Since I heard about the arrest of Tony Miano I have been mulling over what this latest example of a Christian being stopped by the police over speaking their beliefs in public means. I'm not actually that much of a fan of street evangelists – especially the pushy ones that stand on the side of the road and shout at people as they go past. But it sounds like Tony was part of a much larger, week-long outreach into his local community.
Whether we agree with what Tony was doing or not, I am just keen that discussions about what has happened don't just centre on the whole issue of homophobia. I know that the Church does not have a great track record of dealing with this – or any other 'hot potato' issues from our culture frankly.
It's quite a tall order for us fallen creatures to show grace and love to the gay community while also sticking firm to our belief that God tells us homosexuality is a sin. We so often come across as judgemental – or just plain rude. And I know that for many the debate now rages on between different factions of the Church as some hold to the belief that you can be a practising gay man or woman and a Christian. For me, the Bible is quite clear on this issue – but that's not the point.
What is the point is that if a Christian can be arrested for saying something that a member of the public doesn't like, the logical next step is that our 'religious freedom' will be curtailed in another way. European law has already considered whether religious items of clothing, such as a cross, can be worn in the workplace. It was actually our government that brought this matter to the courts back in 2012. Unlike some other religious clothing, such as the hijab, it felt that because the cross was not a requirement of our religion that the employees being prosecuted shouldn't have the right to wear it. There was a mixed result – one woman won her case but others didn't so the issue is far from solved.
Of course, the legalisation of same-sex marriages also has implications for us as Christians. Those who do not wish to carry out such marriages in their places of worship were reassured that the law would not force them to, but there have already been many calls to push Christians to accept the need for same-sex marriage to be conducted in churches.
I know that not every Christian will stand on common ground with regards to these issues. But I do hope that we are all united in calling for a return to the ideal this country has upheld in the past: namely freedom of speech for all. I'm not just saying that it is for those who hold to the same beliefs as us, but for everyone. However, too often in recent months there have been instances of Christians being told they cannot say certain things in public.
As a country we have held strongly to the principle that people should be able to be who they want to be and act as they want to (within the parameters of the law). We have seen the results of that principle encourage more and more liberal ways of thinking and acting (that we may not agree with) but if we urged government to uphold that principle we would benefit as a result. Do we really want to see the law begin to erode and change to become such that our basic religious freedoms are stifled?
Indeed the government have been proposing that ASBOs be replaced by injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance (IPNAs). There were widespread concerns that any kind of public activity, including peaceful protestors, noisy children and yes, street preachers, could have fallen under the new guidelines and, fortunately, on 9 January the House of Lords voted against the new proposal. But the fact that it was proposed in the first place is surely indicative of the way things are going.
How long will it be before we are pressurised to watch what we say within our church services? When we are hauled up for preaching 'uncomfortable' messages? Only time will tell, of course, and so we must do what we can to keep our Christian voice being heard. One such man doing that regularly is Danny Webster, Advocacy Programme Manager for the Evangelical Alliance. I asked him what his response to the events of the past week was:
"When the government want the power to stop people being annoying they have lost the plot," he said. "They might talk about being liberal but liberalism would protect the freedom of speech even when it is annoying, a nuisance or offensive. If the government cannot protect that, and see how their proposed measures would threaten it, it falls to us all to stand up for free speech, whether it is the words of street preachers or vocal atheists."