Thursday, 4 November 2010

Is Britain an anti-Christian country?

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This is a guest post by Vera Lustig, who attended last night's debate on Intelligence Squared debate on British tolerance of Christianity in London

The UK-based global debating organisation Intelligence Squared staged a debate last night (3rd November) on the motion "Stop bashing Christians! Britain is becoming an anti-Christian country".

Over 600 people defied the Tube strike to fill the venue, the oak-panelled chamber of the Royal Geographical Society in South Kensington. They contributed to an impassioned, witty and at times acrimonious discussion, deftly moderated by journalist and broadcaster Jonathan Freedland.

The speakers for the motion were the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, columnist Peter Hitchens and Booker laureate Howard Jacobson.

Opposing the motion on this all-male panel were columnist and former Tory MP Matthew Parris, Geoffrey Robertson QC and the Benedictine monk and former headmaster of Downside School, Dom Antony Sutch.

The pre-poll, taken as the audience entered, gave the proposers of the motion a lead, with 275 votes. The noes had 183, and there were 181 undecided.

Lord Carey and Peter Hitchens invoked numerous examples of discrimination against Christians in the workplace, such as the nurse forbidden to wear a crucifix, the Relate counsellor disciplined for refusing to offer his services to those in same-sex relationships, and also the recent case of the Christian woman barred from fostering because she would not undertake to assure children in her care that homosexuality was acceptable.

Howard Jacobson lauded the civilising influence of Judaeo-Christianity, that had helped early Britons move on from the woad-and-Stonehenge stage of their development. He spoke of the eternal relevance of devotional language. In that vein, he derided Richard Dawkins’s bald and cautious rephrasing of the 7th Commandment (‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’), to the effect that you should enjoy your sex life as long as it didn’t harm anyone else. Jacobson claimed that ‘harm’ was not so easy to pinpoint.

Matthew Parris, opposing the motion, pointed out that it was the French, not Judaeo-Christianity, who had ‘saved us from woad’. He did not decry religion as such, but rather the privileged status afforded to believers, and also that ‘merciless certainty’ of those who tried to impose their world view.

On the subject of ‘bashing’, Parris said that gays knew all about being at the receiving end.

Geoffrey Robertson catalogued the privileges enjoyed by the Church: the 26 Lords Spiritual, whose presence was not even mentioned in the White Paper on reforming the House of Lords; the faith organisations that are given tax breaks, while Amnesty International is denied charitable status. He regretted that Christians in this country often refused to turn the other cheek.

Dom Antony Sutch, droll and self-deprecating, insisted that this is a tolerant country, and that the Pope’s visit to the UK, and his welcome by representatives of government and of other faith-groups, hardly revealed us to be a nation of Christian-bashers. He suggested that we are ‘a tick-box society’, anxious to pounce on any sign of dissent and categorise it as sinister.

From the floor, Keith Porteous Wood of the NSS provided an update on his society’s support for local councillors in Bideford, who have gone to court to halt the practice of saying prayers in the middle of meetings. Another participant asked whether reducing the scope of the Church would create a vacuum that might be filled by fundamentalism.

As each speaker on the platform gave a summing-up, miniature ballot boxes circulated in the hall. The exit poll: for the motion, 216; against, 378; undecided, 48.

There was plenty to discuss, as we dispersed and began our long journeys home. For me, it was distressing to realise how deeply entrenched anti-gay sentiment still is.

From an anthropological point of view, it was fascinating to me to witness how alpha males behave in the absence of women: the clubbiness, the name-calling – all that testosterone and certainty. Small wonder that the ordination of women isn’t going to happen any time soon.

Vera Lustig is a freelance writer
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