The slippery slope: from full freedom of religion back to “toleration”

14 August 2018

Do you know the difference between toleration of religion and full freedom of religion? They sound the same don’t they? But there is a vitally important difference. In countries with religious toleration, Christians are generally allowed to worship but they face restrictions such as not being allowed to do certain jobs, not being allowed to meet for worship or openly preach their faith outside church buildings.

Although Christians in some countries face arrest and outright persecution from the government, in others they are allowed to worship but face serious restrictions. They are excluded from some public posts, may be excluded from attending university, standing for election and have to be very careful about any public display of their faith. In other words, they are tolerated on sufferance.

William III giving his royal assent to the Toleration Act of 1689
William III giving his royal assent to the Toleration Act of 1689

Repeal of the “Toleration Act” and gradual establishment of religious freedom

For about two centuries the UK had religious toleration, which eventually developed into full freedom of religion in 1888. In 1689 the English and Welsh parliament passed a “Toleration Act” which allowed Nonconformists (Protestants who were not members of the Anglican established church) and Catholics to meet for worship, subject to certain restrictions.

Gradually over the following two centuries those restrictions were repealed, first for Nonconformists, then for Catholics, then for Jews and finally even for atheists. A significant example was the repeal, in 1719, of the law requiring school teachers to affirm publicly the then dominant belief system of Anglicanism.

During the next 170 years a series of other “Test Acts” were abolished which had excluded non-Anglicans from being lawyers, army officers, magistrates, town mayors, students or academics at Oxford and Cambridge universities or becoming an MP. Restrictions on public expression of non-Anglican forms of belief were also gradually lifted. Importantly, in 1812 1 the Five Mile Act was repealed which had made it illegal to have a non-Anglican place of worship within five miles of any town sending an MP to parliament.

Nonconformists such as John Bunyan, author of <em>The Pilgrim's Progress</em>, suffered discrimination and even persecution by the Church of England authorities. Bunyan spent 12 years in prison after being convicted for holding a service that did not conform with those of the Church of England
Nonconformists such as John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim's Progress , suffered discrimination and even persecution by the Church of England authorities. Bunyan spent 12 years in prison after being convicted for holding a service that did not conform with those of the Church of England

Slipping back down the slope to mere toleration?

So, in 1888, when the last of these restrictions were lifted and even atheists were allowed to sit in parliament, the UK entered a period of full freedom of religion. However, today there is a real risk that the UK is slipping back down the slippery slope from full freedom of religion to mere toleration, on sufferance. Like the proverbial frog in a saucepan of water that is being slowly brought to the boil, Christians in the West could all too easily become accustomed to this gradual erosion of freedom of religion, not noticing until it is too late.

Let’s take the recent case of Allan Coote, an ordinary Christian from East London who believed God wanted him to read the Bible in front of St Paul’s cathedral. He was arrested while reading the verses from the sermon of the mount which says “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). Since Barnabas Fund first publicised his story on 10 July, it has been carried by national newspapers such as the Mail on Sunday , the Sunday Times , Daily Telegraph and even by the media in countries such as the USA and New Zealand . Yet, what happened to Allan is just further slippage on a slippery slope that began 21 years ago.

Nonconformists such as John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim's Progress, suffered discrimination and even persecution by the Church of England authorities. Bunyan spent 12 years in prison after being convicted for holding a service that did not conform with those of the Church of England
Barnabas Fund reported on the arrest of Mr Allan Coote for reading aloud from the Bible outside St Paul’s Cathedral. [credit: The Times]

Step one on the slippery slope

1997 marked a particular turning point. Until then no street preachers had been arrested since Victorian times. Then, an evangelist Alison Redmond-Bate was arrested after preaching on the steps of Wakefield Cathedral and convicted. However, the High Court subsequently overturned her conviction with Lord Justice Sedley declaring, "Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”

He also said that even if a crowd of hecklers are becoming unruly the police cannot order a preacher to stop because, “a police officer has no right to call upon a citizen to desist from lawful conduct."

Since then we have seen literally dozens of arrests of street preachers, with many held in custody for the best part of the day, then either released without charge or bailed, with the Crown Prosecution Service quietly dropping charges weeks later. Even when they do go to court the preachers are often acquitted, sometimes within minutes.

Step two on the slippery slope

In February 2017, during the trial of two street preachers the Crown Prosecution Service lawyer claimed that quoting from the King James Bible, “in the context of modern British society, must be considered to be abusive and is a criminal matter.”

Both preachers were convicted but this was overturned by the Crown Court in a retrial.

Step three on the slippery slope

On Christmas Eve 2017, Roland Parsons was peacefully reading the nativity story from Luke 1:52-68 outside Victoria Underground station in London as he had done every Christmas Eve for the previous 20 years. On this year, however, he was approached by a police officer and ordered to stop. Mr Parsons said:

“As an Open Air Preacher for 34 years I have stood outside Victoria Underground Station in London on Christmas Eve and read the account of the birth of Jesus Christ, usually from Luke chapters 1 and 2. Over the years many weary travellers have come up to my wife and I with great delight at hearing those familiar verses, thanked us. The occasional official has raised his eyebrows, but as soon as they heard the familiar verses that are so beloved within the traditional English Parish church carol service they have let it continue.”

But as from Christmas Eve 2017 this reading has now been stopped.

The slippery slope continues: where we are today

Staff at St Paul’s Cathedral asked police to stop Allan Coote reading from the Bible, even though he was not committing a criminal offence and even though another police officer said there was no offence and it would be “remiss to stop a man reading the Bible in a place of worship”. St Paul’s have claimed they would treat anyone outside the cathedral the same way, but Allan is not the first Christian preacher to be silenced. Two years ago a Methodist minister received similar treatment. However, in 2011 cathedral authorities allowed anti-Capitalism protestors to occupy the area in front of St Paul’s for four months, even though this forced the closure of the cathedral . Then on Christmas Eve 2012 radical Muslims claiming Jesus is not the son of God held a protest there.

It is particularly sad that it is church authorities who have now sought to ban Bible reading in public although, following all the publicity, Allan’s case has now received they have relented and said they will allow it for half an hour a week! However, as Allan points out this is still placing restrictions on Christians reading the Bible in public. "They have allowed me to have half an hour a week to preach there but there should not be a limit,” he said, adding, “If I want to go all week, I should be allowed to do this without interruption.”

In other words, in the course of just 21 years we have moved down the slippery slope from street preachers not having been prosecuted since Victorian times to a point where preachers are regularly arrested and even church authorities seek to restrict the public reading the Bible. We are sliding further backwards from the full “Freedom of Religion” which was achieved 130 years ago to mere “Religious Toleration”, where Christians are still allowed to worship freely but restrictions are placed on other aspects of openly practising their faith.

Barnabas Fund is taking a lead in a UK-wide push back to Turn the Tide against the erosion of religious freedom in the UK. Barnabas Fund’s Our Religious Freedom Campaign and petition calls upon the UK government to introduce a new Act of Parliament to enshrine fully and permanently into law our hard-fought-for religious freedoms, including the freedom to read Scriptures in public.

If you have not yet signed our petition calling for this please click here.

1 H.M. Stationary Office, Parliamentary Debates from the year 1803 to the present time, Volume XXIII, T.C. Hansard, 1812, 1191