Comment on the Commments
William Oddie FAITH MAGAZINE March-April 2013
Well, now. President Morsi of Egypt is due to meet President Obama, possibly in March. Jordan Sekulow thinks (writing of the case of Nadia Mohamed AN) that the US State Department should play "more of a role in discouraging this kind of persecution. The US should not be an idle bystander. The US provides more than $1bn to Egypt each year. The State Department should speak out forcefully against this kind of religious persecution in Egypt."
But will it? Will President Obama use that billion dollars (which he will add, don't forget, to America's multitrillion-dollar deficit) to bring pressure on Morsi to protect his own Christian minority, Obama's fellow Christians? Does the "devout" Barack Obama give a flying fig about his brothers and sisters (even his sisters and brothers) in Christ?
Of course, no other Western leader has attempted to defend the Copts, either. But no other Western leader has described himself as a "devout" Christian, certainly not David Cameron, though Cameron does say he's a believer, of sorts.
"I believe in God and I'm a Christian and I worship - not as regularly as I should, but I go to church," he said. "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."
Not, though, so much part of who he is as to make him want to defend his fellow Christians in Egypt against persecution. He's a Tory so he's a Christian seems almost to be what he's saying. David Miliband, unlike his two immediate predecessors as Labour leader is an atheist, and so is Nick Clegg. The real point is that so far as their social beliefs and values are concerned, all three of our party leaders are as alike as peas in a pod.
Take the recent appeals of four Christians, considered together by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, three of which the Court rejected, one of which it upheld. By a majority of five to two, judges of the European Court of Human Rights supported the claim of Nadia Eweida, a BA check-in clerk who was sent home in November 2006 for refusing to remove a small silver crucifix, that this was a violation of her rights. Mr Cameron duly tweeted that he was "delighted that the principle of wearing religious symbols at work has been upheld". The genial Eric Pickles said that he too was delighted.
But what about the three Christians whose claims were rejected by the court? Cameron and Pickles said nothing about them; nor, in most reports that I heard, did the BBC (later it mentioned them in passing).
The court ruled against Shirley Chaplin, a nurse who was told to remove a crucifix necklace at work. The judges said Chaplin's employer banned necklaces for health and safety grounds, so asking her to remove the symbol was not excessive - though how this argument could be seriously upheld, when after a nursing career of 30 years not a single incident had occurred remotely involving her crucifix in either health or safety, beats me.
The judges also rejected the claims of Lillian Ladele, a local authority registrar who said her Christian faith prevented her from overseeing same-sex civil partnerships, and Gary McFarlane, a marriage counsellor who refused to offer sex therapy to gay couples. In both cases, the court argued that employers had been entitled to strike a balance between claimants' rights to manifest their religious beliefs and the rights of others not to suffer discrimination.
Freedom of religion, they piously intoned, is "an essential part of the identity of believers and one of the foundations of pluralistic, democratic societies ... However, where an individual's religious observance impinges on the rights of others, some restrictions can be made."
But exactly how does refusing to conduct a same-sex civil partnership ceremony, or refusing to give sex therapy to gay couples, impinge on anyone's rights? There are plenty of registrars prepared to carry out this procedure (which did not exist when Ladele became a registrar): and the couples involved would have been quite unaware even of Lillian Ladele's existence, let alone of her views on civil partnerships.
As for giving "sex therapy" to gay couples, how on earth would a heterosexual person remotely know how to do that? And would a gay couple having difficulties in that department really want the advice of someone so totally unqualified to give it? Would a heterosexual couple want the advice of a gay sex therapist? So why did Relate fire Gary McFarlane in the first place?
And why exactly didn't David Cameron and Eric Pickles support them? Even in the case of Nadia Eweida, are we not entitled to doubt their sincerity? If Cameron, in particular, is so keen on religious liberty, whatever happened to his promise to legislate to protect it? This is yet another promise which has not been and probably will not be kept. And more to the point, why were government lawyers sent to Strasbourg to argue against all four claimants, including Nadia Eweida?
This is what James Eadie QC, Cameron's Government's expensive barrister, told the court (on his behalf): that the refusal to allow an NHS nurse and a British Airways worker to visibly wear a crucifix at work "did not prevent either of them practising religion in private", which would be protected by human rights law.
He argued that a Christian facing problems at work with religious expression needed to consider their position and that they were not discriminated against if they still had "the choice of leaving their job and finding new employment". The essential thing, of course, however hard it may seem at first, is to see this marginalisation not as a sign of defeat but as the opportunity predicted more than 40 years ago by the present Holy Father:
"The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning... As the number of her adherents diminishes ... she will lose many of her social privileges... It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallisation and clarification will cost her much valuable energy...
But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualised and simplified Church... And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith.
She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man's home, where he will find life and hope beyond death."
It has become a famous passage; but how are we to respond to its challenge? It is undoubtedly full of hope; but it warns us, in an almost Churchillian way, of struggles and apparent defeat ahead before the "fresh blossoming", the broad sunlit uplands, of life in the true "Church of Faith" of the future."
The wonderful thing about this visionary pope, though, is that even as he looks towards the struggles we will all have to go through, he makes real and convincing his vision of the future: he works it into the present reality in which we already live. We only need to know that these things are true, and that he has seen this future; and lo, it is so.