HELLFIRE street preachers are a familiar sight in our towns and cities; well-thumbed Bible clutched in one hand, a messianic gleam in the eye and an uncompromising message that we will be damned for eternity unless we change our sinful ways pretty sharpish.
Some of them may be eccentric, but they stem from a long and honourable tradition. Street preachers have been part of British life since at least the Reformation when soaring literacy rates and the availability of the Bible translated into English sparked a remarkable religious renaissance.
Over the centuries people have fought and died for the right to proclaim the Gospel as they see fit and it remains an essential plank of our hard won political and religious liberties.
In modern Britain you can be hauled off by the police and thrown into a cell merely for quoting the Bible.
Take the example of John Craven who was preaching on the streets of Manchester, as he has done twice a week for 14 years, when he was approached by two gay teenagers who asked him his views on homosexuality.
Mr Craven replied that God loves the sinner, but hates the sin – and according to the Bible homosexuality is a sin, and sinners would burn in a lake of fire and sulphur.
Far from being extreme, these views were pretty mainstream until very recently and could have been uttered by the Archbishop of Canterbury without arousing any controversy.
But that was before the pernicious culture of grievance and victimhood took such a grip on the nation. The gay couple were not satisfied with Mr Craven’s answer, so they started making obscene gestures to provoke him. When this failed to work, they trotted off to a police officer to demand Mr Craven be arrested because they were “upset and offended”.
Instead of telling the pair to grow up and stop wasting valuable police time, the officer grabbed Mr Craven roughly by the arm and arrested him. He was hauled off to a police cell where he was kept for 19 hours without food, water and the medication he needs to control his rheumatoid arthritis.
The 57-year-old was fingerprinted, photographed, had a DNA sample taken and warned he faced a six-month sentence for using “insulting” words causing distress.
Even the idiots at Greater Manchester Police could eventually see there was no case to answer and the charges were dropped.
This week, after a three-year legal battle that has cost the taxpayer about £50,000, Mr Craven was awarded £13,000 in compensation for his wrongful arrest and detention.
It would be nice to think this was a one off – but it is not. Last year a 73-year-old man was wrestled to the ground by six police officers and arrested in Oxfordshire because someone found his preaching offensive, and later this month another preacher faces prosecution in a court in Dundee because a woman was upset by his mention of “sexual sin”. Other incidents have occurred in Perth, Somerset, Lincolnshire, Kent and Birmingham.
Thanks largely to our Christian and democratic traditions, modern Britain is a remarkably tolerant society. Gays have reached the top of politics, business, sport and the entertainment world without anyone turning a hair. The vast majority of people accept – quite rightly – that what goes on behind the bedroom door is nobody else’s business but the consenting adults concerned.
This isn’t the case in less enlightened parts of the world. Teenage homosexuals are publicly hanged in Iran and anti-gay laws and discrimination exist across the Arab world and much of Africa.
But our liberties at home don’t come without cost. If you expect your views to be treated with tolerance, you must extend the same tolerance to other people you may disagree with.
Free speech means nothing unless it applies to people with views divergent to your own.
And occasionally this means people will voice opinions that you find upsetting and offensive. This is the price we pay for living in a free society.
The next time someone complains to the police that they are upset at someone’s views, the correct response should be a robust: “Tough – just get over it!”