Say what you like about street preachers. Some do it well, others less helpfully. Some are winsome, others more antagonistic. Some are wise as serpents yet gentle as doves, others not terribly wise or gentle in the way they speak. Whatever you may think of them – and remember that they are not ‘all the same’ – it is surely inconceivable that two would be arrested for merely quoting from the King James Bible. As Theresa May was talking about Christianity and the freedom to speak openly about faith, two street preachers were being convicted of a public order offence.
Mike Overd and Michael Stockwell were preaching in Bristol’s Broadmead Shopping Centre last year. Christian Concern relay the story thus:
They took it in turns to preach, and as they did so, a crowd gathered. At points, the crowd was loud and aggressive, with some swearing and being abusive towards the men. There was also, however, debate between the preachers and members of the crowd, especially on the differences between Islam and Christian belief. Several hecklers appeared to be supportive of Islam.
Police did not arrive on the scene until about an hour into the preaching. A police officer approached Mr Clark, asking him to turn off his amplification, which he did.
Shortly afterwards a mounted police officer asked Mr Clark to stop preaching so that she could speak to him. Whilst Mr Clark spoke with the officer, Mr Overd took over the preaching.
Soon afterwards, another police officer approached Mr Overd and told him that he was “causing a disturbance” and “not welcome”.
The officer told Mr Overd that he was going to give him a Dispersal Notice. But instead of doing so, he forcibly removed Mr Overd from the scene, despite Mr Overd (who suffers from chronic back pain) crying out in pain.
Mr Overd has taken a handy recording of the events, which you can watch here:
You can hear the arresting officer claim that Mr Overd had ‘gone over the top’ and ‘he’s just wound people up’ despite having to seek advice about whether Mssrs Overd and Stockwell had actually committed any sort of crime.
Christian Concern add some meat to the bones of what was said:
Mr Stockwell had quoted a Bible verse in which Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life” and that he is the only way to heaven.
Mr Stockwell said:
“If you are trying to come through Catholicism, through Jehovah Witness, through Mormonism, the Bible says you’re a thief and a liar and a thief comes to steal and destroy. But Christ came that we may have life.”
He also entered debate with a Muslim gentleman in which both individuals stated opposition to the other’s religious beliefs.
This led prosecutor Ian Jackson to claim during the four-day trial ‘To say to someone that Jesus is the only God is not a matter of truth. To the extent that they are saying that the only way to God is through Jesus, that cannot be a truth’. The two men were subsequently found guilty under Section 31 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, for using ‘threatening or abusive words or behaviour or disorderly behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress, thereby, and the offence was religiously aggravated’.
So let us just review the facts for a minute. The police determined to shut down somebody sharing their understanding of their faith, and their straightforward interpretation of the Bible, simply because some listening did not like it. As Archbishop Cranmer notes, ‘this tends not to go down very well with those who enjoy sin, don’t want to be saved, or believe that all ways lead to God’. The prosecutor then asserted that a claim that Jesus is the only way to God is not a matter of truth, despite the patently obvious fact that he either is or he isn’t. Either there is no God to get to, no God willing to be gotten to or there is a God through whom there is some way of which Jesus may, or may not, be the only one. It is a clear and obvious matter of truth. The prosecutor may (rightly or wrongl) want to note that it is a truth that cannot ever be reliably proven, but to deny it is a truth claim at all that can be believed in either direction is an absurd claim. And yet the court ruled such an absurd argument, despite the deeply held belief of Mssrs Overd and Stockwell that what they proclaimed was indeed the truth and nothing but the truth, was legitimate. And thus Pilate’s enduring claim, the product of his own cowardice before the crowds, holds sway.
One may want to ask what truth is in this context, and refute the epistemological credibility of believing the words of the Bible, but in questioning the nature of truth we simultaneously muddy the waters on justice. For here is a truth that is self-evident: it is an injustice to prosecute a man for sharing his belief when our laws permit freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Here is another that most would accept: to be prosecuted for quoting the Bible – the very book upon which many of our laws have been based – is unjust and disproportionate. And here is a third: to prosecute a man because of offence in the ears of the hearer is just as unjust and unreasonable.
Andrea Williams, of Christian Concern, states the case well:
The Bible and its teachings are the foundation of our society and provided many of the freedoms and protections that we still enjoy today. So it is extraordinary that the prosecution, speaking on behalf of the state, could say that the Bible contains abusive words which, when spoken in public, constitute a criminal offence. Today’s ruling, in effect, states that Bible is offensive and contains illegal speech which should not be shared in public. This is a very serious state of affairs and the men will be considering next steps to challenge this decision.
“Offence” is a very subjective thing and is easily manipulated to shut down viewpoints that people simply don’t like. Any suggestion that there is a right not to be offended must be strongly resisted. In today’s democracy, we need the freedom to debate, challenge and disagree.
Mike Overd and Michael Stockwell were saying nothing that wouldn’t be heard at speakers’ corner in Hyde Park – presenting the claims of the Bible, answering the crowd’s questions and objections and responding calmly to abuse which was hurled at them. For a court to rule that this breaks the law is extraordinary.
On this same day, Theresa May proudly proclaimed in parliament ‘we must reaffirm our determination to stand up for the freedom of people of all religions to practise their beliefs in peace and safety’ before adding ‘and I hope to take further measures as a government to support this’. Anybody who has the slightest shred of interest in freedom of speech will join me in hoping she hurries up and gets on with it.