Council prayers in summary

Coming home from the Radio 4 Sunday programme just now from talking about council prayers for probably the last time this week, I have organised my thoughts in way that limited broadcast slots don’t allow:

1. Arguments from tradition (we’ve had prayers in councils since Elizabeth the First etc) are not enough. Social and cultural contexts change and we should re-evaluate what we do as a state from time to time and make sure we still have good reasons to do something.

2. I can’t think of any good reasons to have prayers of one particular religion in a public body that contains many people of non-Christian religious beliefs and non-religious beliefs and that serves a public which is similarly diverse.

3. Arguments that we should have prayers in our public life because we are ‘a Christian country’ are meaningless. We are not ‘a Christian country’: the last British Social Attitudes Survey showed 51% of people said they were not religious, over 90% of people are not regular church attenders and in addition there are many non-Christian religious citizens of the UK. In fact, many important pre-Christian, non-Christian and post-Christian factors have shaped our country over the centuries.

4. Perhaps once upon a time prayers may have been a cohesive practice, bringing our elected or appointed representatives together for shared reflection on their public duties, but they don’t serve that function in today’s society. If we actually think that such a function is necessary (and I can see how such reflection might be an appropriate punctuation of other workaday business) then it certainly can’t be served by prayers.

5. The real story over the last couple of days has been that of political Christian groups and misleading media outlets misrepresenting the nature of the court’s judgement – eg prayers were not ‘banned’, just prevented from being part of the formal business agenda and the ruling does NOT have consequences for other public bodies (unfortunately) – and using this to create a new chapter in their totally false narrative that Christianity is being attacked, persecuted, marginalised etc.

That’s it. Glad I got it off my chest.


  1. Ian

    Nobody seems to have addressed this “tradition” angle. Prayers have been said since the time of Elizabeth I, a time when religious difference was at the heart of politics. Is there any historical evidence that shows why prayers were introduced? Were they more a test of religious (and therefore political) allegiance?

  2. Andrew

    It’s a good point. Totally believable that prayers introduced as a way to ensure religious conformity and test political allegiance.

  3. Richard Firth-Godbehere

    Prayers were almost certainly introduced in Elizabethan times as a way to reinforce the primacy of the CofE and Protestantism. The previous Catholic regime preferred, as Catholics do, that prayer take place in church guided by the preisthood. The inclusion of prayer in government was there for a rejection of Mary’s rule and church in a very pubic way, and served as a daily rreminder of both what England had become and the violence that came before. Although most of the violence attributed to “bloody Mary” was actually apocryphal propaganda.

    In short, prayer in councils and government served a political and social function in the 15th century that has no relevance today.

  4. Blaise F Egan

    In Elizabethan times it was actually *illegal* to be an atheist. The monarchy was intellectually buttressed by the Divine Right of Kings, so an attack on Christianity was an attack on the legitimacy of the state. If no-one had challenged this tradition it would STILL be illegal. Sometimes you have to stop doing things the way you have always done them and do what’s RIGHT.

  5. Richard Firth-Godbehere

    This is also true, Blaise, and I’d just add that Atheism was a more widely used term than it is now, refering to just about anyone who differed in view from the authorized church. Catholics were atheists to Protestants and vice versa. Even 250 years later, David Hume couldn’t explicitly state he was an atheist without getting into trouble; even his implied atheism didn’t help him. Thank “whatever” things have changed. With any luck, the likes of ex archbishops will catch up in time for our grandchildren.

  6. Josh Kutchinsky

    Well put. It is difficult to imagine any sort of reasonable counter argument. By the way I listened to the Sunday program this morning and thought you made all these points remarkably well given the limited time and the ludicrous interventions of the pro prayer fellow.

  7. Nick Wallis

    I’m not sure that this has doine anything to further the cause of a secular society – quite the opposite. It looks like nit-picking. I would have thought there are far more important issues to take forward than this in the realm of religion and society.

    I have sat as a councillor in Darlington for over 20 years. Depending on the outlook of the Mayor for that year, a chaplain or minister leads the Council in a prayer or simply gives some thoughts about leadership in the town. I guess practice will vary from town to town, but in Darlington, this does not feature on any agenda – were we to have a Mayor with a Muslim or Hindu background, for example, then they could ask for a representative of their faith to lead the act.

    I’m not a Christian, but I do find these simple acts of communal reflection helpful. I think whether or not they are held should be left to the individual councils concerned – certainly bringing in lawyers and the Courts seems an over-reaction.

  8. The Church Mouse


    I don’t disagree with your first four points, and agree in large part with your fifth. The coverage has in general not picked up on the subtleties of the ruling. In particular, it has not picked up that the judge threw out all the arguments that Cllr Bone’s human rights had been infringed by the council holding prayers.

    However, despite finding large degrees of consensus with you on these points, I’m left with one final question. Why is it anything to do with anyone other than the councillors and voters of Bideford? If that is how the council voluntarily chooses to conduct its business, and the voters of the area return them to office, why should it be an issue which has led to a judicial ruling at great expense?

    This is what has led me to the conclusion that this was a great big waste of everybody’s time and money.

  9. Andrew

    Church Mouse

    I think that the local democracy argument can only go so far – we have the rule of law in this country too and the Local Government Act said what it said in spite of any alleged desires of the people of Bideford to have their councillors say prayers.

    The councillor who initiated the actions said that he felt alienated from the council by its conduct – eventually he left office because of it – and cited the cases of others who were deterred from office or departed because of the atmosphere of the council of which prayers were a part. We have a liberal democracy in the UK not just a democracy and I think that means that the law can legitimately insist on certain standards notwithstanding their popularity. The death penalty is one example and another – of far far lesser importance of course but nonetheless – is the inclusive nature of our shared public life. But I accept it is a complicated and contested area in the philosophy of law.

    As for judicial rulings at great expense, that was not something I was involved in directly so I can’t comment – I’m just contributing here to the debate on the principle of prayers which the case provoked.

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