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.