Belfast Telegraph

Alf McCreary: When you can't preach at St Paul's, is it any wonder churches are struggling?

By Alf McCreary

A bus driver was arrested outside St Paul's Cathedral recently for preaching the Gospel on a spot where cathedral authorities had previously allowed a tented city of anti-capitalist protesters to squat for several weeks.

According to the crime correspondent of The Times, a policeman arrested Allan Coote because the authorities claimed he was disturbing the peace of St Paul's.

A colleague of the police officer who arrested Mr Coote told cathedral staff: "It would be remiss of me to move him on at a place of worship".

Mr Coote said the cathedral had tried to move him on 10 of the 11 times he had preached there. St Paul's countered by saying it had allowed Mr Coote to read from the Bible for half an hour a week, but added: "To provide a prayerful and safe space for all, St Paul's has a policy of limiting any form of public oration, protest, demonstration, preaching or other source of disturbance."

Surely the cathedral's authorities have lost their way when they regard preaching from the Bible as a "source of disturbance"?

Mr Coote said he hoped the incident would be "a wake-up call for St Paul's to start teaching the Bible instead of becoming a museum for visitors to pay money (into)".

The bus driver evangelist also stressed that no passers-by had complained. "I have a natural booming voice," he added. "I started at St Paul's because it is a public venue where many nations converge."

The Barnabas Fund, which campaigns on behalf of persecuted Christians, has taken up Mr Coote's case. Dr Martin Parsons, the body's head of research, said: "This illustrates the slippery slope down which the UK is losing its heritage of religious freedom.

No one, to my knowledge, has been arrested here for reading the Bible in public, and members of the Free Presbyterian Church regularly hold services outside Belfast City Hall.

I recall a long time ago seeing an evangelist walking around the perimeter of the Windsor Park pitch at an international football game, preaching as he went. No one objected.

Those were the days when huge crowds at FA Cup finals sang Abide With Me. That would not happen today, because so much has changed in the now secular Britain.

However, we seem to be much more tolerant about the propagation of the Gospel in Northern Ireland.

There are still people who hand out religious tracts on some of our main thoroughfares, and many people accept them, either to read or, more likely, to avoid any embarrassment for a well-meaning evangelist.

There is no doubt, however, that we are a less church-going society, but despite that, very many people are still searching for spiritual realities and truths, though they rarely darken a church door.

There is a lesson for all of us in the St Paul's story, and it is a lesson in knowing how to handle a complex situation that, if managed badly, could bring the church into disrepute.

There is a parallel with the way in which the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has handled the issue of homosexuality.

It is perfectly entitled to its conservative views, which do not surprise anyone.

However, the greatest anger still shown by rank-and-file Presbyterians stems from the way in which the Irish Church cut its close ties with the Church of Scotland over the issue.

That was rudeness of a high order, and it is not being forgotten.

One of the great failings of some of the mainstream churches is their lack of grace and understanding.

The Church is not just for 'good' or 'saved' people, but also for those human beings who are hurting, broken, feeling guilty and badly needing help.

If you were one of these people, would you turn first to the church or a Christian leader for help?

I know churches which have caring people, but some churches treat people harshly, according to the letter of the law, and not with the spirit of the Gospels, as shown by Christ Jesus Himself.

Churches are steadily losing numbers, but it is not hard to understand why.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph