Things have come to a pretty poor pass when, in a country whose history, landscape, literature and laws is so immersed in the Christian faith, we find that Christian believers feel forced to hide their beliefs in the workplace.
Society is increasingly illiterate about religious faith. Despite the fact that a knowledge of religion is an ever-more important key to understanding the world around us, especially in the Middle East, expressions of religious opinion or practice are often misunderstood or provoke discomfort, anxiety and even hostility, rather than toleration.
A report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (Religion or belief in the workplace) has found that many religious believers, and some atheists and humanists, have encountered misunderstanding and outright discrimination in the workplace. Taking testimony from nearly 2,500 people, the EHRC discovered that both employers and employees were fearful and confused about the expression of faith and the framework of equality law.
This much-needed report has followed a number of highly publicised court cases that began when employees were asked to remove crosses, or there have been clashes between the competing rights of minorities in equality law.
There are the usual misunderstandings and confusions about the celebration of Christmas, such as the law firm that renamed its Christmas Party the “End of Year Party” to avoid offending people of other faiths. There has been much publicity about the banning and re-branding of Christmas many times before. Yet I have never found a single Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist who was offended by someone wishing them a “Happy Christmas”.
In fact, the main hostility towards religious believers comes from a very small minority of bigoted atheists who seek to banish all religious belief from public life completely. One family reported that a teacher told a class of children that people who believed God created the universe are “religious nutters”. A girl who retorted that she believed in such a God was then ridiculed in front of her classmates. Other examples include the banning of Catholic jewellery such as crucifixes in a workplace where piercings and tattoos were permitted.
Many other believers report self-censoring in the workplace; where, in the past, they’d have happily talked about their church-going habits and matters of faith, the atmosphere is now colder towards them.
I believe that they should not be so discouraged. There are ways to speak sensibly and sensitively about faith without provoking hostility or confusion in others. One of my most formative life-lessons was when I started my national service in the RAF. I was a new Christian and my rather authoritarian evangelical vicar told me before I started, “George, don’t be ashamed of your faith. When lights go out, kneel by your bed and say your prayers.” This seemed easy enough to agree to when in church, but in that crowded billet surrounded by the high-spirited banter of young men, I was in turmoil as I knelt and spent several minutes in prayer. There were no adverse reactions, and I made many friends because of that practice. There was just the occasional missile thrown at me.
Decades later, just before I retired as Archbishop of Canterbury, one man wrote to me at Lambeth Palace to enquire whether I was the “George” who knelt to pray in the barrack room decades before. This had impressed and influenced him, he wrote. I say this not to boast, because as a young man I was in fear and trembling, but because this very fear can be disabling to the expression of our most closely held principles and beliefs.
Indeed, I would argue that now, more than ever, we need Christian people to speak up for their faith, to articulate their beliefs in sensible and courteous ways. Our society needs a reminder of our foundational beliefs in honesty, faithfulness, right and wrong.
It is right to listen and respect a variety of viewpoints and beliefs that are all brushing against each other in a plural society. By the same token, there should be no apology by Christian people when they speak out about their beliefs.
So I say to Christians of all denominations: don’t be intimidated by a hostile workplace and challenge the hostility with good humour. Regain your confidence in a loving and forthright faith. And speak of it. It is simply a matter of freedom of speech.
George Leonard Carey, Baron Carey of Clifton is a retired Anglican bishop who was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1991 to 2002.