Fr. Matthew is a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and currently serves as Parish Priest in a rural parish in the English Midlands. He is also a school chaplain and is passionate about ministry with young people. Fr. Matthew is the author of Building the Kingdom in the Classroom, which details his experiences of ministry in schools.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Abortion Act in Britain. A number of pro-life groups have planned peaceful events to mark this anniversary.
Pro-life events in the U.K. have always been much lower key and more understated than in the United States but the movement is strong and in good heart. The Good Counsel Network is one of the groups at the center of the pro-life presence here. Perhaps their most prominent activity has been a peaceful witness each day outside the Marie Stopes in Ealing, one of the 32 boroughs of London. Like many such demonstrations it is non-confrontational with a number of those involved praying silently or saying the Rosary. It was therefore with great sadness this week that I learned that Ealing Council has voted to stop the Good Counsel Network from holding its daily vigils outside of the clinic.
In the U.K., local councils are made up of councilors who are voted for by the public in local elections. Councillors are elected to represent people in a defined geographical area for a fixed term of four years. They are responsible for local services ranging from provision of schools and social care to refuse collection. Ealing Council runs the Borough of Ealing, which according to the 2011 census had a population of 338,449. While one council may be insignificant, its place in the capital means that it has a prominence and others will be watching this recent vote with interest.
Local councils were given powers in 2014 to control activities in public areas. These Public Space Protection Orders (PSCO) allow councils to manage groups gathering in certain areas and were intended to prevent criminal activity. Ealing Council voted, with only two abstentions, to allow council officials to proceed with an application for a PSCO to be put in place. This would prevent anyone from the Good Counsel Network from gathering near the clinic.
This is a grave misuse of the PSCO orders and has potential for setting a precedent for restricting free speech. It is not just those who are within the pro-life movement who need to worry. The danger is that other activities that are unpopular or politically controversial could be criminalized. One member of the U.K. parliament has accused members of the group of “weaponizing the Rosary” and across social media many people are seeing this as a battle for religious freedom and liberty.
As people of faith, we now face the challenge to defend and promote the right to freedom of religion, worship, speech and protest in our societies. We need to act against a growing tide of secular fundamentalism that considers religious belief and practice to be a threat to liberal democratic politics. The actions of Ealing council point to a wider agenda to try and confine religious belief to the private sphere. The U.K. is a country where religious freedom and liberty has long been part of our national foundation. It now seems that this freedom is gradually being undermined.
Some see a bleak future for people of faith and for Catholics in particular. It is easy to predict doom and anticipate a return to a more marginalized Catholicism of the past. This will only be challenged by the engagement of all Catholics in the life of our nations. Many of us have been silent for too long. It is time to stand up and be proud witnesses of our faith and “be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Catholics need to be more prominent than ever before in order to face the battle for the soul of our nations. To achieve this we must have faithful people comfortable in their own skin and who are well-catechized in the truths of Jesus and his Church. We can only hope to transform our nation if the Church herself is transformed.
Other news in the U.K. is that the ProLife Alliance, backed by a former Member of Parliament and well-known Catholic, Ann Widdecombe, wants church bells to be rung 50 times on Oct. 29 to commemorate the 8 million lives lost through abortion. This simple act, if taken up by all the Churches, could have a positive impact. Acts of witness such as this are surely part of our answer to all that we seem to be facing in these times.