Last week, a dispute was resolved in the English High Court between Bideford Town Council and one of its a former councillors backed by the National Secular Society. The two latter had taken the council to court to contest its right to open its meetings with prayer.
In a decision whose ramifications reverberated far beyond this quiet Devon town, Mr Justice Ouseley before whom the dispute was heard ruled all such prayer to be unlawful. He ruled them such, even though, as in the case of Bideford Council, the majority of councillors consistently indicated a wish to begin meetings with prayer and attendance and participation at them was strictly optional for councillors. .
The judge based his ruling on a section of the 1972 Local Government Act authorising councils to engage in anything ‘calculated to facilitate, or conducive or incidental to the discharge of any of their functions’. The judge construed this section in a purely empirical manner and calculated that an opening prayer could not possibly “facilitate” or be “conducive … to the discharge of any of their functions.”
The construction the judge placed on this section of the Act now means that, for it to be lawful for councils to open meetings with prayer, their inclusion needs to be capable of being objectively demonstrated to facilitate or otherwise be conducive to their work.
This was something that the judge was adamant could not be demonstrated. Part of his reason was that, where as with Bideford Council not all councillors were in favour of starting meetings with prayer, to begin meetings with them was bound to be divisive and hence he argued would impede their work. A secondary reason he gave was the impossibility of demonstrating prayers for divine guidance recited by councillors at the start of meetings were ever listened to or answered.
So now a centuries-old English tradition stands on the threshold of consignment to the scrapheap of history, much to the delight of secularists and the dismay of traditionalists and religious believers who perceive in the ruling further sign of the country’s current compulsory secularisation.
Only a reversal at the Court of Appeal or some legislative intervention by Parliament, something the relevant government minister has not ruled out, can now save prayer. However, ministerial promises are easily made but not always so easily kept, especially when, as here, doing so involves taking on the country’s increasingly more powerful judges who are growing ever more secular in orientation as they are becoming politically powerful.
Even so otherwise mainstream and establishment a newspaper as the Sunday Times rejoiced in the High Court decision. An editorial in last week’s issue observed:
‘We are a mix of all faiths and none. Mouthing a few words before the formal council business begins is not an act of religious observance. At most it is going through the motions… The judge was right. There should not be prayers before council meetings. There should not be prayers before parliament, either.’
One wonders how the newspaper editor gained access to the inner workings of the minds of councillors and Members of Parliament who pray at the start of meetings. To have accomplished such entry makes phone-tapping by journalists seem positively unobtrusive by comparison.
In any case, contrary to Mr Justice Ouseley, much can be said in support of the proposition that inclusion of a brief period of voluntary prayer at the start of such civic occasions as town council meetings and parliamentary sessions, where it enjoys majority support, can assist such public bodies in their deliberations.
The first thing is that, pace the editorial in the Sunday Times, Britain is not quite as big a mix of all faiths and unbelief as it suggests it is. The vast majority there still identify themselves as Christian, however dormant their faith usually is.
Indeed, it is precisely because faith usually remains dormant unless aroused by some external stimulant, like prayers recited at the start of parliamentary sessions and council meetings, that such outward religious observances as these can serve a valuable civic function. For they can and, where they enjoy majority support, typically do assist those who engage in them to discharge their public offices as conscientiously as they can. Why voluntary prayer can do this was intimated by Matthew Arnold in his Last Essays in Church and Religion when he observed that:
‘Profound sentiments are connected with [the words and externals of religion] …it is not to be supposed that a rejection of all the poetry of popular religion is necessary or advisable.’ [Matthew Arnold, Last Essays on Church and Religion (London and New York: Macmillan, 1903), p. 38.]
Arnold went to explain in what precise way such outward religious observances as prayers can facilitate the work of public bodies such as town councils and parliaments. Quoting the eighteenth century divine Bishop Butler from whom he acknowledges he obtained the idea. Arnold wrote:
‘A visible Church, with a publicly instituted form of religion is… a standing memorial to the world of the duty which we owe our Maker; to call men continually… to attend to it… Without somewhat of this nature, piety will grow languid even among the better sort of men… Here… is… abundant reason… why a society for the promotion of goodness such as the Church of England [is] … should at the same time [have] a public character and a publicly instituted form of proceeding.’ [ibid., p.115]
The same point was reiterated a generations later by the Cambridge professor of political science Sir Ernest Barker. In a 1927 lecture on ‘Christianity and Nationality’, he declared:
‘We offend against the essence of the [English] nation if we emphasize its secularity or regard it as merely an earthly unit for earthly purposes… In England our national tradition has been opposed to the idea of a merely secular society for secular purposes standing over against a separate religious society for religious purposes. Our practice has been in the main that of the single society, which if national is also religious, making public profession of Christianity in its solemn acts… The form of Christianity which seeks to penetrate and to elevate the nation… may carry furthest, and infuse deepest, the teaching which is the essence of Christianity.’ [Ernest Barker, Church, State and Study (London: Methuen, 1930), pp.147-148.]
Should Arnold and Barker both be correct here, and what they claim to be the civic function of religious observance seems eminently open to empirical testing, although many would say that it is so plain obvious as not to warrant any before being accepted, what they say vitiates Mr Justice Ouseley’s denial that there can be any objective basis for considering prayer said at the start of council meetings calculated to facilitate or be otherwise conducive to what goes at them.
The civic life of a plural liberal democracy can be secular, as with America, but it need not be. Britain has chosen a different way than America’s by which to achieve the political goals of liberty and democracy. There is no reason to think that these goals have been any less well achieved in Britain than America.
With this restatement of what be said in favour of the civic value of including prayer at the start of council meetings, the ball is firmly placed back in Mr Justice Ouseley’s court.
On second thoughts, perhaps we should rather thank God that the matter no longer rests there. For yesterday, by an 11 to 3 majority, Bideford Town Council voted to appeal against his ruling.