Should people hold political demonstrations outside places of worship?

3rd October 2018

Twenty years ago this year, Peter Tatchell – the closest this country comes to a secular saint – mounted the pulpit of Canterbury Cathedral, and spoke these words:

“Dr Carey [the then Archbishop of Canterbury] supports discrimination against lesbian and gay people. He opposes lesbian and gay human rights. This is not a Christian teaching. It is wrong for Dr Carey to oppose an equal age of consent.”

The demonstration took place right in the middle of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter sermon. He was later charged with an offence under the 1860 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act, and was fined £18.60.

History provides many examples of demonstrations in or outside religious buildings: from Jesus’ direct action protest in the Temple in Jerusalem to Martin Luther’s pasting of his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg church. But generally speaking, they make me feel nervous.

I have, in fact, been on a demonstration outside a religious building myself, nearly a decade ago. With Tehmina Kazi – who wrote here about her leafleting by Regents Park Mosque – and others, I attended a counter protest against an organisation called Stop Islamisation of Europe, which in turn was demonstrating outside Harrow Mosque. I remember at the time checking to see if Harrow Mosque hosted hate preachers or promoted obnoxious literature. But even if they did, I would still have joined that counter protest.

My concern is that – unless they are conducted very carefully – demonstrations outside places of worship will be misunderstood. Even when a clergyman or an institution has bad politics, a demonstration will be experienced by the blameless worshippers who witness it as a frightening event. Most people who worship in a particular institution attend for purely spiritual and cultural purposes. To put them in the firing line is simply unfair.

Indeed, the purpose of the Stop Islamisation of Europe demonstration was to frighten the parishioners of the Harrow Mosque. The view of that organisation was that the very presence of Muslims in in this country is objectionable and should be opposed. Accordingly, there was widespread opposition across communities to such a demonstration. The Community Security Trust in particular spoke out strongly against it:

“If a Jew cannot understand why the image is racist, or hateful, or bigoted then they should try imagining it as a synagogue: with blood dripping from a Star of David; with blood dripping down the rabbi’s pulpit; and with blood dripping from the mouth of a skull that wears an Israeli army helmet.”

I think there are three general exceptions to the rule that you should not demonstrate outside religious buildings.

First, religious institutions may operate as marketplaces of ideas. Where leafleting and other forms of advocacy and persuasion customarily takes place outside a religious building, activity of a similar sort is unobjectionable. Various Muslim organisations may be in the habit of setting out stalls near and handing out leaflets to those attending services in an institution. The LGBT-Muslim Solidarity event that took place outside Regents Park Mosque falls into this category. Leafleting, engaging worshippers in discussion and other similar activities carries a low risk of being misunderstood. The message may be met with enthusiasm, opposition or indifference: but it is unlikely to cause fear.

Secondly, it would be strange if those who are members of a religion could not conduct religious arguments within their own institutions. Generally speaking, most parishioners stop short of heckling their clergymen. But Luther gets a pass on this one.

Finally, in a country with an established church, in which bishops sit in the legislature and are entitled to vote, the Church of England is an organ of the state. As much as I would want to avoid upsetting those engaged in prayer, I do not think that precludes a well judged and clear political protest against a particular religious doctrine or figure in that context.

You can watch a short news item about this event on the BBC, here.