When Preaching the Gospel is Illegal
On Monday, 1 July, an American street preacher was arrested outside CentreCourt Shopping Centre in Wimbledon. That’s about 200 yards away from the church which I lead in Southwest London. You can watch his preaching and his arrest in full by clicking here.
As you can see from the video, Tony Miano decided to preach from 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12. He explained Paul’s teaching about sexual immorality and challenged passers-by over their attitudes towards pornography, sex outside of marriage, homosexuality and lust. I don’t particularly warm to his style of preaching, but I certainly can’t fault its content. He basically said the kind of things which the apostle Paul said. If they seem controversial, it is only because British church leaders have kept quiet about them for so long.
Several passers-by voiced their support for Tony Miano. It’s interesting how many people do when Christians start preaching the Bible. But many others were abusive, just like the crowds which Paul encountered in the streets of Greece and Asia Minor. They called Tony Miano a “c***” and told him to “f*** off”. Eventually the police arrived, but this was where things took a turn for the bizarre. Instead of cautioning the people who were verbally abusing Tony Miano, they arrested him under Section 5 of the Public Order Act for “causing offence” by his preaching, telling him that he could not lawfully say that homosexuality is a sin. When he pointed out graciously that this was a strange way to treat somebody for simply preaching from the Bible, he was told by a police officer to count himself lucky because Christians were thrown to the lions in ancient Rome.
When British police officers start comparing themselves to the police force of the Emperor Nero, however flippantly, honest citizens should sit up and take note. You don’t have to be a Christian to see this as an alarming change in British policing. Tony Miano was incarcerated for seven hours at Wimbledon Police Cells before being released without charge. The police officers sided with the passers-by and used their powers of arrest as a de facto form of punishment and as a bludgeon to deter any further preaching in the future.
As a local church leader, I responded to the incident by writing formally to the Borough Police Commander, Darren Williams, and to the local MP, Stephen Hammond. I asked them the following seven questions:-
I know both the Police Commander and the MP personally, so I wrote to them hoping to receive some answers offline. However, since neither of them have replied in the last two weeks, I felt I had no choice but to make a formal complaint to the London Metropolitan Police.
Whilst I await their response to my complaint, I have been reading 1 Thessalonians a little bit myself. I am encouraged that Paul tells the Thessalonians that “We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition” (1Th 2:2). I am encouraged that he tells them up front that “You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered… in their effort to keep us from speaking to the pagans so that they may be saved” (1Th 2:14-16). I am encouraged that it is in this context of abuse, arrest and persecution that the Thessalonian church grew and planted churches across the Roman Empire. Paul tells the persecuted believers that “The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God has become known everywhere.”
Something has changed. The conditions in Britain are now different. They are less like the comfortable, compromised twentieth century which saw massive church decline. They are becoming a bit more like the days in which the church at Thessalonica flourished: when street-preaching Christians were hated and loved in equal measure.