A Catholic MP, Carol Monaghan, appeared at a committee meeting on Ash Wednesday with a cross on her forehead. She had, of course, been to Mass and in common with thousands of other Catholics that day, including me, had received the ashes.
My reaction when I saw it was to admire the precision of her priest in producing so unmistakable a cross. I usually end up with a smudge, prompting kind souls to tell me that I have a mark on my brow and asking if I need a tissue to wipe it off.
The reaction of the ignoramuses at the BBC was rather different, and that mighty corporation asked on Facebook if it was “appropriate” for an MP to appear in committee with a cross on her forehead. Can anybody seriously imagine the BBC asking if it was appropriate for a Muslim to appear wearing a hijab, or a Sikh a turban?
Of course the Beeb wouldn’t do that, because it might give offence to other faiths – but apparently it is free to offend Christians. Every phobia is a crime except Christianophobia. Nevertheless, I suspect the cause here to have been less prejudice than ignorance, because religious literacy is at an all-time low in this country and sometimes the consequences go well beyond merely causing offence.
The Institute of St Anselm in Margate offers courses for religious leaders from all over the world and is now being driven by that same ignorance to relocate to Rome. Presumably that is bad luck for poor old Margate which, like many seaside resorts in this country, is struggling financially. Local employees will lose their jobs and nearby providers of food and beverages will lose custom.
St Anselm’s has been driven out by a failure of understanding in the Home Office of religious life. Officials seem unable to comprehend that, for example, African nuns do not have bank accounts and Catholic priests cannot adduce wives and families as evidence of an incentive to return home after their studies.
One would think the Home Office would want to hold up St Anselm’s as a shining example of probity, because 100 per cent of its students do complete their courses and return home; but instead it has removed that college’s Tier 4 status (which enables institutions to take in over-16s on student visas). The reason given is that revocation is automatic following the refusal of more than 10 per cent of visa applications. Yet the applications have been refused on the spurious grounds given above.
So St Anselm’s is off to Rome, Margate is the poorer and officials at the Home Office continue in blissful ignorance of the lives of those who apply to it for permission to undertake a short course. I don’t expect them to be able to list the offices in monasteries from Lauds to Compline, but I do expect them to have some general knowledge.
When I was an employment minister, I had to deal with the utter inability of some local offices to understand why vicars were suddenly appearing at their counters, homeless and wageless. It was, of course, following the exodus from the Cof E over the ordination of women. The confusion caused me both irritation and amusement but at least I understood it. The Apostolic Succession does not feature in Jobcentre training manuals.
Expecting nuns and priests to satisfy financial thresholds designed for people who are self-sufficient is of a quite different order of ignorance and is inexcusable. St Anselm’s itself undertook responsibility for them so it is that institution’s record which should have been the salient factor.
Some fairly significant people are writing to Amber Rudd, but if the letters are opened by people in her department who think Christmas is about Santa Claus and Easter about chocolate eggs then it is unlikely she will see them before St Anselm’s has gone to live in a better-informed state.
Survey after survey reveals astounding lack of even the most basic religious knowledge. One found, a few years ago, that a third of all children think Easter is about Easter Bunny’s birthday. Fewer than half knew its actual meaning. Children from the other half grow into adults who take jobs in the Home Office, social services and teaching.
This is a Christian country whose history and literary heritage have been shaped by the Church. Surely it is not too much to ask that there be a basic grasp of Christian teaching, significant festivals and common practices, especially in major organisations such as the Home Office and the BBC?
Is it appropriate, to use the BBC’s own phrase, to have people passing judgments on visa applications or commenting on religious practice who do not have the most basic grasp of religious reality?
This article first appeared in the March 17 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here