There has been confusion, on occasion fear and all too often misinformation which has caused Christians to pause and even lose their nerve about speaking openly about Jesus.
In response to this the Evangelical Alliance and Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship have produced a resource called Speak Up aiming to equip Christians to share their faith by providing a clear understanding of the current legal freedoms we have.
A third of practising Christians in the UK have had a conversation with a non-Christian about Jesus in the last week and a two thirds within the last month. That means there are over one million gospel conversations happening across the UK each week. That’s important to remember because it puts the few incidents we read about in the papers in context. They are newsworthy because they are still relatively rare.
And perhaps the best news is that one in five non-Christians, after having a conversation with a Christian about Jesus, say they are open to an encounter with Jesus. This is a huge opportunity amid the religious illiteracy, confusion and attempts to chill the atmosphere for the public expression of Christianity.
But Speak Up is also about the larger issue of freedom or religion and speech. It is not about special privilege for Christians, but the freedom of those of all faiths and none in a plural public square. As Sedley LJ noted in the Speakers Corner case (Redmond-Bate v DPP),
“Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not promote violence. Freedom to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”
Some, in secular circles, assume that an emphasis on religious liberty is a merely defensive move. Admittedly some within religious circles think the same. But religious liberty is not a reactive, defensive move.
Religious liberty reflects a positive vision of the limitations of the state and the dominant culture, one that frees religious communities to carry on their work.
The state has an important role to play but as Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist convention reminds us, “The depravity of humanity can be mitigated by law, but humanity can only be renewed and transformed by something transcendent.”
As the UK government wrestles with defining extremism and British values in a way that does not inhibit religious freedom, locally we must resist religion becomes politicised and politics become religionised.
The end we rightly seek is a society in which all religious communities are free to serve and to persuade because the Gospel frees consciences that cannot be coerced.
The law is not stopping you from sharing your faith, so what is?
• Peter Lynas is NI director of Evangelical Alliance