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A victory for free speech as Christian preacher is cleared


I HAVE some encouraging news for this special weekend, as we focus on the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. The trial of open-air preacher Pastor John Sherwood took place at Uxbridge magistrates’ court last week, and he was acquitted of the public order charges brought against him. This represents some welcome relief in the assault upon Christian liberties in contemporary Britain. 

On April 23 last year, as reported in TCW, Pastor Sherwood was arrested in the centre of Uxbridge in West London as he engaged in public preaching with this writer. He was held overnight, and for a total of 21 hours. The TCW article was crucial in drawing attention to the outrageous injustice of the arrest.  

Pastor Sherwood had been speaking on Genesis chapter 1, verses 27 and 28, which read: ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply.’

The minister explained that the family unit as ordained by God consists of a father and a mother, and not two fathers or two mothers, who are obviously unable to reproduce. His words were delivered as part of a general presentation of the Christian message, which declares that all people, whoever they are, have sinned and need to come to Jesus Christ for salvation. 

Complaints were made to the police from some passers-by about alleged homophobic hate speech, and the 72-year-old pastor was arrested under section 5 of the Public Order Act for using ‘threatening or abusive words or behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress’. 

Almost a year later, on April 7 last week, the trial finally took place. The public gallery was full with Christians showing their support for a man of God who is willing to stand up for the truths of Scripture in the public realm, despite the prevailing anti-Christian spirit of the age and the blatant promotion of the doctrines of cultural Marxism in all our major national institutions. 

The trial was quite remarkable in that there was so much Scripture quoted in it. Pastor Sherwood was determined to impress upon the prosecution that everything that he ever preaches upon is grounded in the final authority of God’s word, the Bible. 

The tone was set at the beginning of the trial. Because of Covid-19 the practice has been dropped of defendants and witnesses swearing on a physical holy book. Instead, they are handed a card from which they read out an affirmation that they will speak the truth. However, Pastor Sherwood had his own Bible with him in the courtroom, and he asked the presiding district judge if he could swear on that, and his request was granted. How appropriate to swear on the book which would form the basis of his defence. 

Pastor Sherwood explained to the court that the reason he and I chose to preach in Uxbridge was a disturbing incident on September 11, 2018, when schoolchildren were engaged in an enormous street brawl and riot. The mayhem led to police locking down the town centre for 48 hours. 

John Sherwood and I felt we should proclaim some Biblical truth in what seemed to be a rather needy place, and have been preaching in the centre of the town on a regular basis ever since. Our visits are often characterised by lively conversations and debates with young people, including schoolchildren, who perhaps never before have had their presuppositions challenged on, say, abortion or LGBT issues. Moreover, it is they themselves who want to debate these issues.  

During his defence Pastor Sherwood explained that at no time was he attacking or disparaging any individuals. His motivation was only that his hearers, whoever they might be, might come to repent of sin and believe in Christ for eternal salvation.

This is a motivation of love, yet we are often accused of being ‘unloving’ in our open-air ministry, but is a doctor being ‘unloving’ if he explains how serious the disease is before he prescribes the remedy? This is what the Christian preacher has to do in respect of the gospel. The disease of a sinful heart leading to sinful thoughts and actions must first be described, before the hearer can begin to appreciate the precious remedy of the death of Christ to pay the penalty for sin. The blessings of salvation only have meaning in the context of a person first realising that he has sin to be repented of.

Furthermore, no true Christian minister would be true to his calling if he deliberately avoided mentioning the prevailing sins of his own day. 

Article 10 of the 1998 Human Rights Act was a factor in the various legal arguments during the trial. This states: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority.’ We rejoice that this principle was upheld in the case of Pastor Sherwood. 

After the trial the preacher and his supporters offered prayers of thanksgiving to God for the acquittal, and there sounded forth the words of the hymn, ‘To God be the glory, Great things he hath done’.

Despite this favourable outcome, Bible-believing Christians need to remain vigilant. The establishment needs to realise that public Christian testimony is part and parcel of British life, and our police forces need some basic education in the history of this nation. Open-air preaching is a longstanding feature of the British scene, and of our Christianity-based culture and love of freedom. 

For example, vigorous open-air ministry in the 18th century was a major factor in helping to save this country from a violent political and social revolution such as occurred in France in 1789. This is not a fanciful notion, for there is plain historical documentation of it; see here, for example. 

The freedom given to open-air Christian preachers is the litmus test for the maintenance of our civil liberties generally. So even freedom-loving secularists should be worried when gospel liberties are under assault, and make no mistake, they are under threat, despite this welcome acquittal of a faithful gospel preacher.

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Peter Simpson
Peter Simpson
Pastor Peter Simpson has been Minister of Penn Free Methodist Church in Buckinghamshire since 1990, and is a keen open air preacher. He is the author of a book on World War II entitled ‘When a Nation Prays’, which is currently available on Amazon.

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