In a Telegraph report of 28 April, David Barrett relates that Michael Nazir Ali, former Bishop of Rochester, has written to the European Court of Human Rights in support of Christians who are claiming that they have suffered discrimination at work because they have been banned from wearing a cross. In his submission, Bishop Nazir Ali writes: “We have reached a stage where Christians in the United Kingdom risk their employment if they wear a cross. However, the United Kingdom courts have permitted the wearing of a Sikh bangle, the Islamic headscarf and even a corncrow haircut.”
The Government plans to argue at the same Court that employers have the right to ban the wearing of the cross because it is not a requirement of the Christian faith. Archbishop Rowan Williams, in what seems an embarrassing own goal, appeared to support (or at least not protest against) the Government’s position, by stating at a church service in Rome in March that the wearing of a cross had become something “which religious people make or hang on to” as a substitute for true faith. I disagree with him. “Religious people”, those who publicly profess their Christian faith, wear a cross as a sign of this faith (and who is he to judge their motives anyway?) It is non-religious people – often celebrities – who affect a cross simply as decoration or jewellery, but the Archbishop didn’t say this.
He should have said what was left to retired Anglican Bishop Nazir Ali to say: Christian employees should have the right to express their faith by wearing a cross. The Bishop went on to state, “Any policy that regards the cross as just an item of jewellery is deeply disturbing… It is disrespectful and insulting to practising Christians…The cross is ubiquitous in Christian devotion from the earliest times… The cross is the most easily recognisable Christian symbol in architecture, church furnishing and the dress of the clergy.” He added: “I am aware that many Christians wear the cross and would be distressed to be required to remove it.”
Bishop Nazir Ali echoes what Cardinal Keith O’Brien said in his Easter Sunday homily when he urged Christians to “wear proudly a symbol of the cross of Christ on their garments each and every day of their lives”, adding, “I know many of you do wear such a cross of Christ, not in any ostentatious way, not in a way that might harm you at your work or recreation, but a simple indication that you value the role of Jesus Christ in the history of the world, that you are trying to love by Christ’s standards in your own daily life.”
I was once given a pair of black earrings in the shape of crosses. I have never worn them. They couldn’t be seen as anything but items of jewellery; very different from the little silver Celtic cross, given to me by my mother, which I have worn round my neck for years. Perhaps it is time for parish priests to follow the example of Bishop Nazir Ali and Cardinal O’Brien, and preach about the importance of wearing a cross as a symbol of faith – and not as a style accessory.
The Church doesn’t make a “rule” about wearing a cross, rightly giving people the liberty to choose. But reverence for the cross and what it symbolises concerning the price of our redemption is “a requirement of the Christian faith”. If Christian employees choose to wear one, the Government should recognise this as an expression of deeply held beliefs – beliefs that have shaped the history, laws and culture of this country.