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The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) made a strong point about the basis of tolerance in this country often being related to what the Church and Christians have achieved over the centuries, before anyone else was there to defend the rights and privileges of society. All hon. Members who have spoken have recognised, therefore, a particular grain of truth in the debate raised today by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin.

This debate is very difficult to pin down, because there are so many issues to cover. I shall content myself, therefore, with trying to answer a couple of questions: does Christianophobia exist, and if it does, does it matter to faith and the nation? I made the point at the start of my remarks that, within living memory, a Prime Minister has led a national day of prayer supported by other political leaders, newspaper editors and the monarch. That day was, of course, Sunday 26 May 1940, when Winston Churchill led the nation in a day of prayer in the light of the grave threat from Germany and as our troops gathered on the beach at Dunkirk.

We know what happened over the following few days—the miraculous lifting of troops from the beach, their return to the United Kingdom and Hitler’s inexplicable decision not to invade Britain. Back then, a Prime Minister could call the nation to prayer in a way that would be very difficult to do today, which tells us something about changes that have occurred in society over a relatively short period. I wonder how newspapers would react today if the Prime Minister declared a day of prayer for a particular purpose. I am sure that quite a number of newspapers would question the man’s sanity and look in detail at what had happened to British society. When the same thing happened only 60 years ago, however, the nation thought it in no way strange that it should be called to prayer. So what has happened?

Does Christianophobia exist? Yes, it does. My hon. Friend makes a fair case that there is some misunderstanding at the margins of what faith is about, and people have taken decisions that they might regret with hindsight. It is undeniable that society now views the Christian faith differently from the way it did in the past, but it is uncertain how much of that is due to a more general questioning attitude towards many institutions and how much is due to active hostility.

I agree with my hon. Friend that few people of other faiths are actively hostile to Christianity. As hon. Members know, I had the good fortune to represent my home town of Bury in the House for 14 years. The town has a strong community from Kashmir, in Pakistan, and its members were delighted to have a Member of Parliament who had a faith, which was something that they could relate to and understand. In their discussions with me about where society was going, they were much less concerned about my faith than about their young people associating with others who had no faith, no sense of what the world was about and no God to refer to in shaping their conduct or understanding what might happen to them in the future. I therefore agree that hardly anyone with faith seems to take offence at matters relating to Christianity.

It is also true that there is a modern-day culture of those with no faith seeing offence where it does not exist and misinterpreting support for Christian heritage as an attempt to promote the Christian faith, and we need to deal with that misunderstanding. A huge amount of these things are not done malevolently, but some are,
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and a number of very left-wing, socialist local authorities in the ’80s were afraid of dealing with faith groups. There is evidence to suggest that that is changing markedly, and that is important, but it is certainly true that such things existed. The fact that people misunderstand the relationship between Christian heritage and Christian faith and therefore believe that supporting Christian heritage somehow gives unequal treatment to the Christian faith is at the heart of some of the decisions by bureaucrats and officials who believe that they are treating people equally by taking away one of Christianity’s privileges. In fact, that is not the case at all, as I will explain in a second.

Christianophobia therefore exists to some degree at the margins, although this is not the only country to face the problem. My second question, however, is whether that matters to the Christian faith. In itself, it does not. I say that because the Christian faith has faced much more serious attacks than the odd rant from secular or humanist groups in British society. Last year, I prayed with Ministers in Albania, which became the world’s first self-proclaimed atheist society under the lamented Enver Hoxha—he built mushrooms all over the country for protection, but that is a different story. That society declared itself an atheist society, but a handful of years after the collapse of that brand of communism and atheism, I was praying with Christian Albanian Ministers in their offices. So can the Christian faith survive the odd attack by Christianophobics in Britain? Yes, it can. I can testify to the power of Jesus Christ in Albania and all over eastern Europe, where attempts were made to suppress it.

Despite the pressures, there is evidence of strong growth in particular Churches in contemporary Britain, including the Evangelical Church and the black Church, which is particularly strong and powerful in urban communities and which is making a great contribution to society. Our society has become more pluralistic, and the place of faith in contemporary British society as a result of that is a wider issue, but, again, Christians should not be troubled or worried about it.

A couple of years ago, the Evangelical Alliance produced a report on a commission of inquiry, called “Faith and Nation”, which considered some of those issues. On pluralism it said:

I think that that is a pretty honest assessment, and, accordingly, the fact that in a more pluralistic society the Christian faith must argue its case more strongly is not, in my view, wrong. It should not fear such a challenge, so that is not a problem to the Christian faith. My answer to the question whether Christianophobia harms the Christian faith is therefore no. I think that it is strong enough to survive, without any question.

Does, however, what my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin and other hon. Members spoke about
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affect Christian heritage in this society, and is that damaging? The answer is probably yes. I think that there is a difference between what Christians believe—their faith—and the faith heritage of the country, without which it cannot be properly understood. That is at the heart of my hon. Friend’s concerns. There is evidence that the country today retains a strong and active Christian heritage. Secularists would point out, if there were any here, that the House of Commons and the House of Lords begin their sittings each day with prayer; that at the conclusion of the Queen’s Speech the Queen calls for the “blessing of Almighty God” on the efforts of Parliament; that 26 bishops still sit in the House of Lords; that there is religious worship—predominantly Christian—in schools; and that that is all evidence of Christian heritage remaining strong in modern society.

Mark Pritchard: Does my hon. Friend agree that removing the 26 bishops from the House of Lords, as suggested by the Institute for Public Policy Research, Labour’s favourite think-tank, would be a retrograde step?

Alistair Burt: Yes, I do. My hon. Friend has anticipated me, and I shall come to that in a second, if I may.

My point is that there is still evidence of a strong Christian element in modern society, which reflects heritage and which is important. However, there is also evidence that that is being slowly squeezed out of modern society, and that is a matter for concern. Some of what is happening is sheer laziness, and we run the risk of losing what we neglect to value. I am not talking about children being indoctrinated in the Christian faith, but I am concerned about children leaving school unaware of the importance of the ten commandments, the basics of the Christian story, key hymns and not only the role of the Church as an institution but Christian lives that changed history, from Bede to Wilberforce. Knowing those things is a fundamental right as a part of children’s education in this country, and it enables them to understand where their country came from, prior to working out where it should be going.

Jo Swinson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although it is important for young people in school in 21st-century Britain to understand the Christian tradition, it is equally important for them to learn about other faiths, to prepare them well for the multicultural society that we live in, and to help them understand other countries, given the way society is shrinking globally?

Alistair Burt: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is essential, if people are to understand today’s world, that children should leave school aware of the major faiths in this country, and worldwide. The lack of that awareness would be a deficiency. My point is that if they do not understand the Christian heritage of their country, which is so deep and which affects virtually every institution and walk of life that they will encounter, that will be an equal deficiency. There is evidence to suggest that that is what is being lost through fear of some sort of inequality, while the importance of the history and heritage is missed.

Let me bring the issue up to date. The Government have a duty. They do not have a duty to promote the Christian faith and should not feel any concern about
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that. Christians are not worried that the state does not require children to have a Christian faith, and we would be concerned if it did. However, it is important that the state should protect that understanding of Christian heritage and history.

The IPPR report has been mentioned, and the fact that it has not yet properly surfaced, despite the kite that was flown about it because of the reaction, probably tells the story. The IPPR went way too far by trying to suggest that, in order to accommodate new people into our society, we should take swingeing action against the Christian faith. That was wrong, as the public reaction showed. The report stated:

It talked about a birth ceremony or something similar where

That is as worrying an echo of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” as I can possibly imagine. That that report has disappeared and not surfaced tells us much. It is a misunderstanding of the role of the Christian faith in society to try to equate it to some form of equality and tolerance for other faiths. We are not comparing apples and pears.

Where are we going in society? I shall turn, briefly, to a report by the think-tank Theos entitled “‘Doing God’—A Future for Faith in the Public Square”. The introduction, by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster, spoke about the ills of modern society and about people losing their place in society. It is true that research into happiness shows that the correlation between happiness and religious faith is strong. Society is immeasurably wealthier than it was, yet it would proclaim itself not to be any happier, and so the place for faith at the centre of society has never been stronger.

The two primates wrote:

with Tolstoy’s words—

The primates were quoting from Tolstoy’s “A Confession”, in which he talked about his loss of faith, equating it to contemporary Russia, and then about how he had regained faith and therefore an understanding of society. He was showing that the loss of faith in his society was leading to significant damage. That is the point that the two archbishops made.

There is an argument that in the public square there is more room for faith than ever before, with the revival of civic society spoken of by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire, and the fact that faith groups are actively involved in civic society—they have seen the gaps in people’s happiness and are trying to reassure people that there is some point to life in the midst of despair. That those with faith can do that in a way that secular agencies find difficult cannot be doubted. There
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is hope for those of faith that that will become more important in the future, rather than less so.

That the Christian faith has been fundamental to the development of our country is undeniable. Recognising that does not require any commitment to any religion, but is basic to our understanding of our nation and is required of Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and others of faith and of no faith. Recognition of that gives no privilege in conventional terms, but is an acknowledgment of the fact that the Christian faith is woven into the very fabric of our society. There are bishops in the House of Lords not because it is unequal for them to be there, but as an acknowledgment of the role of the Church in protecting the very values and freedoms that we rely on. That we have so many faith schools is not due to an Act of Government; it is because the Church created schools and ran them when the state did not even think about providing them, which is why they are important.

Jo Swinson: How does the hon. Gentleman square the fact that this House has voted and declared its intention to have a 100 per cent. elected House of Lords with having unelected people of any sort there?

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Order. I think we might avoid that particular subject.

Alistair Burt: That is a kind direction, Mr. Williams. I did not vote for that, but the hon. Lady makes her own point.

Dr. McCrea: We dare not, however, close our eyes to the fact that there are some within the media who will denigrate and mock the Lord Jesus Christ, who is my saviour, and yet they would not dare to do so with other religions in the United Kingdom.

Alistair Burt: My hon. Friend and I go back a long time as friends in this House. He makes a fair point, but it is one that I cannot answer. That people feel free to mock my Lord and saviour is something that I know my Lord and saviour can tolerate and live with. It makes me sad, but it does not make me feel that I need to change the laws of society to prevent it. It is interesting that some choose not to raise for satire and other purposes those revered figures in other faiths. They must answer for that. I would argue that all revered figures in our faiths deserve respect, and it saddens me when that does not happen.

To conclude on the point that I was seeking to make, I do not believe that to have a pre-eminence for Christianity in our society is a sign of inequality. I think the British Humanist Association has got it wrong in its response to my hon. Friend’s debate. In the press statement, which the chief executive of the British Humanist Association put out, she spoke of bishops and schools, and things like that, and said this:

I think that she is profoundly wrong. That Christianity has a pre-eminent position in British life in comparison to other religions is not wrong. It is not a case of
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equality. Of course, the practice of all religions should be free, fair and equal, but that Christianity is pre-eminent is not through any attack on equality; it is an acknowledgment of its role in creating the tolerant, free and democratic society that we all enjoy. If we lose that, will it damage the Church and affect the faith of millions in Jesus Christ as Lord and saviour? No, it will not. The nation, however, would lose far more in terms of what the Christian faith can contribute to the life of the nation, to its civic society, its voluntary groups, or anything else. The Church does not need contemporary Britain, but does contemporary Britain need the Church? You bet it does.

10.48 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): In the few minutes left, I want to respond to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard). I congratulate him on securing the debate. Although we still have 20 days to go, perhaps it would be good to start by wishing all Members a very merry Christmas. As Minister for community cohesion, I felt slightly left out of the debate, not least because I have only 11 minutes to reply. I am the only Sikh member of the Government. My parents are from a Sikh background—from the Punjab—and I grew up in west London. I very proudly represent Gloucester, and I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has got a plug in for Gloucester cathedral before I managed to do so myself. I am unashamedly a supporter of Liverpool football club, and I fail Norman Tebbit’s cricket test by supporting India against England at cricket. Why, hon. Members might well ask, am I the Minister for community cohesion? Perhaps it is for of all those reasons.

This debate takes me back to when I was first selected as a Labour party candidate in 2000. By way of welcome, a local journalist wrote an article calling on me to resign—I was only 28—because I was inappropriate for a cathedral city in the west of England. I probably spend more time in churches in my constituency than most Christians, which is ironic, considering the debate that we are having.

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for raising these issues on many occasions. He made some interesting points. From conversations that I have had, I believe that the Christian faith is alive and well. Certainly those of the Catholic faith say that their numbers have swelled in recent years, not least due to Polish migration to this country. I welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about Muslim groups and their comments, including those of the Muslim Council of Britain, about Christian issues and how we should all be celebrating events.

The hon. Gentleman briefly mentioned adoption. I disagree with him slightly. I talked about adoption policy when I was an Education Minister. I strongly believe that, while respecting all faiths, it is important to respect the rights of gay people to adopt. I think that that was what he was alluding to, but I will not go down that path because it is a policy area for another debate.

A couple of hon. Members mentioned “Jerry Springer—The Opera” and the problems and controversy that it caused. As much as anything else, I wonder whether that controversy was more down to the fact that it was just not a very good play.

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