When Caroline Petrie offered to pray for an elderly patient, as she usually did in her community nurse role, she nev er expected that it would lead to a two-month suspension from work, a disciplinary hearing and a subsequent media storm. ‘I was shocked and stunned,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t aware praying could have got me suspended. It wasn’t until I called my union and they said that I could be struck off the register that it sunk in. Nurses are dealing with life and death. So asking if someone wants prayer seems safe really. When a manager asked [later] if she thought it was offensive, I said “What’s offensive about prayer?”’
Petrie is not alone. Recently the newspapers have regularly featured cases where Christians have lost their jobs or otherwise been disciplined for expressing their faith in the workplace. Such stories have increased fears about persecution against Christians in the UK. ‘A change has taken place in the last ten years,’ says Dan Boucher, a director of Christian charity CARE. ‘Being a Christian in the UK has become difficult in a way that it didn’t used to be. We are on a trajectory that is sobering and people have the right to be very concerned and ask “Where are we headed?” We are nowhere near North Korea, but we are not in the place that we used to be.’
According to Steve Fouch at Christian Nurses and Midwives the cases that reach the papers are just the tip of the iceberg. He is aware of 18 similar cases just through CNM and the Christian Medical Fellowship alone, and thinks there are probably many more. In one unpublicised case, a student nurse was suspended from her course for simply answering questions about her faith.
And while those in caring professions such as nursing appear to be particularly vulnerable, the fear is more widespread. Those who work with the public are afraid that they could lose their jobs and careers if they talk about Jesus or otherwise express their faith. ‘Whenever I travel to churches, I always hear people say they have left a job because of this kind of situation,’ says Andrea Minichiello Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre. ‘They say they’re a charity and when they were inspected they hid their Bibles, or teachers say they are told not to talk about their faith.’
Many of these cases relate to changes in legislation through the Employment Equality Regulations of 2003. The law now prohibits acting differently or expressing negative views towards someone because they are gay or lesbian, or because they have a different religion. It also prohibits ‘harassment’ which is unwanted and ‘creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’. Most obviously, this has led to recent problems at work for Christians who do not want to treat gay and lesbian people equally in their role, for example where a relationship counsellor does not want to help a gay couple through relationship problems, or a registrar does not want to work on civil partnerships. These are often related to other changes in legislation designed to improve the equality of gay and lesbian people, such as the introduction of civil partnerships.
Perhaps more worryingly these laws also mean, as for Caroline Petrie, that Christians could find difficulties with just expressing their faith, evangelising or offering to pray, if it is deemed to be ‘harassment’ or discriminating against a person’s faith or their lack of faith.
The difficulty is how to define ‘harassment’ and dealing with the widely different views on faith and religion and what is ‘offensive’ in the UK. While some people have brought complaints, leading to Christians facing disciplinary action, the public outcry from the media suggests that others find offering to pray entirely acceptable and welcome. ‘That’s why the subjectivity is so dangerous,’ says Minichiello Williams. ‘The government should not be interfering with people’s beliefs. When the government does this, it can cause uncertainties and miscarriages of justice. The government is seeking to ban certain types of speech from the public square.’
Aside from the law, most professional codes of conduct are not explicit about what people can and can’t say, and neither are employment contracts. While this brings in a lot of uncertainty in whether a Christian can offer to pray or evangelise in any way, it also means that some cases then can be judged to be appropriate. Caroline Petrie and Olive Jones were reinstated to their jobs after dismissal or suspension. One of the problems is that members of staff are usually suspended when a complaint is made, whatever the nature of a complaint, to ensure they can’t face further allegations if the motive is malicious. ‘In most cases people are reinstated,’ says Steve Fouch. ‘They usually suspend people for their own protection – but then a stigma is attached to them even if they have been exonerated. Or if they are a bank nurse like Caroline Petrie, they have lost income.’
Often employers are very unclear as to what is and isn’t allowed. ‘A lot of health service managers really have no idea where the boundaries lie,’ says Fouch. ‘The real danger for a lot of people is that they are afraid that if they don’t act they could be disciplined or suspended for not treating it seriously. But they don’t really know whether it is or it isn’t allowed. It is not always a case of outright persecution.’
Prayer and evangelism
Some employers state clearly that there are situations where expressing faith would be allowed. ‘Praying may be appropriate with a patient who has been in hospital for a long time, and they know enough about that person to do so,’ says a spokesperson for the Nursing and Midwifery Council. ‘For someone else it might not be if they don’t share those views. It is down to the employer at local policy level, and whether a person feels offended and chooses to raise that with the employer. If they are told not to bring faith into work, and if they continue to do that, then it is likely to lead to disciplinary proceedings.’
Although this ambiguity and uncertainty is alarming, the fact is that whatever the policies are and however managers interpret them, nothing will happen unless someone is concerned enough to make a complaint. This means that if a Christian uses sensitivity (and the Holy Spirit) to determine whether it is appropriate, then they are less likely to face a complaint. ‘It is about context – if a police officer offered to pray for a victim of crime or a suspect or an offender, it would not necessarily prompt a complaint,’ says a spokesperson for the Independent Police Complaints Commission. ‘But if the context was wrong, if the person was from a different religion or had expressed negative attitude towards being offered prayers, and had given the impression that they didn’t want it but the officer would go ahead anyway – that could be judged as incivility.’
Sometimes it can be difficult for a Christian to judge what is offensive and what isn’t, to secular ears. ‘If I was in a work environment, I wouldn’t be uncomfortable if someone said, “Jesus loves you”,’ says a spokesman for the National Secular Society. ‘The problem is if people aggressively evangelise and put people in uncomfortable situations. If you allow religious language in the workplace it is inviting complaints because religion is a divisive issue.’
Some Christians argue that evangelism is always inappropriate in the secular workplace, such as the case of Duke Amachree, a homelessness prevention officer who talked to a client about God. Some state it is inappropriate to evangelise when you have a certain degree of control over the lives of the people you work with. ‘It was probably very well intentioned, but he has to realise he is employed by a local authority, in a position of power, and that causing distress is inappropriate,’ says Jonathan Bartley of Christian thinktank Ekklesia. ‘In all these cases there is nothing to stop anyone praying for someone quietly at home or saying “God bless”, but there is a line that people are crossing where behaviour is inappropriate, where they are in a position of power and care.’
For those who believe sharing the gospel is part of their work, there are more subtle approaches to doing so. ‘It is about seeking to meet their needs rather than just trying to evangelise,’ says Fouch. ‘It is not appropriate to just ram the gospel down people’s throats. There are situations to share the gospel but it takes wisdom and discernment to do it.’
There are also situations where it seems clear that expressing faith is inappropriate. In one case recently ruled on by the General Social Care Council, a social worker was disciplined because he had given a client a cheque for £500, which he suggested could be used to go and visit a particular pastor. He also advised a client that they needed a miracle, ‘probably several’ and gave other religious information. This would probably not be condoned by many Christians as it is, but the particular details of the case are alarming; the client was a mother whose child was suspected to have been sexually abused, and who was described as ‘extremely vulnerable’.
‘Not all of these cases are cases where [the complainant] has over-reacted,’ says Fouch. ‘Sometimes a nurse has stepped out of the boundaries, sometimes through an unguarded comment and sometimes through plain tactlessness and insensitivity, or taking a very adversarial approach to evangelising and not a very gracious one. In those circumstances, it is appropriate that they get warned that it isn’t a good way to behave.’
What should Christians do?
So what is appropriate and what isn’t? What is identifying their spiritual needs, and what is insensitive or aggressive? Minichiello Williams argues that it is the nature of the gospel that is offensive, and that Christians should not be afraid to proclaim it. ‘What people are offended by is the exclusivity of Christ... [which is] leading to censorship and oppression [of the Christian] in our society,’ she says.
However others argue that we need to preach the gospel through our actions and the way in which we respond to individuals. ‘We have to be careful because of the Christian privileged place in society, perhaps we get a little bit tactless in the way we express our faith and share the good news,’ says Bartley. ‘If we look at Jesus, he used everyday examples from the world around him and walks with truth, and he finds a way in. Christians need to be doing more of this, because we tend to think we can just spout John 3:16 as a prayer strategy. That’s never been a good strategy and it’s usually inappropriate.’
In fact Bartley argues that when a Christian is disciplined for expressing their faith, that it presents an opportunity to further present the gospel. ‘Christians are supposed to be peacemakers and reconcilers... the way to deal with these cases is mediation.’
Caroline Petrie negotiated a compromise with her employers. Now she asks patients ‘Have you got a faith?’ first; or ‘Do you have spiritual needs?’ She seeks guidance from the Holy Spirit about what to say and do, and has not ever wanted to impose on people. ‘I wouldn’t want anyone to impose anything on me,’ she says. ‘I pray a lot between cases. You have to listen to what God is saying. I’m not saying every situation is the same. Everyone is different, I won’t barge in. I love these people and I want to be there for them. The smallest level of love is deeper than anything else in this world, just smiling and holding their hand is important, it’s not just about witnessing to people. You should always be sensitive – being sensitive is being loving, it’s a fruit of the spirit. I might pray quietly, but I wouldn’t just not do anything.’
The issue of working in situations where your religious beliefs are being compromised appears a little different. As the world becomes more secular, issues such as dealing with civil partnerships are coming up more and more – in the future it might be stem cells, euthanasia or other changes that some Christians feel will compromise their moral beliefs. While some argue that Christians must avoid this kind of work because it is unbiblical, others argue that loving the world and being a Christian presence is more important. ‘The issue is a compromise – how far can you compromise biblical values in order to provide care?’ says Fouch. ‘On the other side, how much do you distance yourself from the world before you cease to be salt and light in the workplace? It is becoming a very acute question. The boundaries are not always clear, they are shifting because of changing social attitudes, new technology and legislation.’
‘Giving to Caeser what is Caeser’s is relevant,’ says John Kuhrt, director of Community Mission. ‘If your employer has an equal opportunities policy, you have to decide whether to work there or not. Nowadays it is more controversial to be a Christian, and we have to be equipped for the new landscape we are in. I just don’t think we should expect that being a Christian is a walk in the park anymore. We have to be careful about how hysterical we get.’