MP: Christians shouldn’t feel embarrassed about display of faith

By Emma Harrison
BBC News Online


MP Carol Monaghan says she was not embarrassed about her decision to appear at a Commons select committee meeting with a cross on her forehead on Ash Wednesday.

The SNP MP for Glasgow North West said: "The reaction was generally positive, most people didn't know what it meant.

"When I came into committee, one of the members asked me about it. I said 'it's Ash Wednesday' and they said 'but this is going to be broadcast'.

"I think they just thought I didn't want to be embarrassed - but I was not going to rub it off.

"Many religions have visible symbols and Christians should not feel any embarrassment in either practising their religion or in the public display of religious symbols."

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and many Christians attend a church service at which their foreheads are marked with ash in the shape of a cross.

The crosses are made from a mix of ashes - often from burnt palm leaves - and holy water and signify the worshipper's repentance before God.

'Source of conversation'

Ms Monaghan says she got the "usual" reaction, including people pointing out that she had a mark on her forehead.

It is something she is used to having been a science teacher in a non-denominational comprehensive school before becoming an MP in 2015.

"I am happy to answer their questions. For me it is an educational opportunity," she said.

The Church of England says it encourages members to go out on the streets to bring this centuries-old tradition to the wider public.

Members of Croydon Minster spoke to commuters at the local tram station, offering what they dubbed "Ash n' Dash".

In Galway, a drive-thru Ash Wednesday service was described as "beautiful and overwhelmingly respectful".

For Christians, Lent is a season of reflection and preparation before Easter, marking Jesus's 40 days of fasting in the desert.

Many attempt to fast, or give up something for the 40 days - such as Prime Minister Theresa May, who will stop eating crisps.

On Ash Wednesday, Christians are encouraged not to rub the ashes off their foreheads and many display the symbol at work, like Ms Monaghan.

A spokeswoman for the Catholic Church in England and Wales says: "Keeping the ashes on one's forehead throughout the day acts as a sign of the cross to all we meet and can often be a source of conversation.

"Many people are dimly aware of ashes and the season of Lent - this visible witness could awaken faith in the hearts of others in the way that words cannot."

But are Christians allowed to display the religious symbol while at work?

Claire Dawson, employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon, says the right to display a religious symbol is protected under employment law and the European Convention on Human Rights, unless there is a good justification for prohibiting it.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Christians traditionally receive ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday

She says: "If it was questioned by an employer or prohibited then they would have to have a good reason for that.

"If you are someone who is a TV presenter, for example, there may be more of a debate.

"The type of justification which is taken seriously would be health and safety.

"There has been a case where somebody was fighting for her right to wear a cross at work, but because she was a nurse, it was against the employer's health and safety policy which justified her not being allowed to wear it.

"Whereas a woman who was British Airways ground crew and who wanted to wear a cross, although it didn't comply with BA's dress code and corporate image, that wasn't considered important enough to trump her religion."

'Conscious decision'

In addition, she says, employees are protected from being treated less favourably because of their religion or belief and from being subjected to harassment because of it.

Ms Monaghan said that one of the Commons doorkeepers at Prime Minister's Questions had asked her about it after seeing another MP with, as he put it, "something on his head".

The 44-year-old mother of three said it had never been a problem for her although "in a situation where cameras are rolling, you have to make a conscious decision".

"I have to be open about it - for me it would be wrong to hide something which is important to me."

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