Mind the secular gap


Universe Column for February 26th 2006

by David Alton

The yawning religious gap between our secularised authorities and the ordinary citizen has been confirmed by a recent BBC poll. Just before Christmas that gap was  highlighted  by a controversy at a primary school in Newham in one of Britain’s poorest neighbourhoods.

While only 17% of the population regularly go to church, the national census five years ago reported that, in answer to a non-compulsory question, 72% deliberately chose to identify themselves as “Christian”. This was backed up a couple of months ago when a little-noticed BBC survey showed that 75% of the population want the UK to retain Christian values – including 50% of Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs.

Clergy and others who minister at the grass roots won’t be surprised at this strong showing of cultural Christianity. But our out-of-touch secular authorities seem neither to notice nor care. And this can lead to confrontations such as occurred recently at Ravenscroft Primary School in the working-class multi-racial district of Canning Town in Newham, east London.

Last autumn the Ravenscroft head teacher sent a letter to parents setting out the religious festivals to be marked during the current school year. Parents were dismayed that no mention was made of any Christian celebrations such as Christmas. The letter stuck carefully to the latest nostrums of secular political correctness. It highlighted other faiths’ festivals and it re-branded the annual Christmas concert as a multi-faith  “Celebration of Light” – the name of Hindus’ Diwali or Jewish Hannukah.

The parents’ dismay turned to anger in early December when they discovered their children were taking part in Muslim and Hindu dramatisations at the concert and were excluded from the small nativity play. “Call this education?” said one. “My 7-year-old is now completely confused about the difference between Christmas and Eid.”

Mums urgently organised a petition at the school gate that was signed by parents of all faiths and none, and they threatened to take their children out of school on the day of the concert. They also contacted their local councillor.

For over three years Alan Craig had been the sole opposition councillor on Newham Council. A committed Christian, he represented the Christian Peoples Alliance party and alone he faced 59 Labour councillors and a Labour elected executive mayor. “Alan’s well used to David and Goliath scenarios,” said a colleague.

Alan Craig met with the head teacher to explain parents’ concerns but she offered no changes to the multi-faith concert. So he issued a letter of support to the local parents and a press release to the local papers. He told them he stood with the parents and he too would take his 5-year-old daughter out of school if she were at Ravenscroft.

The borough’s secular establishment went nuclear. “Ignore This Tripe,” screamed the headline over a hostile article by Newham’s senior journalist. “I hope parents ignore the prejudices of Cllr Craig,” thundered the leader of the Labour group on Newham Council in a letter to the school. And a high-ranking councillor reported Craig to the local council watchdog, the Standards Board for England, for “bringing his office and authority into disrepute”.

Fortunately the Standards Board refused to investigate the allegation.

But what a topsy turvy Alice-In-Wonderland world this reveals. It seems that in parts of Newham you can hold any belief you want, so long as it isn’t Christian.  We need a few more councillors like Alan Craig to stop the country entirely taking leave of its senses.