James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Claims that Prince Charles made a significant personal donation to the charity Aid to the Church in Need – which supports persecuted Christians – are surprising. Not because of the merits of the organisation – which are strong – but because it’s so rare for public figures in Britain to be linked with the active defence of Christianity. Does the Prince’s act signal any change? Perhaps, but if it does, it probably only signals the growing weakness of Christian churches here in Britain.
British politicians and public figures rarely promote Christianity; we’re not that sort of country. Not only do few people attend churches on Sundays, but even fewer are prepared to talk about their faith publicly. This might be because of fear of ridicule and hostility – which has been common in recent times – but also because faith hasn’t been part of the British (or, perhaps, English) public conversation for many years. American politicians talk about religion openly, in a country where religious observance is still high. Where British people believe in God, they do so very quietly. Tony Blair has very occasionally dabbled in the public discussion of faith and it’s rarely gone well.
But many public figures also seem worried that promoting Christianity in some way breaches the code of multiculturalism so strongly felt in Britain. They worry that it sends the wrong signal out, suggesting other faiths aren’t actively welcome in this country. Some fear a backlash from the politically correct left (rather than those that practice other faiths, who are rarely hostile) for supposed insensitivity, while others actually worry about not looking welcoming.
However, such is the decline in the power of Christian churches in Britain, that Christians might soon be seen as just another religious minority – a minority living in an overwhelmingly and passively agnostic society (with a small number of vocal atheists). Active Christians’ numerical irrelevance and their lack of influence in public debate means they might therefore be seen as a largely harmless sect. Rather than being a muscular, proselytising religion, Christianity in Britain might be viewed as a religion in decline – as far from a threat, culturally and morally, as it’s possible to be.
Ironically, it might be Christianity’s weakness that gives public figures the confidence to promote and defend it. If it’s not seen as a symbol of the establishment and not worthy of the politically left’s active hostility or the mainstream media’s derision, it will be easy for anyone, including squeamish public figures, to highlight important issues like the plight of Christians around the world. That’s not to diminish the actions of Prince Charles, but simply to say that what is surprising now, might become more commonplace as Christianity declines here.
Christian churches should welcome those that speak out on their behalf. But they should also ask themselves a difficult question: is public kindness a result of public indifference? If it is, the answer is not necessarily to leap into every public battle to rekindle old animosities, but it strongly suggests they should all be considering a complete reboot of their public role.