Artillery Row

Quick, hide your Bibles!

Lois McLatchie on the Christian beliefs that are becoming Euro-crimes

The air may be starting to taste like freedom in the UK – but for those in the pulpit, it’s already going stale. A recent flurry of arrests of Christian leaders was brought sharply into focus this month when police in Uxbridge forcefully handcuffed, arrested, and detained a 71-year-old grandfather. Phew. He might have offended someone.

The freeze on speech has long been foretold with increasingly chilling laws that silence those who happen to stray one iota from the narrow orthodoxy of the day

John Sherwood has been a Pastor in North London for 35 years. As part of his Christian calling, he preaches in the open air. Expressing the teachings of scripture is a central component of his faith and identity. If you hear scraping, it’s because local authorities reached the bottom of the barrel on what they could censor him for: the apparent use of “abusive words” that is likely to cause “harassment, alarm or distress”, under the infamous Public Order Act. Bewildered, Sherwood strongly refutes any ill intent. “I was only saying what the Bible says – I wasn’t wanting to hurt anyone or cause offence.” He had preached from Genesis 1:26. Male and female they created them. It’s his basis for the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman – a view held by about 1 in 5 Brits. The elderly man was grilled by police on what he would do if his children were gay.

Not even a full week had passed until the spotlight was shone on the next Christian leader at chopping block. Last week, school chaplain Rev. Dr. Bernard Randall was reported to the government’s terrorist watchdog – yes, terrorist – for telling children that they are allowed to believe the Biblical position on marriage if they want to. He’d also told them, in the same lesson, that “love thy neighbour as yourself” was a critical part of Christian teaching and left no room for the abuse of anyone. The chaplain’s job description had required that he “be the particular voice and embodiment of…Christian values which are at the heart of [the school]’s ethos.” But not all Christian values, apparently. He was suspended, investigated, reported to authorities as being a “danger to children”, and finally dismissed.

These are curious stories given that Britain has always enjoyed a robust free speech tradition. Lord Justice Sedley made clear in a 1991 Supreme Court ruling that free speech includes, to quote, not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Talk is cheap, but freedom to say only what you want me to say is hardly worth having.

And yet, the freeze on speech has long been foretold with increasingly chilling laws that silence those who happen to stray one iota from the narrow orthodoxy of the day. Priti Patel recently made headlines for pushing back on the current police power to record “non-crime hate incidents” – in other words, the empowerment of Big Brother overlords to note down, for the viewing of future employers, what we legally say if another listener decides to interpret it as hateful or offensive. Patel’s walk-back of the practice only goes so far. The new Online Safety Bill, aimed to target illegal digital content, chimes of a similarly censorial principle. The explanatory notes highlight concerns about speech which is “lawful but potentially harmful.” What will fall into that crevasse of interpretation is, quite literally, anyone’s guess.

JK Rowling thought that the backlash to her tweet was bad. Räsänen is staring a jail sentence in the eye

Despite the ink being barely dry on the Brexit divorce papers, it seems the UK is more than happy to be following the rest of Europe merrily down this Orwellian hole. And it’s not just 71-year-old street preachers. Päivi Räsänen is a Finnish MP and Former Minister of the Interior. She’s a doctor and a grandmother and popular amongst her constituency. Räsänen faced three criminal investigations within the space of months. The saga all began with a simple Tweet. She asked her Church leadership if it was right that they had decided to sponsor the Helsinki Pride Parade 2019. She attached a photo of Bible text – Romans 1:24-27 – to her tweet. The poison pill. The police began to dig. They found a pamphlet she had written for her church in 2004 called ‘Male and Female He Created Them’.  A pamphlet published over a decade before same-sex marriage was legalised in her country. And finally, they unearthed a recording of her discussing the subject on radio. Last week, she heard that she’s been charged with three “hate crimes”. JK Rowling thought that the backlash to her tweet was bad. Räsänen is staring a jail sentence in the eye.

All this to say, we’re changing what crime really means on our continent. Instead of violent loons, we’re going after elderly preachers and MPs. It’s Pastor John Sherwood who’s rubbing his wounds now – a sore wrist and sore elbow apparently, from when he was literally “de-platformed” from his portable stepladder. He may have been released without charge. But with Scotland and England in somewhat of an arms race to prove which has more illiberally chilling hate speech laws, the story is growing all too familiar. And with the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill likely to make it a crime if conduct may cause “serious unease”, all bets are off as to who is next.

And why stop there? If Christian beliefs are now truly illegal, we’ve got a lot of fixing to do in our country. Some oaths sworn in court to tell the truth are taken on the holy bible – which we apparently now think is criminal. We sing “God save the Queen”, but let’s not forget she is the head of a Church that upholds a traditional view on marriage. Artists and poets and composers have drawn inspiration from scripture to create some of the most iconic pieces of our cultural legacy. It could be off with their heads with the lot of them.

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