Nadia Eweida, British Airways employee sacked for wearing a cross. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive/Press Association
Common sense is in distressingly short supply in modern Britain. We are becoming, instead, slightly neurotic. The specific issue around which this is focused at present is Christianity. When someone makes an ordinary remark that seems to imply religious content, for example, it’s now becoming standard to say – in a coy and would-be-jokey sort of voice — “Oooh! That’s politically incorrect!” and we are meant to give an embarrassed giggle. So a harmless “God bless you!” becomes a matter for silly comment, and a public reference to a church event becomes a matter for debate as being controversial and contentious.
And when it comes to anything that seems to involve officialdom the loss of common sense becomes substantial. A librarian in a public library dithers about whether or not to put up a poster advertising a series of Lent talks at a local church, a local Council announces that it is banning a long-established tradition of opening its meetings with a prayer.
The news that the British government is prepared to defend, in the European Court, a British Airways decision to fire a woman employee for wearing a tiny cross on a chain round her neck during the hours that she worked for the airline, is both ghastly and absurd. How gross it will look in a few years’ time, when the ideological fashion has changed again. How daft it is that your money is meanwhile being spent on this nonsense.
The sinister thing about this is that a loss of common sense can happen quite quickly. In 1914-1918 young men in their late teens and early twenties, shattered by the insistent pounding of the guns and the blood and the lice and the filth and confusion of the trenches could be denounced as cowards, taken before a military court and shot at dawn. Meanwhile back at home over-excited ladies gave white feathers, a symbol of cowardice, to men they decided were cowards because they were not in military uniform. Some of those thus insulted were wounded soldiers from nearby hospitals.
Common sense? The British have long prided themselves on it, but history shows that it is often in short supply. For many years, a man who wanted to train as a Catholic priest and went to Rome for training, knew that on returning he faced the death penalty. There are still old houses with “priest holes” where such men were able to hide in an emergency. The death they faced is caught was a ghastly one – hanging, drawing, and quartering. You can still visit the dungeons in the Tower of London where some of them were held, and even view the torture equipment.
Common sense? For several decades in the late 18th and early 19th century it was considered sensible to defend the slave trade – it was in Britain’s interest, it brought prosperity to cities like Liverpool and Bristol, it ensured that supplies of things like sugar and cotton could arrive in Britain’s cities. The hardship and cruelty involved in slavery was regrettable, of course, but should not be exaggerated…
Once an idea becomes fashionable – that Catholic priests are dangerous, that the slave trade makes economic sense, that war necessarily involves a suspension of normal human rights – it seems difficult to dislodge it. Difficult, but not impossible.
The policy of a couple of employers to deny Christian employees the right to display a small cross at work is petty, if not discriminatory. In a few years’ time, the idea that a British government was prepared to defend it in a European Court will look ludicrous. The notion that a nation with a history rooted in Christianity should urge its librarians to ban a notice announcing a Christian event will be regarded as lunacy.
“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” That age-old testimony from the Scriptures has a quiet wisdom about it. This morning I deliberately rummaged in a box for the small and rather pretty cross which a kind relative gave me a few Christmasses ago. I haven’t worn it for a little while – for no particular reason, it just happened that the glass beads sent by my sister in New Zealand, or the scarf I bought in Somerset last year, or the little ribbon with a heart on it that I acquired at a sale, seemed more suitable for whatever outfit I was wearing. But today I found the cross and slipped it on to a light chain, and I’m wearing it and thinking about it.
I am glad to wear this symbol which has meant so much to so many generations, the symbol that is on our country’s flag, the symbol that marks many a gravestone – and not least those of men who died serving our country in war – the symbol that stands on top of the crown worn by our Queen, the symbol on the Bible that is held in our courtrooms when people promise to tell the truth, the symbol that indicates the presence of a church where people can pray, the symbol that makes some sort of sense of the great realities of death and suffering and hope and forgiveness and resurrection.
Yesterday I enjoyed a meal with friends in an Indian restaurant. We enjoyed the sight of the table being laden with good things. The waiter beamed at our evident enjoyment as he brought chicken korma and pilau rice and curries and naan bread. One of our number was a clergyman, who blessed the food with the Sign of the Cross and led a short prayer. No one minded – indeed the restaurant seemed to like it, and there was much pleasant talk and a good atmosphere: it was a happy evening.
In modern Britain, let’s try to keep that goodwill, and value our common sense.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.