not up to Richard Dawkins to say that someone is not a proper Christian because they don’t know that Matthew is the first book of the New Testament, any more than it is up to me to say that Richard Dawkins is not a proper evolutionary scientist because he couldn’t quote the full title of ‘Origin of Species’ or a true atheist because he exclaimed “Oh God!” when he couldn’t.
I really think it’s time for religious believers, and Christians in particular, to become more relaxed about challenges to their faith or to their privileged position in society. The Queen demonstrated with her speech at Lambeth Palace earlier this week the important place that all religions have in the life of this country, and the special role that Christianity and the Church of England have in protecting that place. If religion didn’t have such a strong position, it wouldn’t be worth non-believers attacking it – especially not when they are a small minority like secular atheists.