21st August 2014

A site of 400 years of religious and political turmoil was a fitting location for the first Religious Liberty Festival to be organised in the British Isles on Sabbath, 16 August.

In welcoming over 2,000 visitors to the Bethel Convention Centre, Councillor Derek Rowley, the Mayor of Sandwell, noted that the centre is close to Sandwell Priory, a place of religious worship – but also religious and political dispute from the 12th century onwards.Bethel Convention Centre - Sandwell Priory Noting both the difficult international stage, and the need for tolerance in local society, Mayor Rowley welcomed the whole concept of the festival and was delighted to host it in his borough.

He was not the only politician to express delight. During a symposium the previous day, local MP, Rt Hon John F Spellar, noted that the "increasing persecution of Christians being martyred for their faith is maybe in some ways the untold story" noting that this is "a major crisis of our times."

Together with Mr David Jamieson, candidate for West Midland's police commissioner, and Councillor Yvonne Mosquito, he joined with an invited group of Adventist leaders to learn more about the significant issues of Religious Liberty (see separate report).

The 'Free to Worship' festival itself was a 'high day' for Adventists who had travelled from as far away as Scotland and Ireland to show solidarity with those who struggle to keep their faith in intolerant societies, but also to hear good preaching.

DSC_9400That preaching came from US Senate Chaplain Barry Black, who mixed humour and personal anecdotes together with deep biblical insights to make the point that Religious Liberty is not just something for 'them over there', but is a radical, positive, and liberating message related to both religious freedom and religious living.

Admiral Black suggested that the Church has not been as assertive as it should have been in this area. "Religious worship must lead to action", he boldly asserted, adding that, to many believers, "Worship is what happens during the church service, while it should be seen as commencing when the service ends."

Looking back through Adventist history he argued that the Church should have been more prompt on dealing with issues like the wearing of a wedding ring, race discrimination, domestic violence and the role of women in the Church.

For Black, Matthew 25 and Luke 4:18-19, "confers upon the worshipper the liberty to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and minister to the marginalized." He argued, "True worship also grants us the liberty and courage to be prompt in publicly voicing concern and offering solutions to social ills which threaten human dignity."

Chaplain Black concluded his message by encouraging each attendee to affirm Religious Liberty in their own lives by living out the message of freedom in Christ found in Romans 5:19. "I cannot do a single thing to make God love me more", he quoted, "but I cannot do anything that will make Him love me less." His conclusion: "On Christ the solid Rock I stand!"

DSC_9209While the sermon may have been the highlight, the whole day was a balance of music, worship, prayer and learning. During the Sabbath School period, Dr John Graz, Secretary General of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) began with a report on the state of religious freedom in the world underlining the new challenges and the recent events in Iraq.

Following lunch, Dr Graz was joined by Dr Ganoune Diop, Director of Adventist-United Nations Relations, General Conference Vice President Dr Delbert Baker, and Attorney Dwayne Leslie, Deputy Secretary General of the IRLA, for a panel discussion ably chaired by Pastor Audrey Andersson, Executive Secretary of the Trans-European Division.

DSC_9465Interspersed with some of British Adventism's best musical talent, including a massed choir, Pastor Andersson led the panel through some tricky Religious Liberty issues, including the concept of whether Adventist parents practice Religious Liberty in making their children go to church! The consensus was that parents have the right but force is not the best way. Developing a positive relationship, showing the positive side of church, and making it into something they want to do is more effective.

Looking at modern-day persecution, Dr Baker emphasised that we should do all we can to preserve life. He stated that we all want to avoid persecution but gave examples as to how Jesus can see us through when it happens. "Our security is in Jesus."

Talking through current discrimination legislation in both the USA and the UK, Dr Diop noted the safeguard that "courts do not want to get involved in our theology." This helps the Church in issues such as same-sex marriage. At the same time Attorney Leslie emphasised that "as a Church we need to be careful how we say things. Don't make fun of or denigrate alternative lifestyles that we disagree with." His key words were 'sensitivity' and 'love'.

DSC_9555-textThe day closed with a corporate commitment and desire from attendees to 'Thank God for religious freedom, thank the UK for religious freedom', and to work to maintain such freedoms both locally and wherever members have a sphere of influence.

Photos from the Friday and the Sabbath meetings are available on the Adventist Church's Picture gallery.

See also:

Recordings of the Sabbath sermon by Senate Chaplain Barry Black, Dr John Graz's morning presentation and the afternoon panel discussion will be available in the next few days.

[Victor Hulbert with Dan Serb / John Surridge]

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