Comedian Tracey Ullman has produced a couple of sketches recently that poke fun at the an attitude to Christianity which seems to be becoming increasingly prevalent in our green and pleasant land.
The first portrayed an applicant for a job who was received enthusiastically until she mentioned she was a Christian, when the interviewers stepped back, thinking she must be weird. The second portrayed a baptism which was going well until the godmother mentioned that she was glad to do it because she was a Christian, when the parents recoiled. Then the vicar revealed that he too was a Christian…
If part of the job of a comedian is to laugh at the absurdities in society, this was spot on. I am aware that not everyone in the UK is a Christian or even believes in God. But it is a country founded on Christian principles, and part of the reason so many people want to live here is that we have a rule of law founded on those Christian principles. The Christian ideas of love, freedom and justice still mean something.
But there are disturbing signs that all this is at risk. This week a Christian MP was questioned by the BBC and by a colleague because she came straight to a parliamentary committee from an Ash Wednesday service, where traditionally a small ash cross is marked on the forehead.
The Spectator reported: “To her credit, she kept her ashes intact, explaining: ‘I think they just thought I didn’t want to be embarrassed – but I was not going to rub it off. Many religions have visible symbols and Christians should not feel any embarrassment in either practising their religion or in the public display of religious symbols.’”
A small thing, perhaps, but the so-called BBC blew it up into a big issue on its website and Facebook site. Why? Would they have questioned the actions of people of other faiths in the same way? I suspect not. It’s more what The Spectator goes on to call the Secular Inquisition, which everyone expects.
More seriously, because it involves the justice system, it is now under question whether preaching Christianity outside of church is permitted – despite the fact that our history shows that the evangelism of people like the Wesleys probably saved the country from violence and divisions in the past.
Two street preachers in Bristol were convicted of a public order offence after the prosecutor claimed that publicly quoting parts of the King James Bible in modern Britain “should be considered to be abusive and is a criminal matter”.
He told the court that “although the words preached are included in a version of the Bible in 1611, this does not mean that they are incapable of amounting to a public order offence in 2016”.
He also claimed: “To say to someone that Jesus is the only God is not a matter of truth. To the extent that they are saying that the only way to God is through Jesus, that cannot be a truth.”
It may not be a truth to everyone, but it is a serious claim not confined to 1611, and one that under any realistic view of religious freedom must be capable of being expressed to others. If it is expressed in an abusive way, that is another matter, and totally out of tune with the actions of Jesus himself. But in this case it was the listeners who became abusive. Were they prosecuted? Of course not.
Do we want to remain a Christian country? I suggest it is essential for the sake of our sanity and security. In the past few weeks a Hindu mob invaded a Christian peace festival in India, beat up the pastor and attacked other Christians; in Egypt some 200 Christian families have had to flee the northern Sinai town of Al Arish, where six Christians were recently murdered and Islamist threaten to ethnically cleanse the area. There are many similar examples from other countries.
Could it happen here? We may scoff at the possibility. But if we go along with the idea that Christians are weird or habitually abusive in their beliefs, we are sliding, and it may be that in the words of Leonard Cohen, “things are going to slide in all directions”.
Some Christians certainly are weird – some people say I am myself – but my beliefs are not, and I do not want to be afraid to express them. At the moment the ignorance of prosecutors and magistrates may simply be mildly alarming – even absurd. But is it just the thin end of a quickly widening wedge?