Monday, April 16, 2012

Catholic in the UK- A Guest Post from Elizabeth

"When I was 6 years old, having watched The Adventures of Robin Hood and read The Once and Future King a few too many times, I told my parents that I was going to move to Britain.   At the time, they laughed it off and forgot all about it.   But 12 years later, my dad and I boarded a plane destined for Edinburgh, Scotland, so I could begin my first year at the University of St Andrews.  When I arrived in Scotland, I was not yet a Catholic – I was still a somewhat lapsed Anglican (the established church of England).  But in the September before my fourth and final year, I was received into the Catholic Church.  Before my conversion, I always had faith and prayed regularly even as my churchgoing ebbed and flowed.  So I assumed that being a Catholic in Britain would be relatively similar to being an Anglican in Britain...naively imagining that the British anti-Catholicism was a relic of a distant past.  And to be fair, anti-Catholicism on religious grounds (i.e. prejudice against Catholics by fervent Protestants) is fairly thin on the ground (although my Church of Scotland-raised boyfriend’s family had never met a Catholic before), now that we can own property and have Bishops (yay Catholic Relief Act of 1829!).  But anti-Catholicism as the forefront of the British war on religion is clear and seemingly here to stay.  
To understand the relationship modern Britain has with the Church, you have to understand that the Britain that was the Dowry of Mary, the Britain that produced Edward the Confessor, St Margaret of Scotland, David Livingstone and William Wilberforce, the Britain that produced the King James Bible is well and truly gone.  Just over half of Brits say they belong to a religion, and only 47% consider themselves Christian. Only 10% of British people attend Church weekly, compared to 41% of Americans. Even the state with the lowest church attendance, Vermont, easily beats Britain with 23% attending Church every week. 

It always astounds me just how a-religious Brits truly are, especially since they retain all the traditional Christian holidays (Good Friday and Easter Monday are national holidays).  But to give you some idea of just the level of religious illiteracy I’m talking bout here: last Advent I went to every shop in town looking for Christmas cards and in one I asked the shop assistant if they had religious cards.  The poor guy took me up the escalator, through the kids section, past the dressing room and proudly pointed me at the Santa display.  And that’s nothing compared to my first Ash Wednesday in England.  When I arrived an hour late, having told my boss I needed to go to Mass before work, no fewer than 5 people came up to me to tell me that I forgot to wash my face that morning.  None of them had ever seen someone with ash on their forehead, and when I explained what Ash Wednesday was, it transpired that none of them had ever realized it was connected to Lent or involved actual ashes.  

So while it’s true that religious anti-Catholicism is gone, that’s only because there are almost no religious Britons left (and those who are left are likely to be Catholic, since there are now more practicing Catholics than practicing Anglicans). But secular anti-Catholicism, anti-Christianity and anti-religion are definitely on the rise. And the Church in Britain is facing serious threats from an increasingly secular society that views Christians, and Catholics in particular, as a damaging force in society.  
To give you some idea of the challenges the Church is facing here, it is worth remembering that Obama’s now infamous HHS Mandate, if not struck down by the Supreme Court, will effectively prevent Catholics from providing charitable services to or employing non-Catholics.  It will curtail our ability to help the poor and will turn freedom of religion into freedom of worship, the mere right to do what we want in our churches as long as we leave it at the door when we leave.  But here in Britain, even the freedom to the sacraments in our churches is under fire.  The Coalition Government, led by Prime Minster David Cameron, has proposed an amendment to allow civil partnership ceremonies for gay couples to be held in churches.  Needless to say, this proposal has greatly concerned not only Catholics, but also Britain’s Jewish and Muslim communities.  Father Marcus Stock, general secretary of the English Catholic Bishops’ Conference, made clear that the Church “will not allow civil partnerships to be registered on its premises.”  This backlash prompted Mike Weatherley, a Conservative Member of Parliament (i.e. an MP from the Prime Minister’s own party) to write Cameron an open letter arguing that churches who refuse to perform gay civil partnerships should be banned from performing any marriages.  Chillingly, Weatherley compared the situation to Catholic adoption agencies refusing to place children with gay couples, reminding Cameron that when those agencies did not comply, they were shut down.  “As long as religious groups can refuse to preside over ceremonies for same-sex couples, there will be inequality,” Weatherley wrote, adding “such behaviour is not tolerated in other areas, such as adoption, after all.”  It is true that Weatherley is just one MP, and yet the fact that an MP from the governing party can publicly suggest that Christians who won’t perform gay civil ceremonies should be prevented from performing any marriages with no consequences or reprimands is a sign, I suspect, of things to come.  
And unfortunately, while Weatherley’s attack on marriage is still theoretical, there have been a number of court cases in recent years that directly attack the rights of Christians.  As Weatherley alluded, all of Britain’s Catholic adoption agencies have been shut down or have ceased to be Catholic, after the government passed a law forcing the agencies to place children with homosexual couples.  In 2007, a London registrar named Lillian Ladele, a devout Christian, was told to perform same sex civil partnerships or lose her job; in 2009, she lost her appeal in 2009.  In 2008, relationship counsellor Gary McFarlane lost his job when he refused to provide sex therapy for same sex couples on the grounds that it violated his Christian principles.  He lost his appeal in 2010 as the presiding judge, Lord Justice Laws, commented that a “law for the protection of a position held purely on religious grounds is irrational, divisive, capricious, (and) arbitrary.”  In 2011, Adrian Smith posted about his disapproval of ‘gay church marriages’ on his private Facebook page.  After two colleagues reported his comments to his employer (Trafford Housing Trust, or THT), Smith was demoted and had his salary cut by 40%.  He is now appealing in Manchester County Court, where District Judge Charles Khan has banned Smith from using human rights arguments (like freedom of speech or religion) to argue he was unfairly dismissed.  Earlier this year, a judge ruled that two Scottish Catholic midwives can be forced to supervise abortions against their will. And currently, two women who lost their jobs for refusing to remove their cross/crucifix necklaces are pressing their case at the European Court of Human Rights, which the British government plans to contest.  The government will argue that Christians do not have the right to wear a cross because there is no “suggestion that...wearing of a visible cross or crucifix (is) a generally recognized form of practicing the Christian faith, still less one that is a requirement of the faith.”  Britain’s only Cardinal, Keith Patrick O’Brien of Edinburgh responded to this latest attack by calling on Catholics to “openly wear a Cross ‘every day of their lives’ to show support for the religious values that are often marginalized in Britain today.”

It is certainly true that the treatment the Church receives in Britain is nothing compared to the persecution suffered by many Christians around the world.   But it is growing, and it should be a source of concern, not least for the fact that in many of the countries where religious persecution is rampant, there is no concept of a right to religious freedom.  The intolerance for Christianity in Britain, the US and throughout Europe is noteworthy precisely because these are the countries that created liberal democracy and the concept of human rights. And it is growing.   I hope you’ll keep us in your prayers, because I think we’re going to need them." 

Elizabeth R is a Californian Catholic convert living near London.  She moved to the UK in 2006 to study international politics and now works with disabled children at a Catholic school in a large London suburb.  


  1. What an interesting look into Catholicism in Britain. Thanks for this sharing this story. I'm just appalled at the contempt for Catholicism and Christianity overall that exists in Britain (and probably most of Europe). How sad that the very religion that gave rise to our modern society should be so persecuted.

  2. Reading this story reminds me of the great blessings I have to live in my "Catholic Bubble". Nearly all of my friends, my parents and my siblings are practicing Catholics. Even when I was working, the majority of my colleagues were Catholic. Although most were not regularly practicing Catholics, the Catholic identity was strong. I see the U.S. headed toward the secularism that we see in Europe and it is so very sad. I heard a report the other day that many "cultural Catholics" are not bringing their children to the Church for Sacraments, as they would have in the past.

  3. Hi Elizabeth. Are you sure religious anti-Catholicism has gone here? We are in the throes of an anti Catholic campaign by a group of evangelical christian homeschoolers with whom we meet at a Christian homeschool group. In the Evangelical Alliance for example, anti-Catholicism is "institutionalised" to borrow that infamous description!

  4. Hi Anonymous, I'm not obviously talking about every situation, but more broadly based on my experiences living in various parts of the UK for the last 6 years. It's certainly not vanished from everywhere, but in my experience, secular anti-Catholicism is the much more dominant force across the country. I think probably the Christian homeschool group you mentioned is a very localised situation that isn't necessarily representative of the whole country, since most of the country isn't Evangelical or Christian at all, although I'm sure the anti-Catholicism you're experiencing is very difficult. I was really trying to speak more about the trends throughout the whole country, rather than comment on local situations (since I would only be qualified to address the local situations in the 3 towns/cities where I've lived). Hope that helps.


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