ONLY a “tiny minority” of councillors object to the saying of prayers at local council meetings, the Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Michael Langrish, said on Tuesday.
Bishop Langrish was speaking after the High Court ruled last Friday that prayers should not be on the agenda for council meetings. The National Secular Society (NSS) and the former Bideford town councillor Clive Bone brought judicial-review proceedings against Bideford Town Council, in Devon, after councillors there twice rejected Mr Bone’s request for prayers to be abolished (News, 9 December).
Bishop Langrish said: “My personal experience is that it is a tiny minority who object to it [prayers at a council meeting]; at most of the councils I know in Devon it isn’t an issue. . . Leading public prayers in the chamber is an opportunity to articulate very particular issues that the council is dealing with.”
The Bishop said that he had had messages from people of other faiths, such as Muslims, who were “talking about the importance of prayers”.
The Bishop of Peterborough, the Rt Revd Donald Allister, also supported prayers. He said that in Britain, which is “constitutionally a Christian country”, prayers were said in Parliament and in “many city, county, and borough councils”. He said: “Prayers need not be part of the official business, and those wishing to enter a meeting after prayers but before the official start should, of course, be free to do so. It is surely right to seek God’s guidance in our decision-making, and his blessing on our communities.”
The Bishop of Sherborne, Dr Graham Kings, said on Monday that some councils had prayers as part of the agenda, and some held them before the agenda officially began. “Most people in Great Britain pray at important times of their lives, and Parliament and council meetings make very important decisions. It may well be that wisdom will prevail.”
The Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, described the judgment as “surprising and disappointing”. He said: “While welcoming and respecting fellow British citizens who belong to other faiths, we are a Christian country, with an established Church 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.”
Mr Pickles said that the Localism Act, which is on the statute book and will probably come into force in the coming weeks, “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.”
The executive director of the NSS, Keith Porteous Wood, said that the ruling sent a “clear secular message”; but he said that the NSS was “not seeking to deprive those who wish to pray the opportunity to do so . . . The judgment clearly states that religious freedoms are not hindered, as councillors who wish to do so are free to say prayers before council meetings.”
Cllr Andrew Woodcock, a town councillor in Malmesbury and a member of Bristol diocesan synod, said, however, that, if prayers were held before formal council business started, local councillors would not technically be allowed to be notified about them “by formal means”. He said: “If prayers are not on the agenda, the council machinery can’t be used to disseminate news about them. Council communications must be directly pertinent to the work of the council.”
Cllr Woodcock, who leads the prayers at meetings of Malmesbury Town Council, said that he had never encountered objections. An atheist who sat on the council used to stand politely during prayers, he said, and members of other religions had never expressed objections.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday, said that groups such as the NSS were “campaigning to get rid of Christianity as a public faith”. He encouraged councils “up and down the country” to affirm the prayers at council meetings, “because in these moments what we are doing is saying something about the importance of council work”.
Concerns were raised after the ruling that secularists would seek the abolition of prayers at the start of sittings of the Houses of Commons and Lords. But a spokesman for the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, said that the 1689 Bill of Rights gave the House “the right to decide on its own processes and procedures”.
The Prime Minister is known to support prayers in Parliament. In 2010, in a video interview with Christians in Politics, he said: “At the start of each sitting, the Speaker’s Chaplain reads the prayer; he reminds us of our responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind.”