The story of Caroline Petrie, (1) suspended from duty as a community nurse on 17 December 2008 for offering to pray with a patient, is part of increasing intolerance towards Christian faith and values in contemporary Britain. Caroline was employed by North Somerset Primary Care Trust to carry out home visits. After completing a dressing on an elderly woman, she politely inquired if the patient wanted her to pray for her – either in her presence or after she had left. The patient declined, but has since stated she was not offended. She happened to mention the offer to another nurse the next day, and the subsequent report went back up the chain at the PCT.
.Caroline was accused of failing to demonstrate a 'personal and professional commitment to equality and diversity', was suspended from her part-time job (without pay), and later faced an internal disciplinary meeting. She sought help from the Christian Legal Centre who brought the case to national attention and the rest, as they say, is history. CMF was widely quoted in articles supporting Caroline, and there was an extraordinary outpouring of support from people, of all faiths and none, who felt she had been treated unfairly. Her suspension was lifted within a week and she returned to work.
Caroline Petrie did nothing wrong. Appropriate enquiries about patients' beliefs are an essential part of whole person care and a sensitive inquiry as to whether a patient would value prayer may well be an appropriate part of a consultation, especially in an NHS where some trusts actually pay spiritual healers in the care team.
Religion or Belief
The media subsequently launched an offensive against what they viewed as unacceptable political correctness. First they uncovered a new set of guidance, Religion or Belief, which had appeared on the Department of Health website. The guidance contained non-controversial material about respecting religious observance in the workplace (dietary requirements, prayer rooms, cultural dress codes, etc) but there were also worrying paragraphs that could have been used to discriminate against Christians who sought to share their faith at work, exercise conscientious objection on abortion, or express a biblical view on sexuality.
The Daily Telegraph specifically targeted the guidance on evangelism: 'it should be made clear to everyone from the first day of training and/or employment, and regularly restated, that (preaching and trying to convert other people), notwithstanding religious beliefs, could be construed as harassment under the disciplinary and grievance procedures'.
CMF was asked to comment. We pointed out that much of the NHS' ethos arose in a Christian environment, and that many great medical pioneers were motivated by a strong Christian faith. It was therefore ironic that Christian belief was being seen as something unhelpful, and that it no longer seemed acceptable to express orthodox Christian beliefs, share one's faith with others, or exercise Christian conscience. The guidance had been put together by a small consulting firm (Barbara Burford Consulting) who had little or no knowledge of religious belief, but rather a background in 'ethnic and sexual diversity', and had not consulted any major faith groups beforehand.
Shortly afterwards, further cases of discrimination came to national attention. A Christian foster carer was suspended because a 17-year-old Muslim girl in her charge had chosen to be baptised as a Christian. A school secretary was suspended because she had asked friends for prayer after her six-year-old daughter was disciplined for mentioning 'hell' to a classmate. These events led to a BBC poll showing that 62% of people wanted religion and its values to play an important role in British public life. (2) Moreover 63% of those questioned agreed that laws should respect and be influenced by the UK's religious values, findings which sharply contrast with calls from some politicians and secularist groups to exclude faith from the public arena.
Reflecting, I was reminded of Daniel, thrown into the lions' den for continuing his normal daily habit of public prayer, simply because of a change in the law brought about by a few malicious people hostile to him personally, and ill-disposed towards his faith and values. As Britain becomes increasingly post-Christian, we need to be increasingly vigilant about such changes in public sector 'guidance' or law. Graciously to challenge discriminatory moves early will at least make aggressors think twice about 'trying it on'. But more importantly, we need to decide now that come what may we are not ashamed about belonging to Jesus Christ, and will not be intimidated into silence, ethical compromise or abstaining from normal Christian behaviour such as verbal witness and prayer. As the Apostles said when asked to desist from sharing their faith: 'We obey God and not men'.