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11 Mar 2009 : Column 118WH—continued

We can hold up examples of fantastic Christian-based projects across the country. I am on the Evangelical Alliance council, and was challenged because there is a new book and some prayer thoughts coming out, to be circulated to churches, with the subtitle “Would anyone in your community notice if your church ceased to exist?” In all the examples that we have heard today, probably people would notice; but let us be honest about what would happen in many places if the church ceased to exist. There would be derelict buildings, as my
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hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said, but in reality the community outreach does not happen everywhere. There is a call on us to live in deeds, as James says—it is about our deeds and actions, as much as our proclamation and faith, and the word. It is about making the Bible a living document, not just the written word.

There is great pressure on us, if we are going to ask for a position in the state, to live by what we say we live by. As the hon. Member for South-West Devon says, in the old terminology, which I think is still fairly relevant, each time we stand, we say “What would Jesus do?” It is important for every one of us who carries out our faith to ask what Jesus would do in the same circumstances. We know from the Bible that Jesus would be a bit of a rebel; going into the temple and throwing out the money lenders. Perhaps we should have sent him into the City to throw out the money lenders a little earlier. He would be there, decrying the way we have run society for the past 40 or 50 years. There are many people concerned with simplicity of living who have recognised that for a generation. There has been a shift into green issues; but the Bible has been there for the past 2,000 years, and many Christians have felt deeply what is needed, and have wanted to make it part of the agenda. There is an enormous opportunity for us, but the position must be that the Christian faith is neither private nor privileged. It is a private faith that must be lived out in the public square. We do that by example, not necessarily by just demanding our right to those words, but by our life, and because people want to give us the public square and the ability to say those things. It is fundamental.

As to the problems of fundamentalism and the fundamentalist secularism that I have come across, I have been shocked in the past two or three years in which I have been involved in this debate at how aggressive some of my Christian colleagues can be, and how offputting that can be to others. It is strange, because I get on really well with most of the secularists in my constituency, with whom I have a very healthy debate; but I have also been shocked by aggressive fundamentalism on both wings, which is unhealthy. However, that is what happens in public debates; they are the ones who get attention. In reality, most debates on this issue would be healthy debates, like ours today. If I sit down soon enough to give him his six or seven minutes, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) will contribute in a very thoughtful way.

There is much more to say, and I feel passionately about this subject. Christians have an imperative to learn how to use the public square and to proclaim from outside, leading by example. In that way we do not get privilege, but we get a fair deal in the public square, which allows us to profess our faith. It is part of our DNA. It is part of who I am. My Bible notes this morning and yesterday were about the good Samaritan. My conscience was pricked throughout the day by what I read, in the same way as last week’s reading of “Das Kapital”. Those things are part of who we are, and our faith must be part of who we are. Not to be able to say those things in public would be deeply damaging.

Finally, I do not believe in the sense of Christian tradition. Our faith evolves and reacts to the society we are in. Christians must change with the times to meet
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growing changes and demands—the way that we do church is a classic example. I could go on for ages about that. We need to find the words to make sure that we live in grace when we act and react in the public square, and give others the space to criticise us; but let us leave it at that. Let us make sure that we walk away as friends when we disagree about our role in the public square. I thank the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for helping us to get this debate. We are not asking for more than a fair deal, and to make sure that most of us lighten up a little about the issue.

3.24 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, and to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for introducing it. I also welcome the tone of the speeches. I shall give a secular point of view and I invite hon. Members to see whether it is extreme, because it is the secular point of view.

First, I want to ask about the definition of terms. The confusion starts with the title of the debate. I could understand and indeed sympathise with a debate about Christians in public life. As the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) said, Christians and other people of religion should be encouraged to engage in public life. I agree with that. I do not think that they are shy in coming forward. Our democracy and public policy-making are better for it. People of all perspectives should come forward; there should be no discrimination—and I do not think there is—to prevent people of religion from coming forward and playing a role.

Secondly, should Christian values play a role in public life? Yes, they should, of course, in the battle of ideas, just as any others should, whether humanist, socialist or conservative, because we base our policies and moral standpoints on values. Whether there should be a monopoly for one set of values I very much doubt. Some countries have such a monopoly, whether through political dictatorship or theocracy, and we know that in theocracies some groups, such as women and gay people, do very badly. That is predictable and identifiable. However, there are clearly shared values. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “Love thy neighbour” predate the New Testament. They are central tenets of Christianity, and also of most secular moral codes. They are something we should embrace. People may understand them as Christian and may argue that they should play a central role in public policy, but that does not mean it should happen because they are Christian. They are just a rational and sensible approach.

Arguing for Christianity in public life is equivalent to arguing that there should be a role in public life for Islam, socialism or liberalism; but I do not think there should be such a role, because it is a set of ideas and should not have privilege simply because it is religious. We recently debated blasphemy laws, which not all but many religious organisations were desperate to keep, although in fairness I do not think that many of them are represented here. Many hon. Members voted for their eventual abolition. Those laws gave protection in the battle of ideas and discourse for a particular set of ideas.

The other confusion is that the option is either relegation of religion to the private sphere—also labelled the privatisation of religion, which I do not believe in—or
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the privileging of religion. However, there is a middle way. The privileging of religion, which I oppose, would be to allow religious organisations that deliver public services to discriminate against their employees when they were delivering such a public service. I am not talking about proselytising or discrimination on religious grounds against vicars; I am talking about the people who provide the soup kitchens, shelters, and so forth. They should not be discriminated against on religious grounds, and we should not give money to organisations that discriminate against gay people or people of religion when delivering public service. They should not discriminate against service users on religious grounds. They should not have the right to do that, and should not be allowed to proselytise on the state, as it were, using public funding, or while delivering a public service.

Andrew Selous: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has been called to speak, because he is putting the contrary case, to an extent, and it is right that he should. I just want to take him back to the small charity in south London, and the piece on the website: the reason for denying funding—I paraphrase slightly—was that the charity extends Christian care and offers prayer. That was the reason for a rejection. What is the hon. Gentleman’s view on that example?

Dr. Harris: It will be fact-specific. We have heard a lot about the anecdote, and I do not blame hon. Members for that. I think Nurse Petrie is a better example, because the facts are more clearly available to all of us. She was a district nurse in a position of responsibility, going into a patient’s home. Doctors and nurses in that situation are performing a function as a doctor or nurse and their primary responsibility is to their patient, who is in a vulnerable position. As I understand it, there had been a series of complaints against Nurse Petrie, not just one. It is very unusual for an elderly person receiving district nursing care to think to complain unless something pretty obvious has happened. What took place had happened more than once. It was inappropriate, and I believe that the Nursing and Midwifery Council and the General Medical Council would also argue that it is inappropriate for a person delivering care to say, “Would you like to pray with me?” If a person feels that prayer helps, that can be done separately by them; they do not need to be engaged in that. If it is thought that someone could help, a patient can be told, “If you are religious, you might like to talk to your priest about this”—whatever the religion is—“to see if you can get spiritual support that way.” But a medical professional employed by the NHS or any other body needs to have a clear boundary, otherwise there is a feeling of pressure being put on someone.

Sir Alan Beith: My hon. Friend seems to exclude a conversation that would be quite common in many professions, including medicine, where a patient who knows a doctor says to them, “You are a churchgoer—a Christian—aren’t you? Is prayer any use in all this?” The doctor may say, “What I believe is this.” Should the doctor say, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you about that. You’ll have to make a separate appointment with me on another occasion.”?

Dr. Harris: I am in difficulty over time, so I will not have a chance to respond. [Interruption.] Well, I am happy to do so, but my right hon. Friend will accept that I have to wrap up this minute.

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There is a balance of rights and freedoms and we have to be aware that people feel strongly about their religion. But a line should be drawn. People should be allowed to practise and manifest their belief as long as it does not interfere with the rights and freedoms of others and where it does the state has a role to protect the freedoms of others from discrimination—even well-meaning discrimination in the name of religion.

3.31 pm

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing the debate. He made a measured intervention at the start of the debate and I am grateful to him for setting a measured tone.

I particularly enjoyed a number of speeches. The hon. Members for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) and for Glasgow, East (John Mason) made thoughtful, reflective contributions to the debate. A couple of the things that the hon. Lady said struck a chord with me. I represent the most ethnically diverse constituency in the country. On going about my daily duties in Brent, I do not recognise the argument that we live in a wholly secular society. I engage with many of the organisations that I meet on religious terms. That surprised me, as a new Member of Parliament. At a West Indian function the dinner will invariably begin with a prayer—probably several—and probably a hymn. Ghanaian functions are similar. A Pakistani function, even in a secular community centre, will begin with a recitation from the Koran and every secular speaker will begin their speech with the Arabic words, “Bis millah arahma nirahim”, which mean, “I speak in the name of God the most gracious and most merciful.” I recognise all that from my own constituency.

I was reminded of what Madeleine Bunting said in her article in The Times about the disjunction between the adverts on the atheist bus and the often poor immigrants sitting on the top deck of the bus returning from a night shift with their prayer books open on their laps. There is sometimes that disjunction in respect of a debate in one place that does not touch people at all in some areas of the country.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire used the words “Christian community” a lot in his speech. Under that umbrella, we need to be aware that we are a heterogenous group. The contributions to this debate have come from hon. Members with different theological backgrounds. The denominations in the UK have different histories and traditions. Those traditions and theologies inform what we believe about what it is to be church, how we should engage with society, the kind of language that we use and our role, particularly in politics. The great dissenting traditions have always been counter-cultural, but other Christian traditions are focused much more on dialogue.

Lembit Öpik: My hon. Friend is right in saying that dissent is often associated with faith, but she must also remember that Jesus himself was something of a dramatic radical in his day. Does she agree that what was radical 2,000 years ago has been so successfully embraced in British society that there is an underlying narrative based on the Christian faith? Although there must be tolerance of all different faiths in this country, nevertheless we live in what must reasonably be called a faith-based society with Christianity at its core.

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Sarah Teather: I accept my hon. Friend’s point about Christian values. If I have time I will return to that point.

Within Christian groups—I see it most clearly in the Catholic tradition—there are different views about how we should engage with politics and with the world. That depends a little on how people read the different traditions of Aquinas or Augustine. People may prefer Augustine’s model of two cities, with a real disjunction between the world and the kingdom in heaven or they may take a more positive view, from the Thomist tradition, about engagement with politics and politics being part of the good life. Those two disjunctions exist and they follow right through all the different Christian modes of thought. I see that, in the Catholic tradition, in the changes apparent between one pope and another in terms of the type of language used and whether they are particularly anti-modernity or more focused on negotiation and dialogue. We need to be aware of that, rather than grouping all Christians into the same group.

I am uncomfortable with the idea that Christians are, in some way, discriminated against or persecuted in the United Kingdom. There is a long tradition of martyrdom in Christian thinking that we tend to take upon ourselves with great ease. I wonder, when reading the Daily Mail, whether it would draw the wounds on itself if such an image were not too Catholic for most of middle England. I accept that Christianity and faith are often misunderstood—the Von HÃ1/4gel Institute said that in its report, “Moral, But No Compass—Government, Church, and the Future of Welfare”—but whether that always equates with discrimination is a moot point.

Mr. Andy Reed: I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. Does she agree that God is big enough to deal with not having a Christian stamp and those sorts of things? That is not persecution compared with the persecution that I see as a member of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, having visited people who genuinely die for their belief.

Sarah Teather: The hon. Gentleman puts the point well and I agree. There is a tendency to lump the three recent cases together—the woman and her cross at Heathrow, the school receptionist and the praying nurse—as if they are all examples of discrimination. What those cases all have in common is a complete breakdown between the employer and the employee and a tendency to get the whole thing grossly out of proportion in the media. But they are about different things. One case is about whether religious symbolism should have a place in the public sphere, but the other two cases are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) said, about the difficulties of defining the boundaries of people’s dual roles. Those debates are beyond faith and not only about faith.

The symbolism issue has been portrayed by many people as being about Christians needing to be treated on a par with other faiths, and about our being free to practise our faith entirely as we choose in the public realm, subject to the requirements of good public order, with all faiths being treated the same. However, all faiths are not the same. Some faiths have an absolute requirement regarding strict dress codes, but Christianity does not. I heard the words from the Bible that the hon. Member for Glasgow, East used about the need for people to proclaim their faith in public, but there are
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plenty of other places in the Bible where we are told to beware of practising our piety in front of others. There are occasions on which we would do well to remember that. I am more convinced by some of the arguments that hon. Members have raised about local authorities sometimes misunderstanding the importance of Christian organisations in delivering local services and misunderstanding the contributions that those can make.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire mentioned faith literacy. That was a sensible contribution. A number of hon. Members said that it is difficult for people in public life to speak about their faith. This is a debate in Parliament. So in a sense we are calling on the Government and the state to respond. However, we have to be aware that there are limits on politics and on what we should expect the political realm to intervene in. Whether it is difficult for people to speak about their faith is a matter for society as a whole, not for politics specifically.

When we speak about politics in public life, we are in danger sometimes of collapsing all of political space into the state and those organisations immediately surrounding it, rather than considering the wider issues of political community and civic society. I felt that particularly when listening to my hon. Friend speak about public space. There are lots of different tiers. We have politics and Parliament, think-tanks and Churches as a body corporate and those play a role. Then there is the wide political community, including organisations that act through the voluntary sector, and those whose individual vocation will affect how they work.

Churches have a particular role in influencing policy decision making, particularly in moral formation, which we should all welcome. The very essence of the message of the incarnation, which is central to Christianity, is about the importance of human beings. The Christian Churches should have a unique ability to remind us of the human face when we make political and policy decisions that affect the whole of society. The hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) mentioned Daniel’s narrative about being in a foreign land, and the Christian narrative of exile has a lot to teach us about how we treat asylum and immigration.

My final point is cheeky and a little provocative. We have discussed Christian values in Britain, and perhaps the most fundamental, which I accept have been embedded in secular society, are solidarity and equality before the law. They are original Christian principles, and if we are going to get into a flap about the loss of Christian values in Britain, our priority should be to focus on them. We should worry less about secular society damaging them, and more about the state encroaching upon them.

3.41 pm

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