Quick, hide your Bibles!

May 24, 2021 by

by Lois McLatchie, The Critic:

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.

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.

[…] 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.

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