The Winter Gardens Center in the English seaside town of Blackpool is best known as the venue for speeches by prime ministers at party conventions or for hosting the now annual BBC TV extravaganza “Strictly Come Dancing.” However, for three nights next weekend, people will gather the auditorium to hear the Evangelist Franklin Graham preach at the culmination of the Lancashire Festival of Hope.
Blackpool was visited by Billy Graham’s father 36 years ago and it has been more than 60 years since his famous visit to Britain in 1954 when he filled London’s Harringay arena every night for three months. According to the festival’s website, local Christians have been preparing for the younger Graham’s visit for the past two years, with prayer meetings, prayer walks and leadership training events.
“Franklin will come with a positive message of hope,” said Steve Haskett, vicar of the Anglican church of St. John’s in Blackpool, one of 200 independent and Anglican churches that helped bring Graham to the festival. “There are few people around who can share the Christian message with the clarity and conviction that Franklin does and that’s why we’ve invited him.”
On the other hand, many people in the town are opposed Graham’s visit in relation to comments he has made about gay people and Islam.
Even though Graham is recognised for humanitarian work he has conducted in Muslim countries, he has a history of calling Islam a “wicked and evil religion.” He has also called homosexuality a sin and has spoken against same-sex marriage and adoptions by gays.
A local transit company in Blackpool removed advertising for the event from its buses, and some 8,000 people signed a petition requesting the home secretary to deny Graham entry to the country.
Criticism has also been focused on the Church of England’s local bishop, the Rt. Rev. Julian Henderson, for refusing to take a position on Graham’s visit. Henderson defended his stance in a statement last weekend, saying that his neutrality enabled him to conduct an ongoing listening exercise with people from both sides.
“However, I must be very clear that, while I am always supportive of mission work that proclaims the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, I do not support any kind of ‘hate speech’, including the language of Islamophobia, Christianophobia and homophobia.”
The bishop added that neither he nor members of his leadership team would be attending the festival.
Only 1 percent of Blackpool is Muslim. However, it has one of the largest LGBT communities in Britain, with approximately 10 percent of residents identifying as LGBT. Nina Parker, who runs the inclusive Liberty Church Blackpool, said, “Our message is for progressive Christians, for the LGBT community and indeed the wider community – Franklin Graham does not preach in our name.”
“We’ve been very clear that nobody has been excluded or will be excluded,” said Haskett, noting that the churches involved represent “different flavors of Christianity.”
Article sourced from Religious News Service