This year Barnabas Fund will be launching a new campaign to reclaim the heritage of freedom of religion in the UK and elsewhere which previous generations of Christians endured hardship, persecution and even death to achieve.
“The Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.”
Barnabas Fund is seeking a new Act of Parliament in the UK to guarantee seven fundamental aspects of freedom of religion. These seven freedoms have developed in the UK by various mechanisms over the last five centuries but are now under threat. A law to protect and guarantee them is urgently needed.
Tracing the heritage of religious liberty takes us back more than 800 years to Magna Carta in 1215. At that time, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland were separate nations; it was long before Great Britain was created, let alone the United Kingdom. So Magna Carta’s ringing call that “the English Church” must be free should not be seen as limited to England. We must see it as an affirmation to be embraced by the whole of the UK, and far beyond, but expressed in the language of its time and context. Indeed, in later centuries, Magna Carta became a rallying cry for the freedoms of all the English-speaking peoples. For example, those who signed the American Declaration of Independence described themselves as “patriots” claiming their ancient rights as Englishmen which had been set out in Magna Carta and subsequent laws.
As we will explain in a new booklet which Barnabas Fund will shortly be launching, Magna Carta’s affirmation that “the English Church shall be free” was gradually worked out over the centuries into seven specific aspects of freedom of religion:
- Freedom to read the Bible in public (achieved 1537)
- Freedom to interpret the Bible without government interference (achieved 1559)
- Freedom of worship (achieved 1689)
- Freedom to choose, or change your faith or belief (achieved 1689)
- Freedom to preach and try to convince others of the truth of your beliefs (achieved 1812)
- Freedom to build churches and other places of worship (achieved 1812)
- Freedom from being required to affirm a particular worldview or set of beliefs in order to hold a public sector job or stand for election, work in professions such as teaching and law, or study at university (achieved by the repeal of various Test Acts between 1719 and 1888)
Most of these were achieved by the repeal of various restrictions on freedom of religion, rather than a positive law affirming freedom of religion. They are therefore vulnerable to being eroded by those who are either intent on imposing a particular ideological agenda, or by politicians who are simply ignorant of the enormous importance that previous generations played in developing freedom of religion and spreading it to other parts of the world.
The campaign will include a petition calling for a new law specifically guaranteeing all seven aspects of freedom of religion which over the centuries have emerged in the UK. We will also be organising similar petitions in Australia and New Zealand. But this campaign will be more than just petitions. We shall be calling on Christians to engage in numerous ways to reclaim the freedoms which our forefathers endured hardship, persecution and even death to achieve.
We are thankful to God for His guidance, blessing, provision and protection of the UK over centuries. In times of great sin and impending judgement, through the prayers of His people and the work of His saints like Wesley, Whitefield and others, judgement was averted. God in His mercy intervened.
We believe that, as a nation, the UK has again left the pathways of God. We have forsaken His laws, and we are faced with the possibility of the lampstand being removed from our country (Revelation 2:5). With this will probably come the loss of our fundamental religious freedoms. Yet, we believe it is not too late. We believe that we are still, as a nation, in the hands of our sovereign Lord, that it is He who will determine our destiny. Meanwhile we, as His people, must, like Nehemiah of old, pray, build and be equipped and ready to respond to every kind of attack (Nehemiah 4). Finally, we must heed the words of 2 Chronicles 7:14 “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”