Freedom of Religion

Should Christians in the public sector 'keep mum' to get on?


“Christianity is being subtly ‘silenced’ within the public sector in the UK because of a civil service culture which treats speaking about faith as ‘not the done thing’,” writes John Bingham in the Telegraph. ” Interviewing William Nye (a former senior civil servant and Private Secretary to the Prince of Wales and now Secretary General of the Archbishops’ Council and Secretary General of the General Synod of the Church of England), we read of the “secularising spirit” that “permeates the machinery of government”, which results in the “squeezing out of Christianity” from national life.

Further, we read that the Christian faith is now seen as “odd and unusual” within the public sector: “Christians working there now rarely ‘reveal’ their beliefs except to close friends for fear of being viewed as biased..” Mr Nye adds: “It is now a joy for me to be in a place where, although having spent 20 years not talking about my faith… one can talk more openly about it.”

Mr Nye should be careful, for within the Church one can only talk more openly about the ‘theology of nice’: God forbid that you might hold an orthodox Christian moral view on (say) matters of gender, sexuality or the killing of babies in the womb. No, these things are divisive and nasty. But, yes, generally, the Church is a place where one can talk more openly about a certain view of Jesus, and it’s easier than doing it with Sir Humphrey.

But then we get:

“People who aren’t in the public sector don’t realise quite how that secularising spirit has led to the silencing of Christians.”

“[It is] not universal – obviously there are chaplains in hospitals, there are chaplains in prisons – and I don’t think it is minsters doing it deliberately.”

He added in many cases it is likely that ministers probably had “no idea” that it was going on and that but that few officials would even let it be known that they were Christians.

There are quite a few Christians not in the public sector who are more than aware of how the “secularising spirit” is coercing Christians to self-censor and keep mum about their beliefs. Even chaplains in hospitals and prisons are becoming increasingly subject to the state’s spiritual-moral orthodoxy of ‘respect’ and ‘toleration’, on pain of disciplinary action, investigatory harassment or enforced resignation. It isn’t that ministers have “no idea” that this is going on: it is simply that the vast majority are religiously illiterate and a good many understand perfectly and are complicit in the secularising agenda.

It was observed in 2011 that David Cameron is “surrounded by secularists“: Joseph Devine, Roman Catholic Bishop of Motherwell, said the Prime Minister “has surrounded himself with religiously illiterate, secularist advisers”. As a consequence, “the coalition is carrying on from the previous Labour Government, forcing people to act against their conscience or face punishment from the state”, and so “religious liberty is suffering”.

William Nye is simply corroborating what many have long known. It is what Pope Benedict XVI referred to as “aggressive secularism“: as Joseph Devine says, the country has “passed into the grip of secularist militants”. This has been possible because the Prime Minister and many of the Cabinet are religious illiterate – to the extent of apprehending Christianity through no other prism but that of ‘equality justice’.

It is not that David Cameron doesn’t ‘do God’; he manifestly does and will doubtless continue to do so. It is quite simply, for him, that strategic matters of politics and urgent questions of economics considerably outweigh nebulous issues of theology. And so there is perhaps something in the Bishop’s perception that the Prime Minister is surrounded by the ‘religiously illiterate’: his principal advisers are drawn from the worlds of journalism and PR, and the secondary tier are lawyers and economists.

The Conservative Party has long-suffered the perception that the Parliamentary Party is disproportionately composed of lawyers and accountants: the number of QCs and FCAs on the green benches has helped to sustain the perception that it is the party of the rich. While the odd token minority might be appointed to a peripheral advisory body, it is observed that there is no Anglican to advise on constitutional issues relating to the Established Church. And no Christian at all to advise on behalf of those who are profoundly concerned by the apparently inexorable deification of ‘equality’ and the increasing intolerance of religious dissent.

If the ‘Big Society’ means anything, it must have depth and breadth. If it has no breadth, it is not big. And you can’t get much more breadth than the broadness of Christians who constituted the Big Society centuries before it became a expedient political slogan. Mr Nye said that he had been asked recently to suggest possible candidates from within the civil service for a senior post in the Church of England – “a job which requires the candidate to support the Church’s Christian aims”. He said: “I had to say ‘you know I’m not sure I would be able to think of many people because, why would I know about anyone in government who is a Christian unless they are a personal friend?'”

Do all Christians in the civil service hide their fires under a bushel? Is the political culture so hostile to Christians that to disclose a faith Jesus would be detrimental to advancement, if not fatal to one’s career? Mr Nye adds: “Personal friends might have revealed to me that they are Christians but other people in government, central government departments, wouldn’t do that. They wouldn’t let it be known that they were Christians.”

We are, of course, exhorted to become ‘all things to all men‘ in order that some might be saved (1Cor 9:19-23), and that includes apparently living ‘under the law‘ (ie, aparently denying the  freedom of salvation in Christ). Should Christians in public service shroud themselves in secularity in order to manifest virtue and effect righteous policy? Should they be silent about their faith in order to demonstrate it by example? If it is not a “‘done thing’ to talk about religion in the 21st century, especially in government”, do we contend for liberty and challenge the oppression or work quietly and humbly to be salt and light in the world? Do we need to use words to evangelise?

Mr Nye observes: “There is a lot of support, I think, for the Church of England doing its job as the Queen said ‘gently and assuredly’ – for the quiet work of the Church of England. But quiet work shouldn’t mean silent.”

In some cultures, of course, it does demand silence in the public sector, often on pain of arrest, incarceration, torture or summary beheading. But British Christians vacate the public sector at our peril, for it will not be filled by a benign or liberating expression of neutral secularity. The question is, as sheep among wolves, how are we to be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves without being thought a total nutjob or getting the sack?