ON September 9, 2018, there was a terrifying street brawl in the centre of Uxbridge, in the west London borough of Hillingdon. On reading about this incident I and a colleague in the Christian ministry felt drawn to go and engage in open-air preaching in Uxbridge on the grounds that it was surely a needy place.
So ever since we have been preaching in Uxbridge town centre once a fortnight, helped by a few other Christians. Last month, four police officers approached us and told us that the posters which we had on display had to be removed, and that gospel leaflets could not be handed out, because the area was now under a ‘Public Spaces Protection Order’ (PSPO). This order had come into force by means of a by-law introduced on August 1. Hillingdon council did this under the authority of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, section 59.
One officer told me that he and his colleagues had authority to administer the PSPO, and that if we did not comply, we would be fined. So our group reluctantly went along with the instruction, but one of our helpers and I immediately went to the council offices in Uxbridge, where we requested permission to carry on as we have been doing for the last five years; we also lodged a protest over the imposition of the PSPO.
Thankfully, the ban on handing out leaflets was reversed, with the council telling me that our group, being a religious group, was exempt from the PSPO under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The letter which I received stated: ‘Pastor Simpson and his colleagues are authorised to distribute religious leaflets.’ However, being ‘authorised’ by a local authority to hand out Christian literature is a principle which I am unwilling to go along with.
The council is still insisting that we may not display any posters, even though permission has been formally sought. Again, the principle of a secular council, which may not be remotely sympathetic to the Christian faith, telling me whether or not I may display the word of God is not compatible with the maintenance of Christian liberties. As a Christian preacher, I have a far higher authority for carrying out my work than Hillingdon council.
In correspondence with the council I have pointed out that, as the minister of a church, I am the employee of a registered charity which exists for the public good, and so I am distressed that displaying posters designed to give spiritual help to members of the public is deemed to be an anti-social activity. Indeed, to include the public display of Biblical teaching in the same category as urinating, defecating, drug-taking and drunkenness is surely utterly inappropriate.
We take every care never to position ourselves and our posters in any manner that might cause obstruction or inconvenience. My colleague and I preach without the use of any amplification. This is in awareness that amplification can be intrusive, and our restraint in this matter is proof that we are considerate of those around us.
Exhibiting the word of God is a vital part of our Christian testimony. As well as the intrinsic value of the message displayed by our signs, they serve the necessary function of informing passers-by that those gathered are Christians, as opposed to a group representing a different religion, or those engaged in political or commercial activity.
Some readers who do not share my Christian convictions may think that the council has every right to keep the high street and other open spaces free from clutter and any activity that might irritate. There are, however, fundamental issues of freedom at stake here.
When news of the PSPO first broke, a Christian from Perth, Australia, contacted me and explained what has happened there. Some two years ago her church was prevented from displaying Bible posters in a part of Perth where they were accustomed to hold a Christian witness. Furthermore, Christian literature now had to be viewed by the council before it could be handed out. After a while, the church’s minister was forbidden from preaching in the designated area, and even a small table with Bibles on it was banned as being a safety hazard.
I mention this to highlight where the seemingly harmless activity of a London council administering a PSPO could lead. As we know, the whole Western world is turning against Biblical Christianity, especially because of its rejection of the woke ‘diversity and inclusion’ narratives. A public declaration of Biblical truth is quite simply contrary to the spirit of the age and the mainstream drift of our society. So the presence of preachers in town centres is far from welcome in many quarters.
One of the posters which we use in Uxbridge refers, in a calm, moderate and temperate manner, to the immorality of abortion, and questions the promotion of the LGBT agenda in our nation’s schools. It could well be that the PSPO has nothing to do with the content of this poster, but on the other hand, we also know that there are more than a few people in Uxbridge who would be very pleased that we may no longer display that particular sign.
When a nation is on the downward path of ever-increasing State control over people’s lives, experience in communist lands shows that Christians are often at the forefront of having their freedom of action curtailed. That is why this PSPO in Hillingdon should sound alarm bells for anyone concerned about the preservation of personal liberties. Do we really want to live in a society where it is deemed to be an anti-social act and contrary to the public’s welfare to display posters showing Bible verses and Biblical teachings?