Tuesday, January 23, 2007

BA's Cross U-Turn

So BA has climbed down over its refusal to allow a check-in desk worker to wear a cross. Now, says the company, it will allow staff to wear religious symbols openly and give "some flexibility for individuals to wear a symbol of faith on a chain".

If BA thinks this is the end of the matter, I fear the company is very much mistaken.

When BA announced it would be reviewing its policy, back in November, I was deeply concerned about their apparent intention to allow staff to wear a religious symbol on their lapel badge.

In my experience, it is mostly conservative evangelical Christians who wear a cross or ICHTHUS fish on their lapel. While I am proud to wear a cross around my neck, as more than just a piece of jewellery, I would not choose to wear a lapel badge as I would not wish to labelled 'evangelical.'

So, personally, I would have dropped the lapel idea altogether and just stuck with allowing religious jewellery. A symbol on a chain around the neck is often ambiguous. If, for instance, you saw someone wearing a cross, or a five or six pointed star on a necklace, you might not immediately think it was a religious symbol. You almost certainly wouldn’t make an issue about it and ask the wearer for more details. A lapel badge on the other hand, is a clear, unambiguous symbol of faith, one that - unless you share the wearer's faith - automatically signals that they are ‘different’ to you.

This is why I sense trouble ahead. A Wiccan wearing a five-pointed star on her lapel meets a Christian wearing a cross on his. Are they going to meet each other in a neutral way? Or is religion going to get in the way of a good working relationship?

A current court case in the USA centres on a Wiccan ex-Starbucks barista, who claims she was asked on several occasions to remove the pentacle from around her neck, despite the fact her colleagues, including her Christian Manager, all wore crosses. She claims they also refused to promote or transfer her to another branch.

I fear it won’t be long before we see a similar case here. Evangelicals in all faiths often will not accept open proselytising by those of other faiths, too often refusing to afford them the rights they demand for themselves.

How long will it be before the complaints start, complaints that Satanists, Scientologists and other minority faith group members are wearing badges when ‘they shouldn’t be allowed to?’ How long before atheists start campaigning to be allowed to wear their own badges? No doubt Nadia Eweida would be horrified by the idea, yet all faith groups have equal rights under the Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations 2003.

I also wonder what BA will do to stop their believing employees sharing their faith when asked by customers what their lapel badges mean?

Nadia Eweida and her supporters clearly didn’t think this through before starting their campaign and neither, in consulting only with faith groups, and mainstream faith groups at that, has BA.

The fact remains; BA should have just ignored that tiny, ambiguous silver cross. As an innocent piece of jewellery that happened to have significance for her, no one but the BA bureaucrats batted an eyelid. As a visible, unambiguous symbol on a lapel, I fear a whole new can of worms has been opened.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

'Spiritual' Celebrities: Scourge or Salvation of 'Secular' Society?

Ah, the luxury! This morning, because I was at the hairdressers, I was able to indulge my secret fascination with Hello! magazine.

Rapt with anticipation, I was desperate to read the current cover story - both Sian Lloyd and Lempit Opik MP have given their (very different) versions of what 'really' happened when he fell 'in love’ with one of the Cheeky Girls. Sadly, the brunette having her roots done has got there first so I have to settle for last weeks’ hot gossip, but still I am gripped.

Victoria Beckham reveals she doesn’t have an eating disorder. Tamara Beckwith throws an engagement party. Peter Sellers’ daughter reveals the horror of being falsely accused as a drug dealer. Fourteen pages are devoted to the wedding of Holby City actress Tina Hobley. “Top British fashion designer Amanda Wakeley opens the doors to her dramatic monochrome apartment in London.”

That apartment! Wow! Even her dog matches the décor. The photographs are amazing; the copy starts off in familiar adulatory style. Then, suddenly, wham! Bang! In comes the ‘Big Question’: “Do you apply any spiritual philosophy to your surroundings?”

“I’m into Eastern philosophy,” replies Amanda, daughter of the second Baronet of Liss. “I travel to India and China for my work and am inspired by the way people there live so contentedly with few possessions,” she continues, in somewhat ironic vein, sprawled as she is across the fur coverlet in the bedroom of this dream of a home, refurbished, I suspect, on a budget that would buy my entire house and leave some change over to put in a good offer on next door. “I also believe in feng shui and the healing power of crystals.”

She goes on to talk about her acupuncturist, the dowser who cleared the negative energy from her flat, the huge rose quartz crystals that ‘circulate energy,’ and how a ‘benign spirit,’ who had been there for many years, was finally sent packing.

My cynicism radar buzzes on high alert: how can anyone claim to be spiritual while 1) evicting benign spirits who presumably do no harm, 2) spending their life globetrotting to India and China (why there, I wonder?) and therefore contributing lavishly to global warming 3) priding themselves on their ability to further plunder the earth’s precious resources by splashing out on crystals - mined at considerable risk to human life - because of an almost certainly crackpot theory and 4) being able to state, aparently without irony, how much they admire people who have so little, all the while delighting in a (no doubt paid for) opportunity to so publicly display how very much they have?

On a more positive note – my Grumpy Old Woman Within has gone back to sleep now - I am thrilled and amazed Amanda Wakeley was asked the question at all. In fact, it seems Hello! Is becoming quite a spiritual resource guide; turn a few more pages and Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt explain how they are going to ‘get into Buddhism’ with their children, having ‘done’ an Orthodox Christmas.

A decade and more ago, when I was working as a religious affairs reporter, I got sick and tired of having to justify my existence in the world. “What the hell are you stuck in a dead-end, useless job like that for?” the friend of a friend had the audacity to ask at one party. Back then, society was ‘secular.’ Religion was ‘dead’ and no more worthy of serious study or reportage than the dodo. No one cared about God anymore. I’d have had more respect if I’d been a dustman. Of course it wasn’t true; I only wish an international resurgence of fundamentalism didn’t conspire to prove the point so catastrophically and violently.

Now, I tell people what I do and they are rapt attention. “How topical! How interesting! You certainly in the right place at the right time aren’t you!” they exclaim, as if I re-invented my entre personal philosophy last week and have some kind of suspect ulterior motive.

So, while I wish Amanda Wakeley and other celebrities who embrace ‘New Age’ spiritualities in particular would adhere to rather more grown-up, serious, constructive and life-changing manifestations of their faiths, ones that actually make a positive difference, this willingness of celebrities to explore their spiritual side – however superficially - shows how we are, once again, becoming a ‘spiritual nation.’ Where celebs lead, others always follow.

Personally, I welcome that. Others may not, perhaps because they disapprove of alternative spirituality or feel they cannot condone ‘shallow faith.’ As I see it, celebrity spirituality may not be perfect, but it is a start. Spirituality is a journey; we all have to follow our own paths; in our own time. Even those who believe they have all the answers, right here, right now, are on a journey of transformation and change. Who knows where Amanda Wakeley’s rather sad crystal obsession may take her ultimately? Or how even a superficial teaching of Buddhism may influence little Zahara and Maddox Pitt-Jolie’s pampered lives for the better?

Let us not judge. Instead, let us welcome the fact that spirituality is back in the mainstream, freed from the shackles of being a taboo subject confined within the walls of infrequently visited sacred buildings.