I have been slowly giving up on Christmas cards for years. Besides all the usual dilemmas – to send them to people I never see any more or those I see all the time, charity ones or not – and the faff of queuing up in the Post Office to get stamps, I can never resolve which designs to pick. Religious – and therefore potentially excluding the many who dismiss the whole Nativity narrative as saccharine nonsense – or secular, they are all-too-often as bland and catch-all as the words: "Seasons greetings" (or more properly, since our current Education Secretary is keen on a return to traditional standards: "Season's greetings").
It gets more complicated, because by sending a card you are inevitably saying something about yourself by your choice of illustration. Logically, since I am religious and this is when we celebrate Jesus' birth, I should send religious cards. That, at least, is the vocal demand of George Carey, retired Archbishop of Canterbury, who has distracted us from our shopping this Advent with a pamphlet demanding that this Christmas Christians "wear their faith with pride".
Awful to admit, but his words made me squirm. Part of it is a sense of failure. I am just the sort of weak-kneed, have-it-all-ways believer this robust Anglican cleric despises. If we bump into the neighbours on a Sunday morning on the way out to mass, I mumble something about going to get the papers. Church-going, I tell myself, should be a private matter and I don't want them thinking they are living next door to religious fanatics. Almost as a reflex, I hear myself qualifying any reference to my (now long ago) role as Editor of the Catholic Herald by stressing how "normal" it was – essentially a trade newspaper like any other. Lord Carey – and all those "out-and-proud" Christians who joined him earlier this month in marking Not-Ashamed Day – would not, I'm sure, hesitate for a second over sending Madonna and Child Christmas cards to their most aggressively secular friends (though I doubt they have any), in case the recipients saw it as a subtle ploy to convert them. So why do I?
Well, for a start, I do not share the profoundly defensive attitude that underpins this whole movement to prod Christians into "standing up for Jesus Christ in public life".
It is part of a wider view that sees Britain's Christian heritage as currently under siege and which therefore makes modern-day martyrs out of those who it regards as "victimised" for their faith, such as British Airways worker, Nadia Eweida, banned from wearing a visible crucifix when at work, and Gary McFarlane, a Bristol church elder who was dismissed by Relate for refusing to counsel gay couples on account of his beliefs.
There are indeed many people victimised for their faith around the globe – the example of Iraq's beleaguered Christian minority, currently being targeted and murdered by al-Qa'ida associates, springs most readily to mind. But for Lord Carey to bleat about the fate of "victims" here in Britain suggests, at the very least, a lack of proportion and potentially something wrong-headed. Wrapped up in their determination to keep Britain Christian, there is an underplaying – to put it kindly – of the role of both other faith traditions and the larger currents of agnosticism/atheism that are also part and parcel of what it has meant and still means to be British.
It is, in short, a prejudice dressed up as an appeal for justice.
Yes, we are presently struggling to strike a balance between the freedoms of different groups – especially when one person's right to make a public display of their faith tramples on another's right to hold the opposite view. And, after centuries of the Christian way being given absolute primacy over all-comers, we are now in a period of adjustment, where other voices, religious and not, are also being heard (though there are still 26 Anglican bishops in the House of Lords).
With a modicum of common sense and respect, though, such flashpoints can largely be avoided.
Marching around waving crucifixes in everybody's faces, by contrast, is the sort of counter-productive idiocy that used to be the preserve of the nutters of the Christian Union when I was university. They would hold prayer vigils outside the bedroom door of any fellow undergraduate they feared was committing the "sin" of sex before marriage. For many of those targeted, it was a kind of aphrodisiac.
Even the Jehovah's Witnesses don't take it quite so far. There is one of their Kingdom Halls on the next street to mine and its regulars often start their door-knocking at 8.30am on a Saturday in our road. I stumble down the stairs to be greeted by an array of smiles as broad as (Christmas card) reindeers and an invitation to get to know Jesus. I used to reply that I was Catholic, thinking it would make them leave me alone to crawl back to bed, but they always come straight back with: "But what about Jesus?"
What is it they think Catholicism is about? Actually don't answer that – I know what you are going to say.
Another element stopping me "wearing my faith with pride" is that catalogue of outrages by "my" Church. When other parents asked me, quite reasonably, in the immediate wake of the revelation of child sex abuse by priests and its cover-up by the church hierarchy, how I could bear to send my children to a Catholic school, I struggled to answer. In fact, I heard the question most often at the gates of my daughter's Catholic primary school from other parents: "What are we all doing?"
The answer, we agreed, was that the school is a warm, loving, outward-looking, tolerant and entirely safe place, far removed from the institutions exposed in the reports of paedophile priests and abusive nuns, now largely closed.
Moreover, the Church today has rigorous systems in place to make sure that there will be no repeat of the culture of abuse and secrecy. Yet that is a pragmatic position, not an impregnable argument with which to silence questioners. Hence a certain reluctance I recognise in myself to stand up and be counted as Catholic.
It strikes most often at chattering classes' dinner parties. It is just easier to blend in and let the barbs about organised religion go, especially since often there is something in them. And I also tend to shrink from confrontations with the new breed of militant atheists, though I did recently manage to find myself sharing a stage at a literary festival with arch-church bashers Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling in a debate on faith schools.
In response to their damning portrait of training camps for intolerance and emotional arrested development, I concentrated on my positive experience of the reality of current practice in them. Not that such a cautious approach did me much good. As well as being lambasted by Professor Dawkins for being "wicked" – the first time anyone had used that adjective of me in my 48 years – because I was violating my children's human rights by inflicting a religious education on them, I was also hauled over the coals by a member of the audience who wanted to know why I wasn't speaking up more forcibly for God.
Ah, yes, God. Not so much the God delusion, but the God dilemma. Like many believers, I've never been that good at talking about God, probably because my own religious beliefs don't stretch to easy definitions of the divine. Faith is about searching for clarity, not achieving it. Which is a half-hearted sort of excuse for not doing what the gospel unambiguously demands of all Christians – to go out and spread the "Good News". Christianity – and indeed Islam and other religions – calls on its members to evangelise. Yet it is the bit that most of us find trickiest because evangelisation inevitably involves stepping on others' cherished beliefs and so has been the pretext throughout human history for so many conflicts, that all but the Jehovah's Witnesses tend today to play it very low-key. Almost the only public figures standing up for Jesus today on public platforms are Ann Widdicombe, now that she's done with dancing (or dancing is done with her), and Tony Blair, most recently losing out to Christopher Hitchens in Toronto in a debate before an audience of 2,700 on the motion "Religion is a force for good in the world".
Compared with my own vacillation in the face of other militant atheists, I can only praise Blair's courage is agreeing to undergo such an ordeal by fire, though he may have his own reasons – the zeal of the convert and what seems, despite his denial in his autobiography, to be a sort of crucifixion complex over the Iraq war.
Without the guilt of Blair, the narrow vision of Carey or the imperviousness to rejection of the Jehovah's Witnesses, though, is there anything attractive to be said for casting off inhibitions about religious faith in the public arena? Before Pope Benedict arrived in Britain this autumn, there was a lot of focus on the abuse scandal, yet when he got here he managed, more or less, to win a grudging respect from his audience – religious or not – by his transparent sincerity and by touching a nerve over concerns about the pace of secularisation. If you could bottle the essence of his success during those four days in September, it would be summed up in the phrase: "Don't be so shy about your faith".
Benedict used his visit to shine a light on the undeniable benefits faith and the faithful bring to society, by going to church-run old people's homes, and by sharing a platform in Hyde Park with community groups working with the poor, the needy and the marginalised. That is something all believers should feel proud to trumpet.
Not being shy is, moreover, quite distinct from Lord Carey's call not to be ashamed. In its essential defensiveness, the latter feels like an act of aggression. Making religion less invisible, on the other hand, allowing its role in the lives of individuals, communities and society to be acknowledged and discussed, is more nuanced, more achievable, and does not necessitate doing anyone else down into the bargain. It is also undeniably vaguer, which may be a comfort for we spiritually shy, but not for long.
At the same time as Lord Carey published his booklet, Catholic bishops of England and Wales were meeting to discuss how to build on the papal visit. One idea was to restore the traditional practice of abstaining from meat one day a week – best, if inaccurately, remembered as "fish on Fridays". When it was dropped in the 1960s, it was felt to stigmatise Catholics and was seen as an unnecessary obstacle to them participating fully in the secular world. However, times have changed and there may now be a place once more, wrote Bishop Kieron Conry in an Advent pastoral letter to his diocese of Arundel and Brighton, for "one of the most obvious signs of Catholic identity".
It would mark Catholics out, he said, but not as "odd", simply as "different". And difference is a positive.
Recent history in this field, of course, has been all about removing differences – by, for example, abandoning blasphemy laws that only protected Christianity, or dropping some of the blocks that had existed since the Reformation on Catholics holding high office. And as part of that Catholics – and other believers – have increasingly embraced the idea that they are indistinguishable from everyone else, with positive benefits in terms of an almost seamless integration into all areas of national life. But perhaps something has been lost in the process and we now need a touch on the tiller – slightly less inhibition alongside a willingness to embrace difference. So, religious Christmas cards it must be. Now it just remains to sort out who is on my list.
Peter Stanford's Why I Am Still A Catholic is published by ContinuumReuse content