Mary Kenny: Christians are at their best when persecuted, marginalised, disrespected and denied their rights
In cosy arrangements with power, or social acceptance by the Establishment, churches grow arrogant and complacent
The former Archbishop of Canterbury -- that is, the leader of Anglicans worldwide -- George Carey, with six other senior Church of England bishops, has accused Gordon Brown's government of "persecuting" Christians in Britain.
The main case of contention centres on a "dedicated nurse", Shirley Chaplin, who is taking her local National Health Hospital trust to a tribunal for removing her from patient care. Mrs Chaplin's offence was to wear a crucifix around her neck while nursing. Carey points out that the lady has worn the said crucifix ever since her girlhood Confirmation.
He and his colleagues (the Bishops of Winchester, Chester, Hereford, Blackburn, Litchfield and the former Bishop of Rochester) have concluded that, on a range of issues, Christians in Britain are being discriminated against.
People of other faiths are permitted to wear the emblems of their religions -- the Sikh turban, the Islamic niqab, even the Jewish star of David -- causing no objections. Christians, alone, are asked to remove "offensive" religious symbols.
In addition, say their Lordships, other elements of Christian rights have been constantly eroded. Christian faith schools are to have government-controlled sex education programme foisted on them (although the British government has a lamentable record of lowering young teenage pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases).
Catholic adoption agencies have been all but closed down because of their quaint principle that abandoned or difficult-to-place children are better off with a mother and a father in a stable marriage rather than with Bruce and Keith in their civil partnership.
The collective of bishops probably do have a point when they mention bureaucratic discrimination against Christians, in contrast to bend-over-backwards tolerance of other faiths. This is now the entrenched thinking of political correctness: that a young girl who insists on wearing a burka to school is only "affirming her culture", whereas a young female who wears a crucifix is offending against secular neutrality. (Unless, like Madonna, she is sporting the crucifix as an ironic mockery, or, like Liz Hurley, as an iconic bit of bling.)
But political correctness is not always wrong in its instincts. Sometimes it is only trying to reverse past trends, or give a sporting chance to a previous underdog. The tolerance extended to Islam in Britain is partly because immigrants such as Pakistanis were often the butt of racism in the past, and contemptuously called "Pakis" by stand-up comedians.
There is, of course, a political reason to be nice to Islam, too -- in Labour marginal areas of Lancashire and Yorkshire, the Islamic constituency is significant and has consistently delivered the Labour vote. (Perhaps there is also a third reason: you don't want to be the object of a fatwa or a suicide bomber.)
Christians, on the other hand -- and certainly Anglicans, who are backed by history and the weight of an Established church -- have been in a favoured position for centuries. So why shouldn't they take their turn, now, at being the underdog?
Moreover, is it such a bad thing for Christians to be persecuted? Have the Anglican hierarchy somehow got it into their heads that being a Christian is about attaining the glittering prizes in life, a cosy seat in the House of Lords and "respect" from all? I don't think that is mentioned in the New Testament. Quite the contrary.
Jesus Christ didn't say: "Follow me and you will get access to human rights, respect and lack of discrimination." The words attributed to the Nazarene are: "Take up your cross and follow me." He goes on to say that "the world will hate you" for being a Christian. And that is what you must expect -- and accept, indeed.
Looking at the evidence, you might conclude that it is rather good for Christians to be persecuted. The early Christians were thrown to lions, and it was their inspirational conduct that gained converts. The example of their perfect charity and kindness towards one another worked miracles even among their persecutors -- "see how these Christians love one another" -- rather than the granting of "rights" by the authorities.
The Irish Catholic Church was probably at its best when Mass had to be said secretly, or on some wild rock away from view; and the priests, in consequence, were the courageous and self-sacrificing leaders of their people, described so poignantly in the prose of Daniel Corkery (or even in the 19th century poem by John Banim, 'Soggart Aroon').
THE Polish Catholic Church was never better, never more courageous and principled than under Stalinism -- and was pretty heroic in the Third Reich, too, led by the example of a Polish priest who voluntarily gave up his life to save a Jewish prisoner (and the father of a family) in the concentration camps.
In cosy arrangements with power, or social acceptance by an Establishment, churches and their prelates grow arrogant and complacent. Because that is the common flaw in human nature, and it applies to all other institutions, too -- banks, trade unions, sport, political organisations and social workers. Power and privilege corrupt.
The Church of England has many decent people in it, but when it was at the zenith of its power, it did not always behave decently. It was, and to some extent remains, riven by an unlovely class-consciousness that places the squire above the labourer in the ranks.
I suggest that George Carey and his cohorts are wrong. Christians are at their best when persecuted, marginalised, disrespected and denied rights. Rather than suing the Devon and Exeter NHS trust, Shirley Chaplin should willingly step forward and accept the martyr's crown that she has implicitly embraced with the sign of the cross.