Council Prayers

14/02/12 | Posted by Ian Black

The vexed question of whether to begin council meetings with prayer was taken to the High Court last week. The case was brought by an ex member of Bideford Council in Devon because he felt that faith and politics do not mix. Praying has no part in a council's business and so the practice he had twice asked to be ended and twice been out voted on was taken to the High Court, backed by the National Secular Society.

 Royal Courts of Justice

Many councils begin their sessions with a prayer.  It is often an informal part of proceedings before the meeting begins properly, so anyone who on conscience grounds does not wish to attend does not find themselves disadvantaged in the political process.  Many council years begin with a Civic Service where God’s guidance and blessing on their deliberations is sought.  It is part of England being officially a Christian country and the Church of England the State religion.

There is no such thing a neutral on this.  Secular does not equal neutral, neither does the status quo.  Those who argue for a complete separation believe that religion is a private matter and has no place in the public sphere.  People of faith, whatever their religion, disagree with this passionately.  Faith is about the whole of a person’s life, private and corporate.  It cannot be compartmentalised.  So a person of faith will naturally want to pray before they engage in the weighty decisions of government - local and national.

The Bible, with it’s bias towards justice, right thinking and right acting assumes that there will be a tie in.  Jesus didn’t assume that someone would split themselves into compartments.  From calling Matthew from his tax booth to the overturning of the money changers tables, Jesus made it clear where his allegiance lay with this.  He challenged the leaders of his day on their integrity.

The High Court ruling seems to my mind to clarify and confirm what many councils do.  Prayers may be said but attendance needs to be optional and not present a disadvantage for what follows to those who don’t attend.  Schools have long had to accommodate children whose parents have exercised their right to withdraw them from religious assemblies on faith grounds.  There is no problem with the same applying to councils.  The assumption that faith and state belong together is the status quo. To change it is to change how our country is constituted.  I don’t think it is clear where that debate would end up if it was to be started, because I don’t think the people of this country are as irreligious and secular as we are often told they are, what some thinkers are referring to as a post-secular society.  The law of unintended consequences could produce some unpredictable results.

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