Rowan Williams may have resigned from his post of Archbishop of Canterbury last year after a turbulent decade in office, but speaking to an audience at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last week, Williams demonstrated he has by no means been cowed into reticence. Launching a withering critique of popular ideas concerning religion, spirituality and Christianity, Williams argued that Christians living in the US and UK who claim to feel 'persecuted’ for their faith simply need to ‘grow up’.
William’s comments come in the wake of an April poll by the Coalition for Marriage, which reported that 67 per cent of UK Christians feel that they are part of a "persecuted minority".
"When you've had any contact with real persecuted minorities you learn to use the word very chastely," Williams said. "Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. 'For goodness sake, grow up,' I want to say." He added the level of "not being taken very seriously" or "being made fun of" in Britain and the United States is not comparable to the "murderous hostility" faced by others in different parts of the world.
You might anticipate a cacophony of dissent and righteous indignation to follow this kind of pronouncement. But in fact for many believers these comments come as a refreshing departure from the usual claims of victimhood, the obsession with the supposed ‘hardships’ faced by Christians in modern society, and the conviction that religious freedoms are somehow under siege.
In recent years much of the Christian community in the West has become fixated with the idea of its own ill-treatment, fulminating over any piddling little incident it sees as evidence of this. Stories of BA employees being asked to remove crosses in the office, of chastity rings being forbidden in schools, or even such secular abominations as the substitution of ‘Happy Holidays’ for ‘Merry Christmas’ seem to command as much anger and energy from religious conservatives as poverty, hunger and humanitarian crises.
Not only are these matters clearly trifling in comparison with far more pressing global problems, but the very idea that western Christians are somehow a ‘persecuted minority’ is patently false. Far from being persecuted, they are protected, privileged, and still allowed to exercise an inordinate amount of power and influence in the political sphere. Bishops still sit in the House of Lords, even though it is an office barred to women, and members of the clergy are still invited to pontificate in political debates on all matters from drug use to pornography. Its hegemony may be diminishing, but the Church of England remains a much cosseted and indulged institution.
The stream of self-pity and indignation is also seemingly oblivious to the very tenets of New Testament instruction, which calls upon believers to embrace suffering and welcome persecution. The very origins and foundations of the Christian faith lie with the poor, the ostracised and the marginalised. The very Christian experience demands a degree of suffering and sacrifice. Since when did followers become so sensitive to the merest hint of tribulation? As Williams remarked, “speaking from the Christian tradition, the idea that being spiritual is just about having nice experiences is rather laughable. Most people who have written seriously about the life of the spirit in Christianity spend a lot of their time telling you how absolutely bloody awful it is!”
A church that expects to reign supreme and unchallenged as one of the most powerful institutions in the land is a church profoundly alienated from the truth of its original existence. And a Christian who confuses being mildly ridiculed with being persecuted is one who has lost sight of the real demands of their faith. Rowan Williams is right. They need to grow up.