Helwys service live on Radio 4
A service marking the work of Thomas Helwys, the Baptist pioneer and one of the earliest campaigners for freedom of religious conscience, was broadcast live on Radio 4’s Sunday Service programme (30 October)
The service came from the The Well, Retford Baptist Church: Helwys was a Nottinghamshire man who died in Newgate Gaol at an unknown date 400 years ago.
The religious freedom campaigner Baroness Elizabeth Berridge was one of the leaders of the service, alongside church’s minister John Brewster.
‘The witness of Thomas Helwys brings together the two themes of our worship today,’ said John, ‘remembering the saints that have gone before us; and bringing before God our responsibility to defend freedom of religion or belief in the world today.’
In explaining why she had set up the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Religious Liberty, Baroness Berridge said an estimated 76 per cent of the world’s population live in countries where they face high-level hostility due to their religious affiliations.
‘But the situation is not without hope,’ she continued, ‘in some circumstances people of faith are cooperating across religious boundaries.’
Tony Peck, General Secretary of the European Baptist Federation, was the preacher, explaining that Helwys possessed of a powerful vision ‘way in advance of its time’.
His plea for religious freedom for all, including other faiths, was about ‘as far away as it could possibly be from the reality of early 17th century England.’ It threatened the status quo, and landed him in prison. His concern was rooted in his own Christian experience, for freedom is at the heart of the biblical witness and Christian message.
The modern world sees religious freedom under threat ‘in new and terrifying ways,’ continued Tony. He cited the martyr of Rami Ayyad, the Baptist Christian murdered in Gaza in 2007.
But there are also good stories to tell. In the turmoil of the events in Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011, Muslims and Christians were protecting each other and each other’s property. And he spoke of a Lebanese friend who is a key Christian voice in the Middle East.
‘He urges us not to see Christians as a beleaguered minority but as part of a ‘silent majority’ of people of all faiths who desire to live together in peace; and who together will speak out against a "reckless minority" who would promote violent fanaticism or a view that paints entire religions in the hues of violence and terror.’
He summed up by saying that from our own experience of freedom in Christ ‘we can with confidence defend today the freedom to believe, to witness, and to worship whenever and wherever in the world it is threatened.
‘In this way the bold and courageous words of the Apostle Paul and the Baptist Thomas Helwys continue to inspire us both to prayer and to action.’
The service also featured recorded messages from Benedict Rogers of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, who highlighted the case of Alexander Aan, an Indonesian atheist jailed for his beliefs, and Baroness Brinton, who drew attention to the persecution of Shia Muslims in Pakistan.
Andy Flannagan sung ‘Seven Storeys’, written after a visit to Egypt with the Baptist word and spirit network Fresh Streams, where he was told of a young woman thrown to her death by her husband after she changed her religion.
Adrian Gray, a member of Retford Baptist Church and historical adviser and director of Pilgrims & Prophets, which organises Christian heritage tours in Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, helped make the initial contact Baroness Berridge.
He said, ‘'From this small area of England, the early Baptists produced the ideas that led to the American Constitution and the UN Declaration of Human Rights article 18.
‘It is now more important than ever that we celebrate the role of Baptist Christians in paving the way for religious freedom for all beliefs - and none.’
Adrian is also the author of From Here we changed the World, which tells the story of how a few people from the area have influenced hundreds of millions of others across the globe.
A full script from the programme can be accessed on the BBC until the end of November.