Last week Barnabas Fund highlighted a video showing City of London Police arresting a man, now known to be Allan Coote, for reading the Bible in public outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The police officers claimed that cathedral staff had asked them to do so. Now a further video has emerged from several months ago of a similar event showing police stopping Mr Coote reading the Bible in public outside St Paul’s, with what appears to be member of the cathedral management standing close behind the police officers. Ironically, Mr Coote was reading from the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew chapter 5 which includes the verses:
“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.” (Matthew 5:10-12, KJV)
In each of the videos the police justify their actions by stating that the cathedral staff have asked them to move on those reading from the Bible because the public precinct in front of St Paul’s cathedral is owned by the Church. However, in this second video (7:45-10:20 minutes inclusive) the police officer tells the cathedral staff:
“I am of the opinion that this chap isn’t causing any breach of the peace. This chap isn’t impeding anyone. I am happy for him to stay here.” (7:42-7:52 minutes)
However, a member of the cathedral staff then tells the police
“The Registrar and the Dean and the Chapter have given instructions to the head of security that at any time he shows up he should be asked to leave and we are just following those orders.” (8:18-8:28 minutes)
This police officer however stands his ground and replies:
“This chap is reading from the Bible. I feel it would be remiss of me to move him on in a place of worship.” (10:07-10:14 minutes)
Three serious concerns about the cathedral’s attitude to freedom of religion must be raised here:
1. Freedom to read the Bible in public was one of the very first aspects of freedom of religion to be legally established in England. In 1537, just a year after Tyndale had been burnt at the stake for translating the Bible into English, King Henry VIII issued a royal decree making it legal to read the Bible publicly. Then on 5 September 1538 his chief minister Thomas Cromwell issued in the king’s name specific injunctions to clergy to place an English Bible in every parish church in the country and ordering them:
“That ye shall discourage no man privily or apertly from the reading or hearing of the said Bible, but shall expressly provoke, stir, and exhort every person to read the same, as that which is the very lively word of God, that every Christian man is bound to embrace, believe and follow if he look to be saved.” (Item three)
This is part of the very foundation of the Church of England, which was established only four years earlier. Yet cathedral authorities are now doing exactly the opposite of what the injunctions to clergy set out in early years of the Church of England.
2. Why are the cathedral staff involving the police? The public precinct in front of St Paul’s may be owned by the Church of England, but literally hundreds of people stand on or walk across it every day. In English law trespass is civil matter, not a criminal offence. So why did the cathedral management think it was in any sense appropriate to involve the police?
3. The cathedral authorities have not attempted to move on far more disruptive protestors from the public precinct in front of St Paul’s. For example, in 2011 the area was occupied by hard left “Occupy London” anti-capitalism protestors who literally set up camp there for months with the Dean of St Paul’s resigning in protest at legal attempts to evict them, even though the protestors had at one stage forced the closure of St Paul’s. It seems the cathedral is prepared to tolerate hard-Left protestors outside the cathedral for months, but not someone peacefully reading the words of the Lord Jesus Christ in the “Sermon on the Mount”.
So where do the Church authorities stand on freedom of religion in the UK? The Church of England has often defended its status as the established church by claiming that this enables it to protect freedom of religion for followers of all religions. However, in these cases it has not only failed to protect an important aspect of freedom of religion that has existed almost since the Church of England was first established, but has actually become part of the problem. It has itself undermined the heritage of freedom of religion which first developed in what is now the UK and spread from there to the rest of the world.
Freedom of religion took many centuries to develop, during which Anglicans in England occupied a privileged position in comparison to members of other churches, termed “Nonconformists”. Such Nonconformists, for example, John Bunyan, suffered significant discrimination and at times and even persecution by the Church of England authorities. It is therefore deeply saddening that cathedral authorities should again be seeking to restrict freedom of religion for other Christians.
What we are seeing is our heritage of freedom of religion sliding further down a slippery slope. It is important that we look back and see how much freedom has been lost in just the last two decades.
Throughout almost the entire twentieth century there were no prosecutions of street preachers. Then in 1997 two evangelists preaching on the steps of Wakefield Cathedral were arrested, although freed on appeal two years later. However, in the last decade we have lost count of the number of street preachers who have been arrested by police, with a great many subsequently being released without charge or acquitted by the courts.
Then last year at the trial of two street preachers the Crown Prosecution Service claimed that quoting from the King James Bible in public “in the context of modern British society must be considered to be abusive and is a criminal matter”. Now we have cathedral authorities seeking to prevent people publicly reading the Bible in front of a cathedral.
This relentless erosion of such public expressions of faith illustrates why it is so important that all aspects of freedom of religion, which historically developed in the UK, should be fully incorporated into UK law.
If you have not yet signed our petition calling for this please click here.