Rowan Williams is wrong. If Christians in Britain face persecution, they should not be afraid to complain

Lord Williams of Oystermouth

Lord Williams of Oystermouth, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has spoken at a literary festival and made some observations about the persecution of Christians in this country and abroad, and how the two cannot be compared. You can read a report of what he said here.

The subheading of the article makes unfortunate reading: “Christians complaining of persecution in Britain need to ‘grow up’, the former Archbishop of Canterbury has said, as he argues feeling ‘mildly uncomfortable’ is not comparable to real suffering elsewhere.”

Those first two words make the heart sink – “Christians complaining” – it sounds as if we spend our entire lives whingeing. We should, of course be proclaimers, not complainers, but at the same time, Christians have as much right to take people to court as anyone else, don’t they?

Lord Williams, who I admire, has said something that will give comfort to the enemies of the Church: he has added substance to the argument (if it can be called such) that Christians want special priveleges in society and complain that these are being eroded in the name of equality. Moreover, he has implied that we are spoiled and selfish, in that our complaints are nothing compared to those suffering abroad.

Now this is true – Christians in Sudan, for example, have had a far worse time of it than Christians in England; it is true, but it is not relevant to the case in question. You ought not to justify being rude to your wife, because the man next door beats his wife black and blue; you should not dismiss her complaints on the grounds that the lady next door has it far worse.

People like Nadia Eweida had genuine cause for complaint: saying that people in Nigeria have even more genuine cause for complaint is true, but does not change the validity of Mrs Eweida’s case.

The other thing that is troubling about Lord Williams’s remarks is that he makes no reference to the fact that Britain is a country with a bloody history of religious persecution, and that we should always be careful about stoking up religious and sectarian tensions which might (as in Northern Ireland) flare up into actual violence.

The path to anti-Catholic violence was smoothed by decades of anti-Catholic rhetoric and anti-Catholic prejudices and acts of discrimination. Religious discrimination has still not been entirely banished from these shores, and many would like reverse what progress there has been, one fears. This is not a fantasy of mine, I am merely taking the words of Mary Honeyball seriously.

So it is really not helpful if Lord Williams’s words are taken to mean that complaints of religious discrimination in this country are largely groundless.

At the same time, his words are useful, in that they illustrate the way Christians find themselves on the back foot in this country. If we defend ourselves, we are self-pitying complainers, and if we do not defend ourselves, we will suffer too. So what is the solution to this problem? Rabbi Julia Neuberger, who was chairing the discussion, says that believers in Britain may just “need to make their case better”. I agree with her analysis. In a war of ideas, which this is, the courts are the battlefield of last resort. We need better argument, better what the Americans call “public diplomacy”, or us Catholic call “apologetics”. (Some might like to term it propaganda; why not? Propaganda fidei sounds good to me.)

During the Cold War, America and her allies were constantly belittled and ridiculed by intellectuals and the media, no one more so than Ronald Reagan, as I am old enough to remember. At school, we were all taught the history of China using a text book that drew heavily on Edgar Snow, a man who is now seen for what he was, a propagandist for Mao’s murderous policies. Until the end, the anti-democrats were winning the Cold War, at least on the level of ideas.

Right into the 1970s people in Italy and France were voting for Communist parties. The West’s “public diplomacy” was never particualrly successful, which is why Che Guevara tee shirts sell at a greater rate than Ronald Reagan ones today. And yet, and yet. The Cold War only had one real winner.

Again, al-Qaeda and its allies may well be winning the propaganda war in certain parts of the world, some of which are not so far from where I sit and write this; and Dawkins and his chums may be the toast of the Senior Common Rooms of our universities. And yet, and yet… In these culture wars too, the apparent winner may not in the end be the real winner.

We Christians need to put our case better, as the Rabbi says. But this war is not just about talking, about competing narratives; the narrative of the scientists sounds good, after all, who could be against progress and science? But wars are decided by facts on the ground: the Soviet bloc fell because in the end the waiting time for a Trabant in East Germany was fifteeen years. And so Christainity will triumph in the end because it makes practical sense, and because it is a tried and tested way of living that contributes to human flourishing. But we need to make this existential case about the truth of Catholicism. I wonder if perhaps the present Pope is not showing us the way, rather as Saint Francis himself once did?