When does prayer become harassment? That’s the essential question at the heart of the recent arrest of a Christian called Christian Hacking, who was praying in a public space outside the Marie Stopes abortion clinic in Ealing, West London. He wasn’t sporting banners of aborted bloody foetuses, or yelling into a megaphone about ‘baby murderers’, or even staring piously surrounded by candles and incense in the hope of inducing guilt in the pregnant women about to terminate the “product of conception” in their wombs. He was just on his knees praying, which for someone with a broken back who uses a wheelchair is something of a witness.
Was that the problem? His prayer was an obtrusive public witness?
He was arrested and carried into a police van for breaching the Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) outside this abortion clinic, which was put in place by Ealing Council last year to form a 100m ‘buffer zone’ to protect pregnant women from harassment by Christians who don’t want them to evacuate the “product of conception” from their wombs. The PSPO prohibits people from engaging “in any act of approval/disapproval or attempted act of approval/disapproval, with respect to issues related to abortion services, by any means. This includes but is not limited to graphic, verbal or written means, prayer or counselling.”
When Mr Hacking asked the police what he had done wrong, bodycam footage shows one responding: “l’m saying you’re in breach of the court order.” To which Mr Hacking responded: “So it’s a criminal offence to pray, according to the court order, it’s a criminal offence to pray outside of a place where children are being killed?” The officer then stated: “I believe that I’ve given you the answer.”
Christian Hacking was just praying. He pleaded ‘not guilty’ to having committed any crime, but the case collapsed because the arresting officer failed to caution him at the point of arrest: he was already in the van when they read him his rights, which constituted an irregular arrest.
That was fortunate, because the charge of failing to comply with the PSPO carries a fine of up to £1,000. It is also ever so slightly unfortunate, because this would have been the first case in modern times of arrest, prosecution and punishment of a Christian for praying in a public space. While the arrest and attempted prosecution are concerning enough, we don’t know if common sense might have prevailed with an acquittal, after the fashion of the jury which in 1670 which refused to convict the Quakers William Penn and William Mead for preaching ideas which offended against state orthodoxy.
You may take the reasoned and reasonable view that pregnant women should be permitted to access a legal, confidential health service without being harassed by zealous Christians on the way in. And you’d be justified in feeling that banners and posters and candles and Christians offering counselling are about as appropriate in this context as Christians gathering outside a mosque to pray against the idol Allah and the false prophet Mohammed.
But Christian Hacking was simply on his knees praying. And he is disabled, which becomes a whole other theological issue because he was created in the image of God and disabled babies may be aborted right up to the day before birth. It also becomes a political issue, because the disabled suffer all their lives from discrimination and injustice – that is if they make it to the point of birth, for the greatest inequality and injustice they surely face is in the womb.
So Christian Concern are right to be concerned with the right of Christian Hacking to say a Christian prayer in public: he wasn’t harassing, he was praying. And prayer isn’t harassment.
But there’s a very slight niggle in all this, which hitherto has been completely ignored.
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward (Mt 6:5).
If you believe prayer to be the consciousness of one’s union with God and an awareness of one’s inner self; and then the emptying of that self toward the transcendent transformation of sinful consciousness to Christ consciousness; and then the seeking the will of God and the invocation of the Holy Spirit in the service of love for others, it doesn’t have to be performed outside an abortion clinic. Those pregnant women could be prayed for in the home or at 101m from the front door of the clinic, just outside the ‘buffer zone’. Intercession on their behalf doesn’t have to be done standing or kneeling on the corners of the streets of Ealing: we intercede for others because of what we believe about God as loving Father, who works directly, but also through men and women using our cooperation. Intercession depends on the life of inner faith, not on words or outward shows, when it might indeed become harassment and intimidation.