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Interview: The Growing British Concern for Religious Freedom for All

Image: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

The American government has long committed itself to supporting religious freedom worldwide.

In 1998, the International Religious Freedom Act obliged the State Department to compile an annual report and designate offending nations as Countries of Particular Concern. It established an ambassador-at-large, created an independent bipartisan commission, and placed a special advisor on the National Security Council.

What about the British? Three years ago, the UK government asked itself the same question.

The answer was delivered by Philip Mounstephen, the Anglican bishop of Truro, within the province of Canterbury. The UK’s foreign secretary tasked him specifically to study persecution of Christians, and the 22 recommendations of the Truro Report were accepted in full by the government.

That does not mean they were all implemented.

This past summer, an independent review found good progress, with five points suffering “constraints” and only three with “no substantial action.” As it was released, London hosted the third in-person ministerial which gathered governments and civil society around the cause, following two ministerials hosted in Washington and an online-only one hosted by Poland amid the pandemic. (The UK event used the European nomenclature of “freedom of religion or belief” (FORB) instead of the Americans’ “international religious freedom” (IRF).)

Last month, Mounstephen visited Lebanon to deliver a lecture entitled “Why Our Religious Freedom Matters.” Hosted by the Middle East Council of Churches, the Bible Society, and Saint Joseph University, he presented an outline of Truro Report findings, broadened to include the persecuted of all religious traditions.

CT spoke with the bishop about his government’s commitment to the cause, whether Americans help or hurt, and how to overcome the younger generation’s rejection of Christian advocacy as an expression of white privilege and neo-colonialism:

CT: Our readers know that within the Anglican church there is a spectrum of evangelical and mainline faith, to use the American terms. How do you fit in?

Mounstephen: One of my roles is to be a pastor to the whole of the diocese. I can’t pick and choose and have favorites. But in British terms, I would be defined as an “open evangelical.” I believe in the authority of Scripture, in the finished and all-sufficient work of Christ on the cross, and the glorious grace of God that brings life to the dead.

And you have lived it out in your institutional service.

I was chief executive of Church Mission Society, which was an amazing opportunity to go to some of the most out-of-the-way parts of the world and see the people of God ministering with such love and care and commitment to people often very much on the margins. That was such a huge privilege.

You are a bishop, but you also have a role in global advocacy.

Yes. And I had no expectation when I took it on that it would be so. Before I officially started, I was called by the bishop of Canterbury who asked if I would undertake this work at the request of the then-foreign secretary to review how the UK Foreign Office responded—or not—to the question of the persecution of Christians.

Our team had a strong sense of the wind of the Holy Spirit leading us on. And to my great surprise, the government accepted the recommendations in full, repeatedly affirming it in documents since. It is often referred to in the House of Commons and Lords, holding the government to account for implementation.

I feel this is something God has laid on my heart to do, absolutely convinced that it is one of the major big-ticket items in the world that we must address—for the good of all humanity.

How does your advocacy continue since the publishing of the report?

I thought I would do it for six months, set it aside, and the report would gather dust on some government shelf. But I was very aware that there was no forum for civil society organizations to meet, of which there are many in the UK. So we set up the UK Freedom of Religion or Belief Forum, which I chaired for its first year of operation. It now gathers about 90 different groups, modeled on the International Religious Freedom Roundtable that has been meeting in the US for a long time.

The UK hosted the Ministerial Summit on FORB this summer, and I was involved in that. Today I am here in Lebanon because I want to continue to advocate internationally, and I am due to go to Greece to meet with members of the foreign ministry and the Orthodox church.

Because I am the bishop of Truro, and the report is known as “the Truro report,” it has a currency that is associated with me. So this is a responsibility, and I want to push forward and advocate as best I can.

And because we have this strange system in the UK, in which the 26 most senior Church of England bishops sit in the House of Lords, I will probably take my seat in a year or so, depending on turnover. This will also be a continuing platform for advocacy.

Without making your parishioners jealous, how much time can you give to the issue?

[Laughed] I have to say, people have been very supportive and encouraging. Part of my agenda for the diocese is that I want us to have more of an international perspective. Cornwall is in the far southwest of the British Isles, and it can be quite isolated, including in mentality. Helping the church in Cornwall look outwards with a generous heart to the rest of the world is intrinsic to my calling as Bishop of Truro as well.

Your report mentions the lack of interest Western politicians give to the issue. How has society changed in the three years since?

There is a formula: The bigger the country, the less internationally aware it is. By this standard the most globally aware nation would be Luxembourg. The kind of domestic political issues we have faced in the UK since the European Union referendum has tended to turn the country inwards, and I would say in an unhealthy manner.

There has been a real struggle for the UK to think about what its post-imperial role is in the world. There has been a sense that because we interfered uninvited in the past, we shouldn’t do so again now. That is understandable, but it sounds like washing your hands of responsibility—not in the least because some of the problems the world faces are still the legacy of colonial involvement.

The West has economic power that it can use for good or ill. Isolation is not a good look for any country, and international responsibility lies on the shoulders of every state.

In the younger generation, attuned to this sentiment, how do you promote FORB? I think this is a problem, and particularly in the European context this understanding of Christianity as an expression of white privilege is quite prevalent. But Christian faith these days is a phenomenon of…

This article was originally published by Christianity Today, on November 12, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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