Should street preachers be arrested?

George Whitefield preaching

It’s surely a QTWTAIN. A question to which the answer is no. Ensuring that people are free to preach, worship and change their religious beliefs is a fundamental freedom and a hallmark of a country that respects human rights.

In addition, for Christians there is the clear command of scripture to go out into all the world and preach the good news. Not only should public preaching be allowed, but it is an outworking of Christian belief.

Yet rights are very rarely unlimited, they are mostly qualified, subject to legitimate restrictions. But if religious freedom allows preaching in public, which I believe it should, there should be a fairly high bar for stopping it. If the preaching is disliked or disagreed with, this should not be enough. We live in a country with myriad different beliefs and hues of adherence, it is inevitable someone will disagree with what you believe, and especially if you think that others should also believe what you believe. Freedom of belief is an empty freedom if it is only granted when no one complains.

The government recently accepted amendments to the 1986 Public Order Act which removes the justification for arrest if someone’s words are insulting. Insulting is a subjective charge, and too easily applied to someone who you disagree with. The law will still protect against abusive and threatening behaviour, but the removal of the word insulting raises the bar, which had been used to arrest people for preaching on the streets.

However, in recent months several street preachers have been arrested or taken into custody by the police due to their street preaching. The most recent case is Josh Williamson who has twice been arrested in Perth. This past Saturday he stood on his stool and started preaching.

I’ve watched the video twice and am still not sure what I think, in particular whether I think the police were right to get involved. Also, my understanding of the law is patchy, and the police were not making an arrest under the Public Order Act, but on grounds of failing to desist and threatening to cause a breach of the peace. As I understand the situation, once the police got involved, it stopped become about his preaching but about his attitude towards the police and their requests, whether they were right to get involved at all is more dubious. I would be very grateful for any legal insight into this, I believe the relevant precedent in this area is Redmond-Bate v Director of Public Prosecutions.

As I understand it, the reaction to someone’s actions is not in itself enough to define the original actions as a breach of the peace, those actions have to be considered as intended to provoke. And if I’ve got it right, provocation that is likely to lead to violence. I would argue that his actions were intended to provoke, but not likely to lead to violence.

I want people to be free to preach in public, many will disagree, some will find it offensive, but that shouldn’t be cause for arrest. But here’s the difficult part. As I watched the interaction I found myself on the side of the police. I felt they were trying to handle a tricky situation with care, even if they were wrong to arrest him. I thought their words and actions were reasonable, even if not legally correct. I want to defend the preacher’s freedom, but his actions seemed designed to goad the police and test their tolerance.

I’ve seen the Easter story played out before multiple thousands in Southampton and Winchester, it happens in Trafalgar Square each year, I’ve been involved in public acts of worship in Parliament Square. I’ve prayed on the walls of Southampton, and I’ve been moved on by the police for ‘loitering’. I’ve filed the paper work to present a prayer to Downing Street (technically it was a petition). In each of these cases the right to preach and worship in public was not guaranteed. Forms usually had to be filled, permission given.

The freedom to preach does not give us a blank cheque to do whatever we like. We still have laws to follow, and structures and systems to work within and abide by. There are places where those systems become iniquitous and breaking the law is an act of good conscience, but that is not what’s going on here.

This is not persecution, I’m not even sure it’s discrimination. I also think it can make us look indolent in the face of what happens across the world. The Archbishop of Canterbury said on Radio 4 yesterday: “The appearance is often deceptive but I think Christians have been attacked in some cases simply because of their faith,” and he went on: “we have seen more than 80 martyrs in the last few days. They have been attacked because they were testifying to their faith in Jesus Christ by going to church. That is outside any acceptable expression in any circumstances for any reason of religious difference.”

There’s also the other half of the Great Commission in Matthew 28. To go into all of the world preaching the good news and making disciples.

I don’t think the street preaching was any good. One twitter response said he should be arrested for ‘mundane and uninspiring preaching’, another said what he was doing was ‘aggressive, unattractive and far from winsome’. I’m not saying the freedom to preach the gospel only applies if the oratory is of sufficient quality, but we have to consider what is being heard as well as what is being said.

I would question whether this sort of street preaching is making disciples, and therefore whether it is effective preaching of the good news. I believe in the good news of Jesus. I believe it has the power to transform lives like no other. I believe we should be bold and courageous about telling people the impact it can have. But we should also see what works and what doesn’t. I was reminded last night of an analogy of a man standing in the street asking people to kiss him. The 98th woman assents. He has success he cries, forgetting the 97 who went before who he alienated and freaked out.

The gospel will offend. It will send some away. It is difficult to take. We do not have to do that work for it. We do not have to offend. We do not have to alienate in order to have authentically preached the gospel. We have to make disciples as well as preach the good news.

Sometimes being the victim seems to come a little too easy. There are injustices and poor behaviour by the police and authorities, arrests that shouldn’t be made. But there are also times when being the victim provides a sense of affirmation that we are doing things right, that if we’re suffering we must be on the right course.

The clothes of the martyr some times fit too easily when we haven’t walked in their shoes.

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4 thoughts on “Should street preachers be arrested?

  1. Excellent piece Danny. I’m not a fan of street preaching – the basis for that opinion being the question of efficacy. I pass a number regularly outside train stations. As you go by, you can hear at most half a dozen sentences, with the words “Jesus”, “love”, “repent” and “salvation” being shouted a little louder than the others.

    In 1st century Israel/Palestine, John the baptist used one of the most effective mediums for communication. In 21st century Britain, I doubt that raising your voice in public is all that effective. We’re not patient enough to stop and listen to someone making a point.

    We are a soundbite generation.

  2. Excellent article. Every one of us need to ask ourself very closely when ‘doing’ anything for Christ if we do it out of a motive of genuine love or if there might be other motives involved too? I would say for any of us the answer will not usually be black and white.

  3. It is very easy to condemn those who are doing something, even they are not doing it the way we would like it done,The big question is are we doing anything for The Lord, are we using the modern means of comunication as they should be or are we stuck behing our pulpits preaching to the converted?

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