20 March 2012

The UK Government and Crosses - Have they got this right?

by Dr Mark Keown

A most interesting storm is brewing in the UK that is of interest to Christians of all flavours. In 2006, Nadia Eweida was suspended from British Airways for wearing a cross. Nurse Shirley Chaplin was similarly banned from working on the wards after refusing to hide the cross she wore on a necklace. The UK Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone has instructed government lawyers to oppose these women as they go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to fight for their right to wear crosses. The case has serious implications for the issue of wearing religious clothes and symbolism. The debate revolves around Article Nine of the European Convention on Human Rights which states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

The women are claiming that this right has been violated. Government lawyers are counter-arguing that the wearing of crosses or crucifixes is not a ‘requirement of the faith’ nor a manifestation of their religion or belief according to the meaning of the Article – as such, it is not covered.

This has led to a strong response. Rev Ian Galloway in Scotland has stated “[w]hatever the strict legal situation, we believe that individuals should have the right to make statements of faith, and this extends to the wearing of appropriate jewellery.” The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, argues that the government should stop meddling in areas that they ought not to. Others note that Muslims in the UK can wear the hijab and Sikhs can wear turbans – why not a cross? Former Archbishop Lord Carey accused ministers of dictating to Christians and is another example of the marginalisation of Christianity. Current Archbishop Rowan Williams thinks wearing crosses had lost its significance and has become a substitute for faith. One news article wondered whether Charing Cross and other UK place names should be renamed as a result.

In my view the UK government is mad to take this on. First, what gives a government the right to dictate what is or is not a ‘requirement of the faith’? In this case, it places the government above God, churches, and all Christians by determining this. If these two women find it a requirement, and it hurts no-one, then they should be able to wear them. The parallel with the hijab is appropriate – a person’s religion is a matter of conscience. Clearly there are limits – no-one should be allowed to wear Ku Klux clan or Nazi regalia to work – but come on, this hardly qualifies! Rowan Williams might feel that crosses have lost their meaning, but is that true for all people? Such a view is irrelevant if the people in mind find it meaningful. I don’t feel a need to wear a cross, but another might and I support that they should be able to do so. If I did feel it necessary, I would certainly not take it off for an employer – except perhaps for safety reasons. Archbishop Rowan William’s comment does indicate that the UK government is facing an uphill battle on this. Crosses are now worn by all sorts of people (e.g. Madonna) – will this mean she won’t be able to wear a cross at her next concert? Will the next step be the government backing Sports organisations in banning sports-stars looking skyward, genuflexion, wearing a cross on the arm-band etc.? This sets an interesting and potentially dangerous precedent.

Secondly, at its heart is a good old employer-worker scrap. Perhaps the Labour Party should get in behind these workers! But I do not think this is likely, their ideology no doubt will override their initial reason for existence. While an employer should have the power to require appropriate clothing and limits to what one can wear, should it stretch to small pieces of jewellery which symbolise one’s faith? What should it matter? It becomes a power-issue at this point. I say, power to the people, power to the workers.

Thirdly, by taking this line the government is creating something that is really insignificant into a benchmark for faith, it is counter-productive. It creates a dichotomy between Caesar vs. Church that is unnecessary. Their action now highlights the cross, which had seemingly become irrelevant. It is now very relevant. I suspect it makes it far more likely that people will wear them as a statement. In fact, I would suggest to all UK Christians (Catholic/Protestant – the lot), to start wearing them to work as mark of non-violent protest and act of solidarity with these two brave saints. Let’s see how the UK government goes with a national uprising of cross-wearing.

Further, this is a denial of history, a violation of their own story (and ours) – messy as it is. British and European history is enmeshed with the Christian story since the first century. Their Queen is the head of the church after all. Seems rather strange to deny wearing a symbol of their national religion – why doesn’t the Queen step in? And then if City Councils decided to dispense with Cross etc. in place names, the government would I presume move to support it. Such names as “Christchurch!” (there are three of these in the UK) or “Christian Common” would go. There are in fact 134 places names in the UK with Church in it; 131 with cross, and 50 with saint of St. in them – that will go down well. It seems madness for the UK government to act in this way – it is a denial of their history and a step too far. Then there is the question of consistency across faiths. A modest cross or crucifix is hardly worth the scrap is it when there is controversy over all sorts of religious clothing etc?

So, I say to all Christians, get a cross/crucifix, heck both, and wear them as a symbol of solidarity with these courageous women. I am going shopping.

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