George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, says Christians are being vilified, being persecuted and driven underground, in a way that homosexuals once were, according to the Daily Telegraph

I barely know where to begin to respond to this. “Oh, dear,” hardly seems enough. Forget for a moment that homosexuals may well see themselves as being vilified, persecuted and driven underground and that by certain sections of the church. Forget Carey’s own negative views on homosexuality.  Forget all that. And then ask, “What is he talking about?”

A major example seems to be that someone was forced out of her employment for refusing to take off her cross at work. Surely that is persecution? Well, no. On several counts, no. Why? Principally because her offence was wearing jewellery. It was the fact that it was jewellery not the nature of the jewellery that caused the difficulty. The bugs that cause so many problems in our hospitals are no respecters of religious traditions; they can as easily travel about on a cross as a Star of David, a St Christopher or a locket containing a picture of Justin Bieber. The rules of which she fell foul are designed to protect patients not to persecute people. The only things being persecuted are bugs, and I assume no-one objects to that.

But, it seems that Lord Carey, from his persecuted position in the House of Lords – (many persecuted people end up in prisons or unmarked graves, but I guess being in the House of Lords must have its down side) – says:

“I have no doubt that those who have tried to impose restrictions on the wearing of crosses are either deliberately or inadvertently attempting to sideline the Christian faith,” he said.

Now, excuse me if I’m being dim but since when was it a necessary part of being Christian to wear a cross? The earliest sign that Christians used to identify themselves was perhaps the fish, with its acrostic message meaning: “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour.” But even that wasn’t in its earliest days a personal sign to be worn on one’s clothing; instead, I think, it signified a meeting place.

I have in the past worn a “fish” badge as a mark of my faith. I now sometimes wear a small leather cross but more often wear my dog collar making it particularly obvious what I am. I do it so that people can identify me as I go about my ministry not really as advertising. I was once, wearing my collar under my rugby supporter shirt, listening over a post-match pint to a rugby player sharing some personal issues with me. Over the second pint, and deep into his sharing, he suddenly said, “Here, you are a real vicar, aren’t you?” Assured I was, he carried on. I wear my collar for others, not for me. I do not feel persecuted and aside from the odd rude shout in the street I don’t experience much in the way of negativity for being Christian, at least from outside the church. My biggest difficulty in publicly identifying myself as Christian is the idea that people who don’t know me will make judgments about what I think on the basis of the comments and views of others, particularly the more noisy of my brothers and sisters who seem to provide ready fodder for the front pages of certain newspapers. I am, of course, fortunate to minister in an area where I am well known among a smallish population.

In any case, what does wearing a cross signify? Well, not much actually as some people who have no faith wear crosses as items of jewellery. If we want to show that we are followers of Jesus there is no better way than actually being one. Love one another, said Jesus. Love one another as I have loved you. Wear a cross? No. Take up your cross? Yes. Love one another as I have loved you.

Will it stop you being persecuted? No. In fact, if we live the compassion and justice that Jesus lived we might invite opposition. But at least we would be opposed for being Christ-like rather than for wearing jewellery – there is a world of difference.

Post-script on Easter Saturday 2013

George Carey reprised his views on the persecution of Christians in Britain in an article this weekend in the Daily Mail:

His attack on the Prime Minister puts me in the unusual position, for me, of defending Mr Cameron but I do so believing that our esteemed former Archbishop is wrong. He attacks Mr Cameron for promoting an aggressive secularisation. He says that Mr Cameron supports the rights of Christians to practise their faith, but that many Christians doubt his sincerity. Well, unusually as I say, I am on the side of Mr C here. I do not believe he wants to stop Christians exercising our faith. What Lord Carey is really agitated about is the possibility of gay marriage which, for some reason, he believes will have a negative effect on heterosexual marriage. (I can’t even begin to get my head round that one.) The real problem here is that Lord Carey desires a position in the national dialogue for Christianity which numerically we no longer merit if ever we did (theologically, that is, not numerically). The fact that he speaks as a member of the House of Lords is surely proof that Christianity holds a place in the national life through the Church of England that is not accorded to other denominations or faiths, and that we are hardly marginalised let alone persecuted. This is clearly not enough, however, even though it gives an opportunity to put a particular religious viewpoint across on the national stage. Lord Carey is clearly disappointed that his view is no longer the dominant one, but, hey, that’s democracy. And just to be clear and democratic:  Lord Carey does not speak for all Christians when he opposes gay marriage.

The fact is, as Giles Fraser makes clear,

“we are in an increasingly secular society”, Christianity is “not the dominant narrative” and that’s “just how it is.” We need to stop whingeing and get on with living our faith as we see it, and if we don’t like the law of the land (and, by the way, it does not do, Lord Carey, to dismiss democratically enacted law as mere “political correctness”) then we are at liberty to speak and act against it (and here I agree with Lord Carey’s right to speak), and to face the consequences if we cannot in all conscience accede to those laws. What we are not at liberty to do is to expect or attempt to force others to follow our point of view merely because we consider it right.

As a post script of my own: Christianity had its beginnings as a minority faith, and there are many of us who believe that getting into bed with Constantine and state power in the early 4th century was a wrong turning from which we have never recovered. Finding ourselves as a minority again may just be the best thing that has happened to us for a millennium and a half! We have an opportunity to learn anew from that humble Galilean carpenter rabbi. If we are serious about living the Jesus way, then let’s take that opportunity with all our attention and effort. Meanwhile, let’s cut the carping and crank up the compassion for our neighbours.

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