Cross about the cross
Here we go again. More splutter, froth and fulminating about a trinket which, if literalist-fundamentalists took all of their Bible literally, they would understand is expressly forbidden in the New Testament, for God is more concerned with the purity of the heart than with outward beautification and ornamental adornment (1Pet 3:3; 1Tim 2:9). The Archbishop of Canterbury is quite right: a cross around the neck has been 'stripped of its meaning' and become little more that a 'religious decoration'. Andrea Minichiello Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre, apparently finds these comments 'unhelpful'. It is not clear why, since they are self-evident truths: millions wear crosses as jewellery, in ways they tend not to wear a hijab or turban. A cross around the neck is manifestly not an essential attribute of the Christian faith nor an indispensable component of Christian worship. And if it has become so, you are shrouded in obsessive idolatry.
So much has been written about this that the Prime Minister has felt the need to wade in (a wading which is devoid of conviction), and so has Eric Pickles (which is overflowing with sincerity). Speaking at Local Government Questions in the House of Commons, Mr Pickles said: "It's certainly my view that providing any object doesn't get in the way of doing the job that a discreet display of someone's religion is something we should welcome."
And there we have the utterly common-sense position: if you're working a lathe in a factory and happen to have a cross dangling round your neck, when your employer insists that you remove it, it is to ensure your safety, not attack your faith. In such contexts, headscarves and all jewellery are likely to banned, without favour or discrimination.
But when an employer permits Muslims to wear hijabs and Sikhs to wear karas and turbans while prohibiting Christians from wearing a cross, that is a manifest inequality and arbitrary discrimination against the Christians' right to manifest their religion. This is a point which appears to be beyond poor Terry Secular of the National Sanderson Society. Writing on the Guardian's CommentIsFree, he pores over the Eweida/BA Tribunal judgement without any awareness at all of the mandatory dynamics of character assassination which play out in such scenarios. It matters not a jot that Nadia Eweida was an insensitive, bullying, bigoted zealot: by permitting Muslims and Sikhs to manifest their religions while prohibiting her from doing so, British Airways were unfairly discriminating against her and acting prejudicially.
Unfortunately, Government lawyers are now about to do the same in Strasbourg. Which perhaps ought to come as no surprise when the Government is religiously illiterate and David Cameron is surrounded by secularists. But it does look a little odd when the Prime Minister is saying one thing back home while Government lawyers are putting the contrary view in a foreign court.
That aside, there is one dimension of this tediously chronic saga which tends to be completely ignored: it ought not to be for Parliament or the Courts to determine on matters of religious orthodoxy, and yet, increasingly, it is politicians and judges who are presuming to nullify centuries and millennia of religious custom and practice. We saw this most recently in the judgement of the secular Supreme Court which overrode the Chief Rabbi and 3,500 years of Jewish tradition in the definition of what it is to be Jewish. If the Supreme Court is now the ultimate authority of what it is to be Jewish, it stands to reason that the courts must determine whether or not a cross around the neck is as religiously necessary, as theologically mandatory or as spiritually significant as a hijab is for Muslims or a turban and kara are for Sikhs.
And here the politicians and courts (along with BA and the majority of employers) labour under a number of misapprehensions. Muslim women are told nowhere in the Qur'an or the Ahadith that the hijab, or any head covering, is obligatory; the stipulation is that women 'must dress modestly'. And Sikh men are increasingly viewing the example set by Guru Nanak as normative, when there is no such stipulation of law in the Guru Granth Sahib, not least because the GGS is a purely devotional book; not a book of divine revelation like the Torah, Bible or Qur'an. These items of religious clothing may, therefore, be considered as much 'ornamental adornment' as a silver cross.
Sikh men are, however, exhorted not to cut their hair - it is one of the 'Five Ks', and the turban simply became a sensible way of keeping it all together - a Indian cultural phenomenon. It is only the modernist Western mindset that seeks to impose upon this sub-continental manifestation the paradigm of its own understanding of religion. If Sikhs are divided on this, and on how they manifest their faith in a modern Western context, who are the Human Rights lawyers and secular courts to decree what is integral and mandatory?
Muslims are as divided on hijab-wearing as Sikhs are on turban-wearing: there is no authoritative interpretation of the qur'anic exhortation to 'dress modestly', which is the precise phrase in Arabic used by Mohammed. While the Taliban of Afghanistan enforce the burkha, Saudi Arabia is content with the niqab, others the hijab, and still others nothing at all. 'Modesty' is either culturally enforced by an external agent, or left to an individual's conscience. Asking a secular court to judge authoritatively on this is as pointless as requesting an authoritative statement on whether Christians should wear a the plain Protestant cross or the more Catholic crucifix.
And that will involve the courts in endless discussion and debate over the 'blasphemous and idolatrous' Sacrifice of the Mass, transubstantiation, vicarious mediation, atonement and exegesis of Hebrews 10:14. As well as grappling with whether the Guru Granth Sahib is more like Leviticus or the Pslamody, and the Hadith has equal status with the Qur'an.
Is this really a matter for the European Court of Human Rights?