The largest body of evangelicals in the United Kingdom says Christians of all denominations should “wholeheartedly welcome” this week’s visit by Pope Benedict XVI.
That is, if they want to protect their right to freely practice their faith “in the wake of growing hostility from a small number of influential people promoting a secular agenda.”
During the first papal visit to Britain in 28 years, the pope is expected to deliver remarks on what has been described as a growing “secular agenda.”
"There have been a number of high-profile cases involving gagging orders on Christians sharing their faith at work, praying for people and practicing their faith in obedience to biblical teachings in the work place," notes Steve Clifford, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, which represents around a million evangelicals in the United Kingdom.
"While not all Christians share the Pope's or the Catholic Church's stance on certain issues, we should welcome his visit for the sake of fighting for religious liberty," adds Clifford.
Earlier this year, Benedict criticized the British government for its introduction of equality legislation that he described as “unjust” and one that “violates natural law” because it bars worshipers from being true to their beliefs.
The Equality Act 2010, which is scheduled to come into full force on Oct. 1, requires equal treatment in access to employment as well as private and public services, regardless of gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, belief and age.
While the bill has an exemption that covers ministers of religion, critics say the legislation could lead to prosecution of faithful employers who decide not to against their beliefs by employing homosexuals. Companies and organizations could also feel forced to hinder Christian employees from reasonably following their beliefs, as the bill enables staff to seek damages from employers who fail to take reasonable steps to protect them from any form of discrimination.
Since the legislation was passed, a number of Christians have reportedly lost their jobs or faced disciplinary action for practicing their faith at work by wearing a crucifix or sharing their views on biblical teaching.
While the pope is not expected to address government policy directly during his visit this week, the pontiff will reportedly make it clear that Christians and people of other faiths should not lose their freedoms at the expense of a secular state’s emphasis on equality, according to senior Roman Catholic sources.
Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, the Most Rev. Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said Benedict will stress that religious belief should not be seen as divisive but as "a source of energy and inspiration."
"When we forget, minimize or even reject this inheritance, then we risk losing our profound identity and creating a vacuum of values at the heart of our society," he stated.
The pope is expected to arrive in Britain on Thursday for the start of a four-day visit that will include open air masses in Glasgow, London and Birmingham, and meetings with church and government leaders.
The Anglican Bishop of Chicester, the Rt. Rev. John Hind, said Benedict’s visit “should be a real encouragement for Christians of all denominations at a time of almost unprecedented hostility to Christianity in this country.”
"I urge all members of the diocese to pray earnestly for the Pope and our own Archbishop as they seek to present the unchanging faith of the Church in changing times,” the Church of England bishop stated in a message to the diocese’s clergy over the weekend.
The Evangelical Alliance, meanwhile, said it hopes the pope’s visit would “act as a catalyst” for society to protect religious freedom in Britain and overseas.
“Religion is not something we do in church on Sunday,” EA leader Clifford argues. “It’s a living reality that affects every area of our lives.”