Christians have heard it before: We might end up being dragged to prison for preaching our faith.
And we believe it, too — but we don’t necessarily envision it happening the way it happened to Pastor John Sherwood. We picture ourselves as missionaries in a village somewhere, our shirt and the dust from the roads clinging to the sweat of our bodies in the midday heat.
The only clean clothes to be found are the crisp uniforms of the junta’s foot soldiers, who aren’t inclined to listen to the word of the Lord — or any of your excuses, for that matter.
Off to jail with you.
For Sherwood, there were no troops from a junta, no sweaty town square, no dusty clothes, nothing like that. In London, of all places, the street preacher was arrested in connection with the “crime” of preaching from Genesis 1.
According to Premier Christian News, Sherwood was arrested last month after police received complaints about the content of his preaching.
“At 13:35hrs on Friday, 23 April, officers on patrol were flagged down by a member of the public who made them aware of a man allegedly making homophobic comments close to Uxbridge Underground Station,” a spokesman with the London Metropolitan Police said in a statement to the news outlet.
“A number of other people also approached the officers with concerns about the man’s language.
“Officers spoke with the 71-year-old man and he was subsequently arrested on suspicion of an offence under Section 5 of the Public Order Act.”
A roughly one-minute video of the arrest, shared on social media, depicts a rather forceful procedure, particularly involving a 71-year-old pastor.
WARNING: The following video contains graphic language that some viewers will find offensive.
According to Peter Simpson, who said he was preaching with Sherwood when he was arrested, the pastor had been preaching from Genesis 1 and had the temerity to point out that the Bible has some prohibitions against same-sex relationships and family arrangements. (You may have heard something like this yourself.)
“I and my colleague Pastor John Sherwood, the Minister of a north London church, were preaching the gospel together in the centre of Uxbridge (in the PM’s constituency) on Friday April 23, as we regularly do,” Simpson wrote in an April 27 piece for the The Conservative Woman.
“I began the preaching and referred to the grave abandonment by our nation of its Christian foundations, an abandonment which has manifested itself in, for example, the redefinition of marriage. This redefinition is nothing less than an assault upon the Biblical revelation, which tells us that marriage can be only between one man and one woman.
“Pastor Sherwood then preached, expounding the final verses of Genesis 1, declaring that God’s design in creating mankind was to set human beings in families, headed by a father and a mother, not by two fathers or by two mothers. The distinction within mankind of just two genders, male and female, made in the image of God, constitutes the essence of God’s created order.”
A-ha! Hate speech!
“After a while, a number of police officers appeared on the scene, going up to Pastor Sherwood and stating that three complaints had been received about the preaching. The pastor stopped preaching to speak to the officers, in a courteous and reasonable manner for some considerable time, whilst adhering firmly to all that he had said. The accusation made by police was that ‘alarm and distress’ had been caused to members of the public,” Simpson wrote.
“Whilst this conversation was going on, another officer spoke to me about the need to avoid any homophobic statements. I explained that to uphold God’s moral law and to speak about the dangers of sin in respect of LGBT issues implies absolutely no hatred or unpleasantness towards any individual or group of people. Indeed, it is an act of love to one’s neighbour. Nevertheless, the Bible’s description of homosexuality as sinful is plain and clear-cut.”
However, the policeman said there are certain things you just can’t say in public, no matter what holy book they come from. (Even if that holy book is supposed to be the basis for the state-sponsored religion, ossified though it may be, that the British people pay to maintain.)
Sherwood, according to Simpson, told the officers he had freedom of speech and kept preaching.
“Pastor Sherwood then resumed preaching and spoke on the precious right to freedom of speech in this country reaching back to Magna Carta in 1215 and the Bill of Rights in 1689,” Simpson wrote. “One man amongst the onlookers, who said that he was bisexual, shouted out that Pastor Sherwood had made homophobic statements, and a woman in the gathering crowd, who said she was a lesbian, said that he was guilty of hate speech. The police took a statement from her.”
Simpson wrote that Sherwood was taken into police detention near Heathrow Airport, kept overnight and not released until the following day. Furthermore, Simpson wrote, Sherwood’s lawyer said his interview with law enforcement was contentious.
“One of the questions which Pastor Sherwood was surprisingly asked was what would he do if one of his own children were homosexual?” Simpson wrote.
All because he preached about biblical marriage. This is where we are, folks.
“It is surely the task of police to ask questions about the specific alleged offence, not more general questions about why someone holds a personal view on an aspect of Biblical morality. Altogether, the preacher was detained for around 21 hours. Though released, he continues to be under investigation,” Simpson wrote.
But what about his free speech? That really depends. Free speech is heavily qualified in the United Kingdom, and the laws concerning it are vague.
As The Week pointed out, Article 10 of the Human Rights Act of 1998 stipulates that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression” in the United Kingdom, but the article qualifies that by noting it “may be subject to formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society.”
Other laws in the U.K. prohibit hate speech, although they also are vague. Hate speech can include “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress” which incite “racial and religious hatred” and “hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.”
In other words, a 71-year-old preacher theoretically could face prosecution under hate crime laws. The U.K. Daily Mail reported the incident has been forwarded to the Crown Prosecution Service for review.
“This arrest of a faithful minister for doing nothing other than declaring what the Bible teaches about one of the important moral issues of our time reveals a dangerous assault upon freedom of speech and, not least, upon the freedom of Christian pastors to declare in public all that the Bible teaches,” Simpson wrote for The Conservative Woman.
“The State has no right to designate that some parts of God’s word are no-go areas. Whatever one’s personal views on homosexuality might be, it is surely pertinent to ask what kind of nation have we become that the minister of a Christian church is arrested for upholding in the public square the very truths which Her Majesty the Queen promised to uphold in her Coronation Oath in 1953, with a Bible in her hand?”
It’s just as pertinent to ask what that Bible actually means in the United Kingdom in 2021. The unfortunate answer is “not much.”
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.