A United Kingdom Without the Cross
A nurse in the U.K. is going to court after her cross necklace was deemed a workplace health hazard. It is the latest example of how the U.K.’s strained relationship with religion—this is the country, after all, in which a king created a new church to suit his marital preferences—appears to be entering even more unsettling territory.
Usually, we in the U.K. look toward the U.S. for signs of the way the winds are blowing. But when it comes to what post-Christian society looks like, the U.K., as well as most of Europe, is ahead of the U.S. and setting the pace.
Since 2001, Mary Onouoha has worked at London’s Croydon University Hospital as an operating theatre nurse. Until recently, a committed Christian, she wore a small gold cross clasped to her neck without any issues. But from 2014 onward, on various occasions she was told she must hide her cross under her uniform or remove it completely, despite the hospital’s uniform code making allowances for the wearing of saris, turbans, kirpan, skullcaps, hijabs, and kippahs as part of its “diversity” policy.
By August 2018, the issue had escalated and she was told her cross constituted “a health and safety risk to patients.” There was a threat of disciplinary proceedings before she was moved to assist a receptionist in a non-nursing capacity, in breach of her nursing contract. Now Onouoha is challenging the London NHS Trust responsible on the grounds of harassment, victimization, direct and indirect discrimination, and constructive unfair dismissal. In short: anti-Christian discrimination.
“This has always been an attack on my faith,” 61-year-old Onouoha says. “My cross has been with me for 40 years. It is part of me, and my faith, and it has never caused anyone any harm. Patients often say to me: ‘I really like your cross’, they always respond to it in a positive way and that gives me joy and makes me feel happy.”
It’s hard not to conclude that the U.K.’s attitude to Christianity is increasingly unhealthy, despite the country having an established Christian church. Onouoha can’t wear an item that is of huge significance to her and about 2.2 billion Christians in the world—even when other staff are wearing jewelry and earrings in the operating theatre that could be slapped with the unhygienic label. Increasingly in public life there are more overt signs of this dissonance over religion, which Covid-19 and its attendant restrictions have exacerbated.
“The minutiae of our lives have been overseen, advised upon and regulated—from the number of people allowed to visit us in our private homes, to whether we can share serving spoons at Christmas—from what constitutes ‘essential’ shopping to ‘snitch lines’ to report on rule-breakers,” Laura Dodsworth says in an article about potential government surveillance plans justified by Covid-19. She notes that former U.K. Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption has branded the U.K.’s lockdown laws and rules “the most significant interference with personal freedom in the history of our country.”
An unsavory nit-picky attitude lurks in the British psyche—as the case of Onouoha’s cross attests to—which the government has taken full advantage of through the confusion and fear of the pandemic. The U.K.’s churches remained open during World War II, not so during Covid-19. It wasn’t helped by church authorities totally capitulating, none more so than those heading the established Church of England.
This year, a Good Friday service in a Polish Catholic church in London was shut down by the police for breaching Covid-19-related restrictions. Online footage showed worshippers being told the gathering was “unlawful” and threatened with fines while the police officers stood casually around the altar.
Not long after, a 71-year-old Christian street pastor was arrested for causing “alarm and distress” in London by preaching about the biblical definition of marriage from Genesis 1 being between one man and one woman. As officers pulled him off a step ladder, a lady in the crowd protested: “It’s a Christian country, let him speak.” Others in the crowd had accused the pastor of homophobic statements and hate speech.
Then there is the case of Christian preacher Hatun Tash at Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park. Speakers’ Corner has long been an icon of free speech in the U.K. and around the world. A former Muslim, Tash has become well known for her Christian ministry that drew threats of reprisals from Muslims. In July she was assaulted and slashed across her face. On September 13, Hatun was escorted out of Speakers’ Corner by police for her own safety even though she has stated she wants to continue to speak and believes Muslims are making threats just to get the police to stop her preaching. She was told by police that if she returned to Speaker’s Corner she would be arrested.
All this fits an increasingly dissonant trend as we emerge into a post-Christian society that denigrates the symbols, beliefs, and even values of the very faith upon which Western civilization happens to be founded.
“Perhaps now more than at any other time since Constantine legalized the practice in the Roman empire, Christianity faces public intolerance and suspicion in Europe,” Roger Kiska wrote in a recent Critic article about the Onouoha case.
He notes how the problem isn’t because religious freedom in the U.K. isn’t sufficiently protected. The Human Rights Act of 1998 does just that. Hence in 2013, Nadia Eweida, an employee with British Airways—the U.K.’s flag carrier airline—won her case at the European Court of Human Rights after British Airways made her stop wearing her white gold cross visibly when working. The court reasoned it is a fundamental right to manifest one’s faith by wearing a cross, in part, Kiska explains, “because a healthy democratic society needs to tolerate and sustain pluralism and diversity.”
But the land that prides itself on the Magna Carta—the charter of English liberties granted by King John on June 15, 1215, which provided the foundation for individual rights in Anglo-American jurisprudence—appears to be becoming complacent about what underpins a healthy democracy.
“It is a structural problem within our culture, including among institutions like the NHS and our judicial system, that simply do not grasp the importance of the cross to Christians,” Kiska says.
During my time working in Ethiopia, I was one of the few people not displaying some form of religious symbol or garment. Ethiopia, one of the oldest Christian societies, remains one of the world’s most religious countries. Almost every Ethiopian adult and child wears a cross or crucifix around his neck, apart from the country’s large Muslim population, who wear what they want and are entirely free to do so. Compared to Ethiopia, attitudes in the U.K. toward religion are increasingly illiberal, falling behind a country we might view as backward.
The U.S. is more overtly religious than the U.K.; it is arguably the world’s most religious developed country. But that enthusiasm is matched at times by an anti-religious fervor stronger than that in the U.K., too.
In a Spectator essay, “Godforsaken: religion is vanishing from American politics,” Damian Thompson argues that an underappreciated reason underpinning societal tensions in the U.S. is “the tectonic shifts going on between God-fearing America and its emerging secular twin.”
These forces collided most noticeably during the “devastating election year of 2020,” Thompson says, leaving Americans “waking up to the reality that four centuries of Christian flourishing have come to an end.” In its stead, he says, is a “hard-edged secularism that is fast becoming the default ‘religion’ of Americans born after 1981, less than half of whom describe themselves as Christians.”
The 2020 summer of unrest saw a wave of attacks on Christian properties across the U.S. with churches firebombed and pelted with Molotov cocktails, and heads taken off religious statues. We haven’t experienced anything on that scale in the U.K. Perhaps we got it out of our system during the Reformation. Instead, anti-religious methods in contemporary Britain are more subtle, reflecting a deeper level of confusion compared to the U.S., of the sort described by Leo Tolstoy in his 1893 essay Religion and Morality.
“The instructions of a secular morality that is not based on religious doctrines are exactly like what a person ignorant of music might do, if he were made a conductor and started to wave his hands in front of musicians well-rehearsed in what they are performing,” Tolstoy wrote. “By virtue of its own momentum, and from what pervious conductors had taught the musicians, the music might continue for a while, but obviously the gesticulations made with a stick by a person who knows nothing about music would be useless and eventually confuse the musicians and throw the orchestra off course.”
The NHS appears to contain some conductors who are similarly muddled. It’s now up to the conductors of the U.K. judiciary to decide whether that should be corrected or countenanced, and what place the Christian cross has in post-Christian Britain.
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist and writer who splits his time between the U.S., the U.K., and further afield, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter: @jrfjeffrey and at his website: https://jamesjeffreyjournalism.com/ .