For most of our history, Northern Ireland has been a place where inter-Christian animosity between Catholics and Protestants has represented the main social divide. This friction has manifested in various forms, and still does. Increasingly, however, there is a tension between certain vocal evangelical Christians – as a Protestant subgroup – and those who don’t share this outlook, with freedom of speech as the main battleground.
In 2015, when still expected to win the French presidency, Marine Le Pen gave a Q&A session at Oxford University. One student asked the National Rally leader how committed she was to free speech. Le Pen responded with a definition: ‘It is when you are capable of defending not only those who think like you,’ she commented, ‘but also defending people whose opinions are radically opposed to yours.’
I ponder this résumé when I consider what is happening in Belfast. It’s probably due to Christmas opportunism, but street preachers have really been stepping up their game lately. Like Chaucer’s Parson, they know they have a captive audience and are making hay. The heathen veld is ripe for the hunt. On a housekeeping note, many different men – and they seem almost exclusively to be men – take to the mic in this way, so this article is not about any particular individual but a broader trend.
It will surprise nobody that one reason why street preaching is controversial relates to the favourite subject of many speakers: homosexuality. The reasons for this obsession are best known to the preachers themselves. Gay people, as well as our friends and relatives, are understandably miffed at incendiary comments in the public square about what Almighty God supposedly thinks about us.
Let’s be clear: I believe in free speech, and so should anyone who cares about basic liberties. Merely because an appreciable number, even a majority, find a proposition offensive, is not in itself adequate grounds to ban its articulation. And so, the stark reality must remain that as long as they don’t incite violence, street preachers must retain their freedom to preach on the so-called clobber passages like Romans 1.
To reference Le Pen again, I practise my faith in a completely different way to those gospel preachers who stand outside the shops in Belfast, but I’m obliged to stick up for their freedom to speak. I remember the pain I felt as a teenager around others’ anti-gay sentiments, remarks loosely based on the Bible, and I sympathise with anyone who wishes homophobic ideas could easily be silenced. If only things were that straightforward.
As ever, the road we have to take is one that requires forbearance. Instead of an outright ban on preaching certain things in public, which would only cause resentment and anger, the cold shoulder is probably the course of action with any chance of changing things in the shorter term. To put it differently, walk on by. Turn the other cheek, as Our Lord would say.
For my transatlantic readership, indeed anyone who has had the good fortune to have never encountered an open-air preacher in Belfast, search up Salvation on the Streets, a Facebook page. That should open your eyes! One video has over 700 comments and as many reactions, which is crazy by Northern Ireland standards.
There are several posts in which the preachers are dealing with police in their seaweed-green uniforms. These are fun to watch. I do have to say, the fact of officers in uniform attending calls about antisocial moralists rather than terrorist atrocities is a step in the right direction. This is Northern Ireland, after all.
In fact, as I mull it over, the Book of Romans Megadecibel Tour – as I like to call this preaching craze – is really Belfast at its best. Forget everything I said... everyone loves an evangelistic extravaganza! Nothing titillates the brain, after all, as much as a brave deconstruction of ‘LGBT ideology’ – because, as we know, sex and gender are the two biggest issues of our day.
Meanwhile, cloying attempts to be relatable, and a persecution complex large enough to feature in Astronomy magazine, are enough to warm even the coldest of hearts. But it’s his delivery, this being nothing short of Oscar-worthy, which makes a Belfast street preacher so compelling. I mean, that stodgy monotone is impossible to find grating!
This is marvellous, but our street preachers are not only the finest rhetorical powerhouses in all the land – oh no, valued reader – they’re also the sharpest legal minds the nation can boast. Witness with what skill and authority they decipher the law to such ignoramuses as trained police officers, never conflating current regulations on public speech with rules they would rather were in force.
Not only that, but street preaching is universally renowned for its educational value. Forget seminary! Gone are the days when you had to delve deep into Christian thought in order to call yourself a preacher. Since I started listening to gospel crusaders in Belfast, I’ve learned all manner of thing – including a religious term, ‘sanctificated,’ which passed me by during theological college. I now consider myself to be ‘justificated’ and hope one day to be ‘glorificated’ in Christ.
As this is a balanced article, my remaining words must register a more critical tone. Invariably, the preacher clips which go viral are speeches on controversial passages, rather than such trifles as the Creeds, those pillars of our faith. When someone is being unnecessarily provocative, they clearly want a reaction. Like I say, walk on by. Don’t reward attention seekers for seeking attention. You might as well try fighting a fifty-foot fire with a can of Lynx Africa.Street preaching, to mix metaphors, is akin to cutting in line at, say, Disney World: inconsiderate, but probably shouldn’t be criminalised. You might feel a smug sense of satisfaction, having beaten a four-hour stand for Space Mountain, but it’s unlikely to please other thrill seekers. Unless, of course, they too happen to be fans of queue-jumping.
In the best of Anglo-Catholic traditions, I’m very much in the ‘use words where necessary’ school of evangelism: Christlike actions are the best witness to God’s love. I’m happy to be proven incorrect, but I see no shred of evidence that street preaching – as practised in Belfast, anyway – has won anybody to Christ. It’s quite literally preaching to the converted.
Peter Osborne, who chairs various Northern Ireland charities, tweeted in relation to this: ‘I respect people’s faith but do wonder whether these amplified street preachers think or care about the proportion of people they’ve turned off compared to those they’ve converted?’ He conjectures, ‘I suspect many of the former and few, if any, of the latter.’ I strongly share your suspicions, Pete.
Nevertheless, if we high churchmen are free to serve God’s Kingdom in an unassuming way, then we must put up with other forms of evangelism, always criticising overblown sermons when they go too far. What we should never be complicit in is calling for an authoritarian clampdown on free speech.
1/9/2023 11:57:23 PM