The right not to pray

The church. Telling people what to do since... well, pick a date.
We can expect another public debate in this country to kick off about the role of Christianity in society. In fact, by the time I’ve completed and published this post, it probably already will have done. One side will argue that there has been yet another attempt to marginalise and persecute Christianity; the other side will talk of the need to separate the machinery of religion from the machinery of government. In case you’re wondering, I (a Christian) will be taking the latter perspective.

The reason for the latest resurgence of this issue is the news that an English court has ruled that prayers being said before a local council meeting were unlawful. The background, in a nutshell, is that an atheist councillor in Devon complained that his council had a time of prayer before its meetings. Note, not a separate gathering of Christian councillors, but the integration of Christian prayer into the formal agenda and minutes of the meeting. Prayer, in short, was an item of business.

The councillor proposed the prayers’ removal, but he was voted down. After leaving the council he took up the matter through the courts. The National Secular Society backed him; the Christian Institute supported the council. The ruling came out today, in favour of the complainer.

It sounds like a little bit of a storm in a teacup, and in a sense it is. But so often, little issues like this seem trivial in isolation yet are representative of a much wider and much more important issue. And the bigger issue here is whether or not Christianity should be embedded in the affairs of government.

Such practices, which the Guardian mentions are believed to take place in around half of the UK’s councils, will stem from the days when the church – specifically the Church of England – had supremacy in all areas of life in England and there was little to separate the business of church and state. Things are very different today, but there are still some notable hangovers, such as the monarch being the head of the CofE and the existence of the Lords Spiritual (I may have mentioned this before, but the latter renders the UK the only country in the world besides Iran to have ex-officio ecclesiastical parliamentarians).

I imagine many people saying that the prayers should remain, because the majority support them. For sure, the council has voted on a number of occasions to retain them. But that’s not unanimity, that’s the tyranny of the majority. The question should not be how many councillors want there to be Christian prayer prior to meetings, but whether or not it is appropriate for the machinery of government in a multi-religious (and/or secular) society to be tied up with one religion.

What, for instance, if the majority was to be overturned, or a majority were to vote for Muslim prayers? Should the practice be changed accordingly, suddenly turning that opening agenda item into a tool of the moral majority to impress upon the minority? Of course not. The protection of religious rights has no place in this debate. Allowing Christian councillors to meet privately within council property to regularly pray together is fine. No, it’s more than fine, it’s something that should be – and is – legally protected as part of our country’s freedom of religious expression and freedom of assembly.

Allowing those councillors to force others to participate or sit through that prayer as a matter of routine business is not. We have the freedom to practice what religion we like. We also have the freedom not to practice a religion too, and not to be forced into it by virtue of a post we hold.

Not only is there that matter of principle, there’s the matter of advancing the Christian message, too. If the ritual of institutionalised prayer was the only exposure this atheist councillor had to the Christian gospel, it would be a sad state of affairs. Did the Christian members of the council meet privately to pray for their colleagues, including the complaining atheist? Did they strive to demonstrate radical Christian compassion in the exercising of their public duties and the decisions they made?

I’ve no idea. I certainly hope so.

But how much better an impression would that atheist have gained of Christianity if all he saw was the powerful actions of hard-working, Spirit-led councillors, without a drop of ritual, coercion or institutionalisation? The Christian councillors on that council have missed the point and missed an opportunity. As have their supporters – the same Guardian article I linked to above quotes the Bishop of Exeter as saying that if the National Secular Society get their way…

“it will have enormous implications for prayers in parliament, Remembrance Day, the jubilee celebrations, even the singing of the national anthem.”

Quite bloody right, too!

Just because there are enormous implications for something is not a reason not to do it. Indeed, the bishop’s examples are tools against his argument, not for it.

Prayers in parliament? See my points above. They shouldn’t happen. Christian parliamentarians can, should and (to the best of my knowledge) do meet together in their own time.

Remembrance Day? People of all faiths and none die in wars, and the UK has not fought a war primarily in the name of Christianity since its inception. Therefore Christianity does not own that important commemoration.

The jubilee celebrations? Yes, let’s explore why we should celebrate an institution where the titles of head of state and head of the Church of England are awarded to the same person automatically and hereditarily.

Singing the national anthem? Think about it: the words “God Save The Queen” can only be sincerely sung by a monotheistic monarchist. It’s a terrible choice for something that should belong to all citizens.

So yes, the bishop’s absolutely correct. This ruling could lead to the toppling of a house of cards, with the disestablishment of religion in this country being a phenomenally wide-ranging and legally complex process. But that’s not a reason not to do it.

The Christian message will never advance by clinging on to constitutional privileges. A sinking ship is still sinking, even if the captain’s uniform is smart and his quarters are the plushest. And Christianity is sinking in this country, even with its privileges. Indeed, it’s sinking in no small part because of them.

The majority of reasonable atheists (and yes, there are a minority of nutters) do not want to see Christianity subjugated or removed, they want to see it exist in a society where all religions have freedom from government interference, and where government has freedom from religious interference. It is not Christianity they are attacking, but its self-appointed entitlement to privilege.

No wonder few people these days want to hear the gospel, if it’s preached by people who think they own the machinery of government. We’re not in the Middle Ages anymore. So let’s make our institutions act like it.

2 thoughts on “The right not to pray

  1. Hi Simon, an interesting and thought provoking post. I have a couple of remarks.

    You say,”Allowing those councillors to force others to participate or sit through that prayer as a matter of routine business…”

    You are the second person I have come across today who thinks that the councillors did not have a choice to opt out of prayers.

    However, there was this quote in the Guardian article from the Christian Institute:

    “The council has, recently, twice voted in support of continuing with the prayers. Individual councillors were free to not take part in the prayers if they wished, and the register of attendance was not taken until after the prayers had finished.”

    I still find it odd that the prayers were minuted, but if the majority of councillors wanted to pray at the start of meetings, why is that so terrible? I’m not saying Christian (or any other religion) prayers should be a part of local government proceedings, but why the uproar?

    You also say, “I imagine many people saying that the prayers should remain, because the majority support them. For sure, the council has voted on a number of occasions to retain them. But that’s not unanimity, that’s the tyranny of the majority.” We have no proof that they were “tyrannical” in their desire to include prayers in the meetings.

    I would like to see Britain become a fair society where all views, beliefs and practices are respected equally and nobody should IMO be forced to take part in anything they don’t want to do, but sometimes I feel we are going a little too far with the secular agenda and making religious people feel like pariahs and totally outdated and even having bad intentions. Some religious zealots may indeed hold inappropriate views and have hidden agendas, but lets not make generalisations which only serve to damage understanding and cohesion.

  2. Hello Bougielyns, thanks for your comment.

    Thanks also for pointing out the matter that councillors could opt out. I didn’t know that for sure but could assume it.

    In any case, I am afraid it is not the point. A councillor shouldn’t have to opt out of a standard item of business that involves religious observation – they simply shouldn’t have to make that choice, because any matter of personal observation should be done elsewhere and beyond the standard agenda.

    Why the uproar? Well, it links to my point about the tyranny of the majority. Imagine if this was a part of England with a large Muslim population, and the council at one point featured a Muslim majority among its members. Imagine then that a resolution was passed to include Islamic prayer as a part of the council’s formal business. There would be an outcry – much of it bigoted and prejudiced, for sure, but much of it would be correct in stating that the personal religious practices of the new majority should not be institutionalised or forced upon the minority that may include members of that once-dominant Christian group. Expand the example to any other religion or denomination as you wish.

    I disagree that we are going a little too far in making religious people feel like pariahs, and this is the crux of my point. There is a chasmic difference between opposing a religion’s right to practice and opposing its institutionalised advantages. Christianity, specifically the Church of England, has constitutional privileges that no other denomination or religion enjoys. That, not the right of Church of England members to worship and assemble like any other faith group, is the core of this debate.

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