Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Here we go again: Christian nurse "Discriminated against" after being told "not to wear cross" at work (shock, horror)

This issue comes around a couple of times a year here and all sorts of people jump on all sorts of bandwagons that reveal a lot about their misunderstanding of the religious issues and all sorts of prejudices that would be better off being kept hidden. In short, nurse Shirley Chaplin has been told by her employers that she can not wear her cross in a visible way on duty. Story Here I must point out that I wouldn't normally recommend this newspaper but the way it deals with the story is interesting. It's banner summary is actually misleading to start with.

Note straight away the comparison between Mrs. Chaplin and other workers at the hospital. Is it too interpretive to read between the lines and see White, British and Christian Mrs. Chaplin is denied the opportunity to wear her cross while foreign, brown Muslims may wear their headscarves? To me this is the subtext, especially as you get a lot of this sort of thing in The Star

Everytime this story in all its infinite varieties appears my first question is simply to ask, where in Christianity, its scriptures or its church traditions is the wearing of any item of clothing or jewellery mandatory? The answer is nowhere, so Mrs. Chaplin is on to a loser straight away. But, she notes, she has worn the cross since her confirmation and to hide it would "violate her faith". Violate? Good grief. She is a bit light on details and specifics at this point and if I met her I would want to press her on that. (I'd also want to ask what visible symbols Jesus wore so that people would know what he stood for.)

Note that her employers haven't asked her not to wear the cross, merely to wear it under her uniform. The NHS Trust correctly pointed out that the wearing of a cross is not mandatory in Christianity but against all logic her response was to assert I view this as a clear discrimination against Christians. The Trust clearly regard themselves as experts on religious manifestations of all faiths. As in If you don't agree with me you are wrong! Mrs. Chaplin sees herself as the victim of politically correct persecution, particularly as other hospital staff have been allowed to carry on wearing the Muslim hijab or headscarf. Hasn't she missed the point then?

So let's regroup here: my Sikh colleagues should wear the little steel bangle. It is mandatory in Sikhism but actually most have chosen to remove them. My female Muslim colleagues should wear headscarves in observance of Islamic teaching although some have chosen not to. Mrs Chaplin has no mandatory requirement to wear a cross but she insists on doing so while complaining about Muslim, and presumably Sikh, expressions of religious faith and somehow this is discriminatory but she can not say why other than to repeat that the groups are being treated differently.

My experience of Muslim nurses is that their wearing of headscarves can be accommodated within the hospital's uniform rules. The Sikh bus drivers around here wear turbans in the bus company's colours. Where are the health and safety issues there? There are none. At school our pupils are told they should not wear jewellery other than watches and discrete ear studs and they must remove those for P.E.
The Muslim boy who wanted to wear a ring he bought in Mecca was given short shrift: it wasn't mandatory. The Sikh boys remove their bangles without fuss. Were they discriminated against? No. Health and Safety is as important in a school as it is in a hospital setting. Visible jewellery harbours germs and can be dangerous to patients - rings, broaches, other pendants are not acceptable, so why should a religious item be?

Now doesn't this also become a gender thing at this point? I have a little cross made of sea glass which I sometimes wear. No one can see it because I am a man and men don't tend to wear crosses outside clothing. If I were a Christian male nurse then, there would be no issue presumably: I'd be wearing it, no one would see it - even if they knew about it, so everyone would be happy. My faith would not be violated. If I took it off it wouldn't be violated either. It is a religious symbol: to see it otherwise is to head down the road of idolatry.

Am I right in sensing a personal agenda here? This isn't about Christianity, this is about me, me, me and my rights Mrs. Chaplin. It seems to me that this cross has become a real stumbling block to the real expression of her "devout" faith. What sort of public witness has this story conveyed? In a time when Christians should show the value and reality of their faith in the lives they lead, to the cynical non-churched public, expressions of Christianity are reduced to the wearing of a bit of religious bling. Being told to hide your cross is NOT the same as being told to hide your religion. If you need to wear a cross so that people know what you stand for then you've already lost the argument. If people know what you stand for then you don't need a cross.

Own goal, Mrs. Chaplin.

Then we get The Daily Mail also misrepresenting the issue Every Christian at work will now be afraid to mention their beliefs. Well despite the Mail's attempts at scaremongering and whipping up the vitriol of Middle England I shan't be going to work afraid that my students and colleagues know I am a Christian. What a ridiculous idea.

The trust may have won the legal argument today, but its reputation has been damaged, as the moral argument was won before I even entered the tribunal How self deluding. It is Christianity's reputation which has been tarnished here and there was no moral argument to be won on this topic. To make an issue of this was about as self-defeating as it gets.

It is at this point that the Archbishop of Canterbury throws in his weight, referring to wooden-headed bureaucratic silliness. You'd think he'd know by now to be careful about what he says in public. Perhaps health and safety isn't an issue at Lambeth Palace.

The cross as a stumbling block to real expressions of faith? That's a difficult one but I am put in mind of a story Jesus told in Matthew's Gospel: Jesus encounters a devout young man: the man was a spiritual person. He asked Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life. He was genuinely interested in growing closer to God. He had kept all the commandments from his youth. However Jesus identified his stumbling block - possessions: Jesus answered, If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.

UPDATE Mrs. Chaplin has lost her appeal to an Industrial Tribunal. The legal judgement is that there has been no discrimination.