London and Gloucester, two cathedral cities, have taken very different approaches to public Bible reading in recent weeks.
London’s St Paul’s Cathedral no longer dominates the skyline amid the rise of skyscrapers but its vast dome is unmistakable.
Often presented as a symbol of hope — one thinks of the famous Second World War image of the dome rising above the smoking ruins following a German air-raid — the cathedral was built by Christopher Wren, who wanted to rebuild a monument to God’s grace after the 1666 Fire of London destroyed the old, medieval cathedral.
One has to wonder what he would have made of recent events, when a Protestant street preacher, reading from the same Scriptures as those sitting inside St Paul’s, was banned by cathedral staff from reading it outside the cathedral doors.
Barnabas Fund highlighted a video showing City of London Police arresting Allan Coote for reading the Bible in public outside the cathedral. The police officers claimed cathedral staff had asked them to do so.
Indeed, in a video taken on another occasion, a member of the cathedral staff tells the police that the Registrar, Dean and Chapter have given specific instructions to the head of security to remove Mr Coote any time he shows up.
On that occasion, the police officer told cathedral security, ‘This chap is reading from the Bible. I feel it would be remiss of me to move him on in a place of worship’.
However, on a subsequent occasion — also caught on video — a police officer arrests Mr Coote for breach of the peace, saying cathedral security had asked for him to be removed.
In a statement, Barnabas Fund called St Paul’s actions part of a ‘relentless erosion of such public expressions of faith’.
Meanwhile, in Gloucester, the eighth Bible Day took place at the end of June, with Christians from 17 different churches taking part in public Bible readings.
According to a report by Roland Parsons, reproduced in the British Church Newspaper, 15 chapters of the Bible were read out by 15 different Christian volunteers, at Gloucester Cross and Eastgate Street.
The event was reflective of the early days of George Whitefield, whose open-air preaching in the ancient British city eventually helped to fuel the so-called Great Awakening.
While no doubt many of those who stopped to question and discuss with the Bible Day team were sceptics, and the event was held in public, secular spaces, there was no heavy-handed treatment from either the established church or the Gloucester constabulary. What a difference in attitude from the authorities!
One is reminded, starkly, of the way in which the pre-Reformation ecclesiastical authorities attempted to control the reading and dissemination of the Scriptures among ordinary people.
For more than 1,000 years, the Roman Catholic church discouraged the populace from reading the Bible. During the Middle Ages, there was a prohibition forbidding translation of the Bible into native languages.
In 1536 Protestant Bible translator William Tyndale was tried and convicted of heresy and treason and put to death by being strangled and burned at the stake.
When London’s St Paul’s Cathedral starts banning Bible readings on its doorstep, or — as is the case with its fellow cathedral, Southwark, who takes a float in London’s Pride parade — one has to ask where the priorities of London’s established Protestant dioceses lie.
Have they become medieval or Pharisaic traditionalists, caring more about public opinion than about the preservation and preaching of God’s word?