Should prayer have a place at council meetings?

The National Secular Society is currently carrying out a piece of work examining the link between local councils and the inclusion of prayers as an item of business on their agendas. In some areas this has become an issue of some controversy, while in many other places most people would wonder what the fuss is about, either because prayer forms no part of their councils’ meetings or because it is a long-standing practice which the majority are comfortable with.

Council prayers are something I’ve chosen to absent myself from since I was first elected to Cornwall County Council in 2005, and while some of the ‘old hands’ initially saw it as a direct attack on their beliefs, I think they mostly now realise that I (and the growing number of other abstainers) simply made a different choice.

Those who would defend the scheduling of a prayer session within a council meeting would probably point to a number of different arguments. Many would say it is a traditional item on the agenda, or that a quiet moment of reflection at the start of a meeting helps put them in the correct frame of mind for the business at hand. Many others would offer the slightly more trenchant view that “this is a Christian country” and that those who disagree should bloody well live somewhere else.

The only one of these arguments that holds any water for me is the second, that a calm period of thought at the start of a meeting is good for clearing the mental decks. Tradition is a complete non-argument because that puts forward the case for the perpetual status quo. Societies and traditions evolve (I chose that word carefully) over time and I believe that our representation at local and national level should reflect that.

As for the suggestion that this is a Christian country, I’m afraid that simply doesn’t bear any meaningful scrutiny. Only a minority of the population regularly attend a Christian ceremony, and the long-term decline in footfall at Anglican churches speaks of a growing trend towards secularism. I know that many people still identify themselves as Christians, even if their only contact with their religion is weddings and funerals, but apathy should not be taken for unqualified support.

I would never dream of trying to prevent anyone from practising their belief system, but equally I don’t think others should seek to impose their beliefs on me (or anyone else for that matter). Perhaps a better option than formalising prayers as an agenda item might be holding a voluntary prayer session prior to the meeting itself. This could provide that period of reflection while leaving the meeting itself purely for the business at hand.

I’m always happy to have a philosophical debate with anyone on the topic of what we believe, but I wonder if parliament and councils across the country need to enshrine a particular denomination within business items that otherwise have no connection with the ‘spiritual’. My concern about the first item of business being prayers has never been about what other people believe, it is about inclusiveness and the signals our elected bodies send out to those who aren’t part of the Anglican tradition, whether they are Methodists, Catholics, Muslims, atheists or whatever.

(See also: Council prayers campaign progresses to the next stage)

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11 comments

  1. Councillors serve government, who serve the Monarch, who by tradition (and bull****) is supposed to be the human expression of God in accord with the Church of England doctrine.

    The ritual of our Councillors muttering inane babble before meetings is still in place because of this ridiculous conspiracy theory that a woman called Betty Windsor is somehow a unique and divine expression of the Universal creator.

    This is 2010 not 1010, its time to completely overhaul religion in the UK and get rid of the CoE’s involvement in the fabric of our modern society.

    We all know its about money and control to have this archaic state system maintained.

  2. You’re a diplomatic fellow Mr. Rowe and no mistake. It’s hard to disagree with your understanding and moderate stance.

  3. Prayers should be optional. It shouldn’t be forced on people, but on the other hand, people shouldn’t be forced to be atheist or “humanist”. That’s a form of intolerance too. A lot of atheists have strayed a little too far into the realm of bigotry and dressed up their aggressive tendencies as “reasonable”.

  4. I find it strange in this day and age that some people have to talk to themselves before they can think in a rational manner in order to carry our the business of serving the community.

    Or, is that asking too much?

    1. It’s also interesting that, in Cornwall’s case at least, the practice of opening with prayer is reserved only for full Council meetings – Planning meetings, Cabinet meetings and all the rest simply consist of business items. If there is such a strong case for prayers, shouldn’t the same principle apply at all meetings?

  5. As a former Councillor, I can confirm that Jeremy Rowe is correct when he points out that only Full Council meetings have this masquerade of Prayers beforehand.
    It never happens before committee meetings, where – arguably – the important decisions are made, prior to being just ratified by Full Council.
    Councillors are elected by their electors. They are not appointed to their positions by the monarch or by any cleric. They represent their voters. No one else.
    There is no need to mumble mumblings to any non-existent being before Full Council business. Councillors should just get on with the job they are being paid to do and forget any other nonsense.
    To do otherwise is to waste time unnecessarily.

  6. If people feel the need to pray whilst in their daily work in council buildings why not do as churches do and separate a room especially for this purpose for all denominations. Business to be conducted in offices and prayers in the chapel perhaps?

  7. I attend inter-faith meetings and they have a compromise where a few minutes of non-directed silence is held, during which people can pray if they so wish or just gather their thoughts,

    This way those with non-Christian faiths can join with atheists, agnostics, humanists and others on a level playing field.

    As we are now a society of many faiths and, increasingly, of none, the dominance of one belief system in local government is no longer reasonable or acceptable.

  8. I find it astonishing that in this day and age (the 21st century) that such superstition is still institutionalised by our elected bodies. We expect councils to make their decisions based on evidence, yet the meetings start with murmerings of supplicance directed towards a deity for whom there is not a single shred of evidence.

  9. Congratulations doing what was in my bulging ‘Devoir’ list of local government challenges.

    Prayers at start of meetings of the full council are a provocative action, particularly when the different ministers of religion annunciate so much utter crap that no person with a basic intelligence could possibly agree with.

    Prayers consisting of rubbish and untruths are offensive and have no place in meetings of any semi-democratic public body (there is no 100% democracy or 100% accountability in English local government). I don’t want to have some crackpot’s religion forced down my throat. That is certainly not a freedom of choice.

    Waiting outside the room or council chamber until prayers have ended mean one was not actually and not legally present at the start of the council meeting – so that ‘wait outside’ suggestion is clearly bonkers.

    I have long thought we need a ‘Good Thought’ for the day instead of prayers such as ‘be nice to someone we dislike’ or ‘to treat everyone with respect and fairness’ or ‘to refuse to accept bribes and other inducements to favour one’s political associates, personal friends or property developers etc.’.

    Do prayers actually make councils, council staff and councillors actually better ? No. Of course not. So what is the logic in wasting meeting time on unproductive, time-consuming, offensive (because of content) prayers ?

    Religion is a private matter between the believer and the God. On no account should I be forced to pray to someone else’s God – especially when I don’t believe in any religious God.

    Paul Janik
    Slough.

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