Beyond “Religion & Belief”

The ongoing debate about the extent to which Britain is a ‘Christian country’ has got me thinking on three different levels: as an equality, diversity & inclusion consultant, as a British citizen of minority faith and ethnic background and as an interfaith minister. I can hear these three ‘voices’ in me rise up in me to debate with those presenting the pros and cons of our PM’s foray into this hornet’s nest of sentiment and opinion, and I would like to share some of what they tell me.

An EDI consultant

With my consultant’s ‘hat’ on, I can certainly see how Christianity is simply one amongst a number of faith traditions whose adherents enjoy rights (under the Equality Act 2010) not to be discriminated against for their beliefs: as do those of other faiths, and those who have non-religious belief systems.
I can also see the effects of cultural and state-established Christianity the UK, which can make it difficult for non-Christians to feel their rights as citizens are truly equal to those of Christians, particularly in the workplace and provision of services. I am particularly concerned from an equality point of view for people of minority faith and ethnicity who access services at vulnerable times in their lives – times of illness & death, unemployment, economic or housing need, child-raising or educational challenges. It is clear that these are the people who most need an attitude and practice of equality, diversity & inclusion, within which recognition of their religion or belief is of great importance.
By contrast, I can see how, from a devout Christian point of view, the same cultural and formal Christianity, alongside the erosion of actual Christian belief and adherence can feel empty and even insulting. And I also sense – and have witnessed in the training room – deep antipathy to Christianity, and to those who profess the Christian faith, which ironically, seems to leave believing Christians vulnerable – just as those of other faiths can be – to experiencing isolation in the workplace on account of their beliefs.

Experiences of Migration and Minority Faith

Having grown up as an Indian Muslim in the UK, there are other perspectives I can bring – for example, the bewilderment of my parents’ generation that a civilised country would willingly give up the religion which for centuries seemed to hold together its social fabric, in favour of an apparently un-rooted belief in liberal values and personal freedom which seems to bring only moral chaos and confusion. The high value given to religion amongst most minority ethnic communities that have experienced migration (even if that migration was a few generations back) is of interest here.

What it is important to grasp is that cultural and faith practices help to form a powerful, indispensible, fabric of connection that enables a migrant community to survive the often adverse and hostile environment in which it finds itself in – not just at the moment of migration, but as the generations roll forward seeking greater economic and social success.

The remarkable achievements of the Indian community in the UK would be unthinkable without the context of social and faith-based gathering, networking, worship, mutual support and the giving over of a degree of individual freedom and choice for the greater good of the family and community. Religion cannot be extricated from this in one piece, any more than can the pooling of resources to buy homes, or the support of the extended family for child care and education – at this level, religion is not about personal belief, it’s about collective survival and success.

This experience of religion certainly has its casualties – particularly for those who need to plough a different furrow, eg for reasons of greater gender equality or non-heterosexual orientation – or simply because their religion of birth does not seem to meet their spiritual needs. However, it does make it easier to understand why many mainstream leaders of the major non-Christian faiths seemed to agree with and support the PM’s statement, when one might have expected them to be
the first to challenge it.

Learning through Ministry

As an interfaith minister, my calling is to be of service to people of any faith, or none, as they make their journey through lives. This involves three essential modes of operation: devising and conducting distinctive ceremonies for the important events in life (weddings, baby blessings, funerals, house blessings, rites of passage); providing spiritual counselling and pastoral guidance to help people navigate might broadly be labelled ‘spiritual’ questions; and devising, singing at, or
blessing, services for interfaith congregations or other events.

In this work I see another side of religion and belief, which goes below the surface of ‘labels’ and ‘characteristics’ and touches people’s deeper aspirations and understandings. And what I witness in this work in relation to Christianity is particularly poignant. Most of the people I meet through my ministry (whether fellow interfaith ministers or my ‘clients’) are of Christian background – a reflection of the region I live in (south of London) and of UK population as a whole. And what is most palpable in this group of quite diverse individuals is the wounding many of them feel they have experienced at the hands of the Church (of whatever denomination).  When I first encountered this I was stopped in my tracks. I referred mentally back to my own experiences as a six-year old Indian Muslim girl coming to terms with moving half way across the world to a country which seemed hostile to almost everything about me although I held its passport.
I loved singing hymns and carols at school – a fact which probably positively disposed me to Christianity at an unconscious level. However, as I grew up, I took for granted that established Christianity was an important part of the imperialist domination of the world by western powers – and I did not see much good in it.

My views on Christianity have changed over time. But what astonished me after four decades of life in Britain, was to find that many of my white British peers – the very people I had gone to school with – saw themselves personally as victims of the Church in which they were brought up: victims of Christianity in an unbending, dogmatic form which did not allow them to be free, critical, thinking individuals capable of making sense of the world themselves. Experiences of abuse and cruelty at the hands of priests or nuns – even if a reality for only a few – certainly seem to confirm for them a view of the Church as supporting or defending the indefensible. The ardour of the atheist and humanist perspective in contemporary debates became far more comprehensible to me through listening to these stories. Understanding more of the history of these islands, I have also had my awareness raised about the suppression by the Church of the ‘old religions’ – the plural traditions, broadly labelled pagan, exemplified of course by the persecution of ‘witches’.
And yet so many of those I most respect in the my personal, professional and interfaith contexts come from a great tradition of Christianity which seeks to find connection and inclusive brother- & sister- hood across denominations, faiths and philosophies, that I cannot align myself with any broadly anti-Christian position.
Making Sense of the Whole Surveying these different landscapes of personal and professional experience, what has my incredibly privileged and many-layered life really taught me which is, moreover, of benefit to others? To my astonishment it is this: to listen deeply to the other’s experience; to be less eager to strike a position on matters of faith and belief; and to be less quick to judgment of others’ positions.

Through my ministry in particular I have found that there is in our collective histories a common theme of wounding: it may look different among different groups, but atheists, Christians, people of minority faiths and those who consider themselves spiritual, but not religious alike have reason for grievance and for suspicion of others. Each time we strike a position, or judge the other point of view without taking time to understand what is behind or beneath it, we risk stereotyping both ourselves and others, and continuing the conflict which is the cause of social fragmentation.

How can this help us in the provision of equitable services? Very simple: both staff and patients in the NHS reflect the entirety of the society we live in, with all its variegated history. When they come to work, or access services, they want to be seen heard and understood for who they are, what they need and what they can bring – not for anyone’s pre-conception or stereotype about who they might be. The workplace – particularly in the NHS – provides the amazing opportunity for people of all kinds to open their minds to diversity, working with and serving people of every creed and belief. We know that Diversity Trumps Ability, but only when all the voices are heard and can influence outcomes: really listening to staff of minority beliefs or backgrounds will enrich both the workplace for all staff and the provision of services to all patients. And really listening to patients will make the greatest difference to patient experience.

I will close with a small recollection of my last trip to my local accident and emergency: at reception I was asked a number of ‘monitoring’ questions, including my faith. I struggled at that point – I was concerned that if I put down ‘Muslim’, and had to be admitted, it would be assumed that I would eat halal meat (at the time I was a vegetarian). Even more worrying, if I were to be critically ill, I was concerned it would be assumed I wanted spiritual comfort from an Imam (I would certainly have preferred an interfaith minister). I have no idea whether either of these concerns was well-founded, and happily I was not unwell enough to be admitted to hospital. But my underlying concern “Will I be seen for who I am, not who others think I am?” is the same concern of people of faith or no faith alike. A truly inclusive NHS is not afraid to confront this question, and to listen to any uncomfortable truths that arise in response to it.

 

Razia Aziz is co-director of the Equality Academy Ltd and a One Spirit Interfaith Minister (www.interfaithfoundation.org). Razia and her co-Director at the Equality Academy, Jonathan Heath, provide coaching, training and consultancy on a range of equality, diversity & inclusion matters, including learning & development for diversity leaders.