Witches, guinea pigs and a dilemma over censorship

Religion can be a divisive subject among charity staff - but sometimes it's better just to keep the peace and save our energy for providing services to our service users, writes Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards says we should avoid asserting our religious beliefs at work
Martin Edwards says we should avoid asserting our religious beliefs at work

Sometimes the most innocuous situation can turn into a conflict of values that forces you to decide whether to take a stand. I faced just such a dilemma when I offered to read a story to pre-school children at a community outreach group run by Julia's House.

People probably thought it was quite sweet that the chief exec would do the story-time slot. But our staff asked in advance what my choice of reading matter would be, perhaps fearing that I might choose to read from a strategic plan or a commissioning contract.

Winnie the Witch, I replied, which I had read to my young children so many times I could almost recite it in my sleep. What could be better, I thought, than this fun and beautifully illustrated children's book about the amusing mishaps of Winnie and her fluffy black cat Wilbur.

But how wrong I was. Word reached me that this choice was not acceptable to certain staff. The word "witchcraft" wasn't said overtly, but it was clear that the objections were on religious grounds.

Open to all faiths or none

Now I should point out that, like most hospices, Julia's House has no religious mission. We are open to children and families of all faiths or none. But it is also true that many staff in hospices, as in many charities, are deeply religious. I was even asked about my religious beliefs by one of our trustees in my job interview (which, being a question entirely irrelevant to my ability to do the job, I politely ducked).

But I could not duck the choice now facing me. Should I put my foot down on a point of principle - that this was a perfectly good children's book and we had no policy of banning Winnie, Harry Potter or their like? Or should I just decide that this was not worth falling out over? It could be the thin end of the censorship wedge. Would our hospice filter children's TV programmes about witches and wizardry? Ban pumpkins and toy wands? Refuse support from the likes of JK Rowling?

Cute story about friendship

But I chose instead to read My Best Friend, Bob, an entirely inoffensive book about two little guinea pigs called Brian and Bob who are separated and then reunited. Some might see in it an allegory of one day being reunited in another realm with our lost loved ones; but actually it's just a cute story about friendship among guinea pigs.

Was it wrong to censor my first choice? That depends on your vantage point. For me, you should avoid asserting your beliefs over others at work if that workplace has no religious mission. For others, their religious beliefs underpin everything. But sometimes it's better just to keep the peace and save our energy for providing services to our service users. Because when we do what we do best, we're magic.

Martin Edwards is chief executive of the children's hospice Julia's House

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