Josh Williamson is an Australian who recently moved to the UK to serve the church there. After working in London for a while he was called to Craigie Reformed Baptist Church in Perth, Scotland. I had the joy of meeting him in Sydney a few years ago.
Josh is also a street preacher. His style is to get up, boom it out (he has a huge voice – a real gift from God) and tell it straight. As you might expect it has varied responses – God has been very good to him in bringing many to salvation but it also gets him into a spot of trouble now and again because, let’s face it, people don’t like it when they hear the gospel preached.
It seems some people in Perth really didn’t like it and Josh has had the privilege of being arrested not once, but twice in one week for nothing more than opening his mouth and teaching the Bible.
When we arrived in the city centre we were greeted with a barrage of noise. At one end of the street was a busker playing loud South American music through an amplifier, and then in the middle of the street was an opera singer who was singing at the top her lungs with amplification.
All in all it was very noisy in the town centre. After walking the street we found a location between the buskers that we thought would be the best location. We didn’t have any amplification so we had to rely on our natural voices (this was going to be hard due to the noise!)
It was a hard open-air as at times I couldn’t even hear myself speak due to the noise coming from the buskers. I had to wonder while I was preaching how the Christian message is classed as a “breach of a peace” but loud music isn’t?
The female sergeant asked me to stop preaching. She told me that complaints had been made, and people were upset with what I was doing. I asked her what law I was breaking, and she said I was in breach of the peace. Around this time the sergeant noticed she was being filmed by my friends. She objected to this, and demanded that they stop. Since it is not illegal to film police in Scotland they continued. This was done because we have been told that legally we need to document what happens. It is for our protection and also for the police protection.
The sergeant kept insisting that the filming stop. When it didn’t I was asked to get into their car so they could talk to me. At this stage I hadn’t been detained or arrested, but I was talking to them of my own free-will. I declined their request to get in the car. At this the sergeant told me that I was being detained, and with that both officers grabbed me by the arms and forced me towards the car.
The sergeant told me that I was being detained for breach of the peace. I asked the sergeant why she targeted a preacher without amplification when two buskers were amplified and making much more noise. She replied by saying that people had complained about me.
The sergeant then said I would be given a fixed penalty notice (a ticket / fine) for breach of the peace, and that I would have to cease from my activities. If I had accepted this it would mean that I would not be legally allowed to preach. Biblically I could not accept such a condition as that would mean going against God’s Word. I replied that I would preach again. At this the sergeant placed me under arrest for breach of peace.
What is so striking here is that the issue of “breach of the peace” is clearly no longer being defined simply in terms of the noise level. That wasn’t why Josh was arrested because, as he points out, there were louder buskers either side of him. No, the issue at stake here is that people complained about the content and that was enough. So, as Williamson quite rightly identifies, we are now falling back on an entirely subjective measure. I say “subjective” because not once did any policeman clearly outline an objective measure of what Josh did wrong.
Christian Concern have taken his case up and we ought to pray that it will end with both an apology to Josh and further clarification on what our rights actually are. Notwithstanding that further clarity, they have a booklet on currently understood rights for street preachers [pdf].
Under our domestic laws, however, Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 makes it a criminal offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to cause harassment, alarm or distress. Whether something can be considered “insulting” is highly subjective and therefore many feel that Section 5 is open to abuse.
Freedom of speech is often tested when it comes to the proclamation of Christian sexual ethics in the public sphere. However, it is completely lawful to preach in public that homosexual acts are sinful.
There is a free speech clause, tabled by Lord Waddington as section 29JA in the Public Order Act 1986, which states that:
“In this Part, for the avoidance of doubt, the discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred”.
There’s also some helpful stuff on breach of the peace. The bottom line is that Williamson’s rights were clearly violated here. We ought to pray that this matter is rapidly addressed and that Josh and the saints of Craigie Reformed Baptist can continue to respond in grace and with truth.
Acts 4:29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.