Prudence Dailey Commentary

The General Synod of the Church of England, at its most recent meeting (held via Zoom), debated among other things a motion on international religious freedom, affirming the importance of freedom of religion and belief, and recognising the duty of Christians to defend it around the world. (General Synod motions tend to encompass numerous clauses, and this one was no exception: those wishing to see the full text can find it on the Church of England website.)
In itself, the motion was not especially controversial, and was carried overwhelmingly. LGBT campaigner Jayne Ozanne had proposed an amendment to the effect that religious freedom should be supported only ‘up until the point that it causes no harm’; but this was rejected, with several speakers pointing out that the concept of ‘harm’ would be highly subjective in this context.

The wording of the motion included the admonition ‘that Christians who enjoy this freedom should be active in advocating the same freedom for others’; and the proposer (the Bishop of Leeds) made reference to ‘minority religions’. No Christian contemplating the appalling plight of the Uighurs or the Rohingyas can disagree with this sentiment; but as Christianity itself becomes a minority religion in what was previously Christendom, it is naïve to ignore the increasing pressures on Christians in the West.

To take one example, in Norway there have been several scandals publicised in recent years involving their child welfare services, known as Barnevernet: social workers have been accused of removing children from their parents on the flimsiest of pretexts. It has been credibly asserted that there is sometimes religious discrimination involved in these cases, such as that of a Pentecostal Christian family whose five children were taken away after their school principal formed a view that their teaching ‘created a disability in the children’, and proceeded to make a complaint against the parents.

Then there is the case of Päivi Räsänen, a serving member of the Finish parliament, who is also the wife of a Lutheran Pastor. Mrs Räsänen has been repeatedly investigated by the Police for her traditional views on marriage and sexuality, including being interrogated for several hours about a pamphlet she wrote some sixteen years previously for a Christian foundation: she has now been charged with three counts of ‘hate speech’.

Readers of this column will, no doubt, be aware of similar cases here in the UK. Only this week, a septuagenarian street preacher, John Sherwood, was dragged away in handcuffs, after being accused of making ‘homophobic comments’: some may question the winsomeness and effectiveness of his particular method of proclaiming the Gospel, but that it hardly the point.

Many of these cases involve discussions of sexuality, because it is a particular flashpoint where the secular worldview collides with traditional religious morality; but it is not the only one. Other ‘problem areas’ include criticism of Islam, and also abortion: at Nottingham University, Julia Rynkiewicz, a Catholic midwifery student, was suspended from her studies and subjected to and a four-month fitness-to-practice investigation, simply because of her pro-life advocacy. She ultimately won her case in court; but instances of this kind continue to exert a ‘chilling effect’ on Christians.

Clearly, these incidents do not rise to the level of religious persecution currently taking place in countries including China, Burma and Nigeria, where people are routinely tortured and killed for their faith; but we should not pretend they do not matter. Not long ago, it was generally understood that matters of conscience needed to be respected—whether that conscience belonged to a pro-life Catholic, a Quaker pacifist or a Jewish tradesman closing his shop on Saturday rather than Sunday.
Slowly but surely, this principle is being chipped away. In our proper concern for religious freedom in other parts of the world, we must not take our eyes off the serious problems closer to home.