My concern about the Bideford Town Council ruling which bans prayer from meetings is not because it is anti-faith. It is more because it is undemocratic.
The judge ruled that the Local Government Act 1972 didn’t give the Council power to have prayers. But surely in a democratic society groups and bodies are free to choose to do something as long as it’s legal and does not cause harm?
The judge’s decision is undemocratic because Bideford Town Council has voted to maintain prayers at the beginning of its full Council on two occasions. A vote is an indication of the collective will of a group of people which they all then agree to abide by. We protect minority groups by agreeing that no collective decision should violate individual human rights.
And the judge in this case expressly said that in this case there was no breach of anyone’s Human Rights. Just like the rest of the meeting, Clive Bone, the Town Councillor who brought the case was not forced to agree with any part of what was being said. It did not make him unsafe, restrict his freedom of conscience or freedom to practice any other religious beliefs he wanted to.
I do not say this because I believe that Christianity has a God-given right to special privileges. Just because historically Christianity has been the dominant religion in the UK it does not necessarily entitle Christians to special rights in today’s world. We should not pretend that we still live in the age of Christendom where State and Civic powers aligned themselves unquestioningly with Christianity as the national faith.
In this ‘post-Christendom’ age, it is up to Christians to explain, debate and display why our beliefs and practice contribute towards the health and wellbeing of the nation. In many ways this is no bad thing – with the loss of privilege comes a missional challenge to people who are really committed to the faith to stand up and live out their faith without the protective covering that institutional privilege gives.
But none of that should affect the right of a Council to have Prayers before a meeting should they chose to do so. If we cannot make the case why prayers shouldn’t remain then we should respect a local democratic decision to have them.
I find prayers and reflection at the beginning of meetings hugely beneficial. They help me to give what I’m doing back to God, reminds me that I’m not there for my ego, but there to serve and protect others and helps me ensure that my planned actions and words are aligned with my conscience.
Each person responds to prayer times in different fashions, but a well led reflection can help a group consider the wider context of their decisions, focus on the issues at hand and set a more collaborative tone to a meeting. It is these benefits that help explain why the tradition of prayers has survived back to Elizabethan times.
Open and confident
In multi-faith environment like modern Britain we should encourage a varied approach to prayer and reflection times. Each Councillor in turn who so wishes should be given the opportunity to lead a reflection rooted in their own worldview or faith, but which seeks to connect to all. As a Christian I can benefit from a Muslim, Jewish, New Age or humanist perspective without having to agree with it all.
The secularist approach of the National Secular Society (NSS) which tries to ban anything ‘spiritual’ in public life risks robbing us of the positives of both the Christian tradition and other faiths which have enriched our public life for centuries. Adopting a respectful, open and confident approach allows us to collectively benefit from our faith traditions without giving undue privilege to any of them.
Service and sacrifice
Christians should not fight for traditions and privileges for their own sake – it makes us look self-serving and focused on protecting our own interests. Christianity at its best remembers its roots in Jesus’ outward looking love and manifests its faith through service and sacrifice. Traditions which grant us undue privilege should sit uncomfortably with us.
If we’re not bringing refreshment, depth and insight to others’ lives then long may we be outvoted. But when an elected Council body believes that Prayers are beneficial to their meetings then they should be allowed to hold them. The outlawing of them is undemocratic and signs of a militant secularism that will only harm our public life.