Squeezed out of national life….

I recently wrote an article in which I was broadly supportive of David Cameron’s speech about faith just before Christmas. Just before I jet off to Kenya I was saddened to hear the recent ruling of a high court judge saying that council prayers are illegal.

I’m not one for the “Christians are persecuted” in this country line. Compared to what happens in other countries (such as the atheist societies of North Korea or China) or places such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt we are relatively free. But this ruling is both a sad one but also shows the direction of travel of our country. It also shows the aggressive nature of some of those opposed to any Christian presence. So Gavin Drake quotes someone called Peter Vlachos from the National Secular Society who compares praying to child slavery

If true this is a disgraceful analogy.

Bishops this week were also discussing the moves, again by the National Secular Society, to get rid of all hospital chaplains (because it would pay for a few more nurses) which they naturally opposed it.

The thing about democracy as opposed to a secular democracy is that it doesn’t mean that faith is kept out of the marketplace (and even in a secular one how could it because each of us is motivated by something – by the way have you noticed how the atheist societies appear to attract white, male  people?) but that people are able to have a say and a view. It means that Peter Vlachos is allowed  his outrageous views, even though his organisation is a pimple in comparison to those who practise a faith in this country. Faith informs our lives and to have in some way not to acknowledge or understand that is to misunderstand human nature and what motivates us. To demand that faith can have no place in public life does not safeguard peoples rights, it diminishes them and diminishes society. This is because the role of faith is not only so far reaching but makes such a huge contribution to society. The Chief Rabbi says of the Harvard sociologist, Robert Putnam

he published a book called American Grace, in which he documents his discovery that social capital is alive and well in America, in one place more than any other: in houses of worship. From four years of research, Putnam discovered that if you are a regular church or synagogue attendee, you are more likely to give money to charity than if you’re not a regular, regardless of whether the charity is religious or secular. You are also more likely to do voluntary work for a charity, give money to a homeless person, give excess change back to a shop assistant, donate blood, help a neighbour with their shopping, help someone with their housework, spend time with someone who is depressed, allow another driver to cut in front of you, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. There is no good deed among all of those on the survey that is more practised by secular Americans than by their religious counterparts.

It goes further than this: frequent worshippers are also more active citizens — they are more likely to belong to community organisations, especially those concerned with young people, or health or arts or leisure. They are more likely to join neighbourhood or civic groups, professional and fraternal associations. Within these groups they are more likely to be officers or committee members. They take a more active part in local civic life, from local elections to town meetings to demonstrations. They are disproportionately represented among local activists for social and political reform. They turn up, they get involved, they lead. And the margin of difference between them and secular Americans is large.

He also says that Putnam has found the same to be the case in this country.

So, maybe the councils that wish to keep a small role for faith in their lives are onto something. In the councils that have prayers it is the wish of the councillors to have them and not because they are imposed by a minority. These prayers have been around since Elizabethan times and it seems madness to say that suddenly they are illegal without act of parliament!

It is interesting that again this coalition government seems prepared to talk about faith. Eric Pickles has said of this High Court ruling

“This ruling is surprising and disappointing.

“While welcoming and respecting fellow British citizens who belong to other faiths, we are a Christian country, with an established Church in England, governed by the Queen.

“Christianity plays an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation. Public authorities – be it Parliament or a parish council – should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish.

“The right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty.

“The Localism Act now gives councils a general power of competence – which allows them to undertake any general action that an individual could do unless it is specifically prohibited by law. Logically, this includes prayers before meetings.”

I do hope that after David Cameron’s speech before Christmas and this intervention by Eric Pickles that there will not only be an appeal but a preserving of what is good about faith in  the public forum.

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4 comments on “Squeezed out of national life….

  1. Jean
    February 10, 2012 at 8:17 pm #

    I wonder if playing a cd or iPod before a civic meeting is illegal? I suggest a full volume ‘Thine be the Glory’ as councillors enter the chamber!

  2. johnm55
    February 12, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

    If you read the judgement rather than the commentary on it you will see that it is actually quite a a narrow judgement, that basically states that prayers should not be part of the official council meeting and minuted as such.
    A local council represents all the people of that district, people of all faiths and none. Therefore in my opinion prayers to one particular deity, even the Established Deity, should have no place as part of the official proceedings. The judgement did not prohibit the Christian caucus from joining together before the council meeting to pray or have a full on 5 hour charismatic revival meeting if they so wished.
    I think the Mr Justice Ouseley got it right.
    In the United States this would have been a non issue (legally). The establishment clause of the First Amendment rules it out.

  3. Dan
    February 15, 2012 at 12:26 am #

    re: chaplains. The NSS line was that the NHS should not employ chaplains, not that chaplains should not be allowed in hospitals. The proper employers of chaplains are the religious organisations they represent. Surely it’s a fairly basic secularist point that the State should not employ priests. Doesn’t mean banning priests.

  4. Dan
    February 15, 2012 at 12:40 am #

    The people who should be talking about faith are the churches, not the Government.

    To make prayer an official part of council proceedings may indeed be the wish of most councillors, but that doesn’t make it right. A Councillor who doesn’t wish to pray must either join in anyway, absent themselves temporarily, turn up later, or sit through it either occupying themselves with some other task or otherwise. This is not just showing how much your faith means to you, it’s flaunting it in an inappropriate setting. It’s saying to the non-Christian councillor: “this is a Christian forum, not a forum open and welcome to all citizens equally, you just wait until we’ve finished performing our particular ritual, and then you can join in with the rest of the meeting”.

    It is hardly an unbearable attack on religious freedom to say, “well, actually, if you want to pray could you do so somewhere before the meeting? thanks very much.”

    Regardless of Pickles’ rather desperate invocation of the Localism Act, with it’s absurd notion that councils can do anything individuals can do (pray? marry? go on holiday to the Alps?), he appears only to be saying “councillors should be able to pray before meetings!”

    It just so happens that that is exactly what the NSS suggested as a reasonable compromise.

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