Lord Bates is a Vice Chairman of the 'Christians in Parliament' All Party Parliamentary Group. He was the Conservative Member of Parliament for Langbaurgh 1992-7, and Paymaster General 1996-7. Follow Michael on Twitter.
What makes bishops so ham-fisted when they enter the political fray is that – unlike politicians – they are not used to having their every word and action challenged and scrutinised in parliament and in the media.
They float serenely down the aisles of their cathedrals in their Laura Ashley night gowns to the sounds of pipe organs whilst being followed by cherubs and choristers. They then deliver their address which is only ever interrupted by the occasionally tickly cough from their slumbering congregations.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey begins his polemic in today's Daily Mail on the persecution of Christianity in characteristic Episcopal manner with the phrase:
“I like David Cameron and believe he is genuinely sincere in his desire to make Britain a generous nation where we care for one another and where people of faith may exercise their beliefs fully.”
Then, barely a paragraph later he delivers a stunning non sequitur:
“At his pre-Easter reception for faith leaders he said that he support Christians right to practice their faith. Yet many Christians doubt his sincerity…the Prime Minister has done more than any other recent political leader to feed theses anxieties [make Christians feel they are persecuted]."
Where is John Humphrys when you need him?
Leaving aside that ‘his grace’ showed precious little grace in quoting the Prime Minister from a private pre-Easter Downing Street Reception given for religious leaders – the first such reception I can recall in recent years – hardly strengthening his claim for the King Herod-like accusations of persecution of Christians. Let us consider the evidence?
The first charge against the David Cameron for making Christians feel that they are part of a “persecuted minority” in the UK is the case of a person sacked for wearing a cross against their employer's wishes. Yet this case refers to Eweida v British Airways plc and stems from a decision taken by British Airways in 2006, an Employment Tribunal in 2008 and the decision of the Court of Appeal in February, 2010 when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister. Moreover, it was the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in January, 2013 that found that the employee’s rights had been violated and awarded her damages.
The next piece of ‘Herodism’ we are offered is in the words of the former Archbishop “more shockingly” the campaign for the 700 year old Parliamentary chapel of St Mary Undercroft to be turned into a multi-faith prayer room so that it can be used for gay couples to get married. But this is a proposal which is being put forward by Chris Bryant- a ‘Labour’ MP i.e. ‘not a Conservative’. Moreover, the reason why gay weddings could not take place there at the moment is because it is a Church of England chapel and the Church of England has been exempted by the Government from current gay marriage legislation – that is why Mr Bryant is seeking to change its status to a multi-faith prayer room.
The final charge against the Prime Minister is presiding over a policy which would mean that “Christian teachers, who are required to teach about marriage, may face disciplinary action if they cannot express agreement with the new politically-correct orthodoxy”. The evidence for this claim offered by Lord Carey is “strong legal opinion” and yet it is something which has been categorically denied by both Maria Miller (Equalities Minister) and Liz Truss (Education Minister) – the two ministers most directly involved setting and upholding the policy.
It is perhaps more revealing of the private prejudice of Lord Carey that he makes absolutely no mention of the Prime Minister’s policies which will see overseas aid levels reach 0.7% under this government at a time of recession. No mention of the 12 million children vaccinated last year against killer diseases; the 2.7 million mothers and children prevented from going hungry and five million children given access to education for the first time.
I suppose we would be told that God is much more concerned about a British Airway’s employee being able to wear a piece of jewellery or “more shockingly” the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft being turned into a multi-faith prayer room than the fact that 29,000 children under five die every day from preventable disease or malnutrition. Personally, on this evidence, I would rather take my chances in eternity standing on the political and Christian priorities of Mr Cameron than Dr Carey.
Where does all this leave us? Well I suspect Lord Carey’s remarks will have generated more heat than light. The truth is that Christians have had a remarkably privileged run in this country for over a thousand years but that is now slowly drawing to an end – not because of government policy but because of people’s disenchantment with the Christian religion which showed that those identifying themselves as Christian had fallen from 72% of the population to 59% in ten years. The full extent of the Christian decline being masked by a large influx of Catholic immigrants from Eastern Europe.
The Christian church is seen as ‘out of touch’ with the people it is meant to serve – choosing to obsess more about women bishops, church politics and sexual ethics rather than address the social and moral needs of the nation. The Reverend Dr John Stott described* the real need of the hour when posed the following challenge:
"Our Christian habit is to bewail the world's deteriorating standards with an air of rather self-righteous dismay. 'The world is going down the drain', we say with a shrug. But whose fault is it? Who is to blame? Let me put it like this. If the house is dark when nightfall comes, there is no sense in blaming the house, for that is what happens when the sun goes down. The question to ask is 'Where is the light?'"
I would suggest that the reason for the decline and the responsibility for reversing that trend falls at the doors of the Christian church more than the Conservative Party. When church leaders and members stop blaming others and accept their responsibility themselves then, and only then, and ‘remember their first love’ will they begin to make progress again. Easter would seem as good a time as any to make a start.
* 'Issues Facing Christians Today', 1984 (p66)