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.