Prayers in Councils

bill progression

Some time ago I wrote an article about the prayers which took place in the Houses of Parliament. You can see it here. Because of my Pentecostal background I believe in the power of prayer and so I’ve taken an esoteric interest in an obscure bill which will now be made law.

So here’s the background in a nutshell – A bill was given royal assent on 26th March concerning whether local councils should be free to say prayers (any kind of prayer to any kind of god) before they make the decisions which make our lives hell. It also grants authorities to be present at any ‘religious event’.

Over to Jake Berry MP (Cons) to explain the whole shebang: “I want to talk briefly about the purpose of the Bill, which will give local authorities the freedom to include prayers, other religious observances, or observances connected with a religious or philosophical belief as part of the business of that authority. The Bill will provide that local authorities in England may support, facilitate and make arrangements to be represented at religious events or an event with a religious element. I proposed the Bill because of a recent ruling made by the High Court. A councillor in Bideford town council attempted, through the courts, to put an end to the practice of the town council having prayers on its agenda, despite the practice dating back to the reign of Elizabeth I. As part of the High Court case, on 10 February 2012 Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that the council’s prayers as part of official business were not, in fact, lawful. In short, on a narrow issue of whether section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 gave councils the power to continue with prayers, the High Court ruled that it did not; councils therefore had no such statutory power to permit the practice to continue. At a stroke of the judge’s pen, the High Court ended centuries of tradition in our country and put in doubt in the long-held practice of town hall prayers in local authorities.” 

You may be surprised to hear that prayer has largely been a choice of councils up until now (despite some recent controversy) and you may also be surprised to hear that the House of Commons (and Lords) also hold brief formal prayers (these meetings seem to be largely attended to gain seats in important debates rather than to petition God).

There was a campaign by the National Secular Society to petition MPs to prevent the prayers. They also covering this story. I’m like the obscure football player on the edge of a pitch, far, far away from the ball, perhaps supposedly marking an opponent. But enough of the football metaphor and back to the blog entry…

Who cares? For those of us who take an interest in this, it was interesting to note that the House of Commons was almost empty at report stage. Few MPs seem to care about prayer even when they claim to hold those involved in the latest disaster in their prayers. It is largely seen as an archaic tradition which is irrelevant to Government. Even the Christian community has mixed feelings on the issue. And perhaps it is the sheer effectiveness of councillors prayers which are in question. Many simply do not feel that prayers are effective or necessary when it comes to the life and death decisions which Government makes. Perhaps MPs are not the only ones who feel this way. It would be crass to suggest otherwise.

The new law gives Councillors the choice on whether to pray or not before a meeting. It allows Councillors of all faiths to pray according to their faiths and since there is no economic cost there was relatively little opposition. Prayers can be made in any faith (which is a slight change from the status quo). After the second reading one MP brought forward an amendment that the prayers should only take place with a local referendum for people. But this was rejected largely because it was seen to be costly.

The few MPs who were interested remarked that the bill was good because it is cheap. So worship (of a kind) does take place after all. Prayer is cheap according to MPs and although they consistently claim that their prayers and thoughts are with those who have suffered some injustice, in practice, based on the evidence of this debate and the lack of MPs attending formal prayers it would seem to be lip service only.

But it could be true that the issues on which the world swings start with small things like prayer. There are many people who believe that prayer changes things and that it is an incredibly powerful and spiritual force. MPs and Councillors seem to be reserving the right to pray, but not actively choosing to do so.

In fact you could say that they say they pray (when they say, for example, ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with…’) and yet they do not do so. I believe there may be a word for such claims.

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