Eric Pickles has now flung his not inconsiderable weight into the dispute over whether local councils can hold prayers as part of their business. He’s going to rush through a commencement order for powers contained in the Localism Act 2011 which would give councils a “general power of competence”.
Now, while most of us would be only too delighted to see our local councils exercise some competence, there is some serious doubt whether the new powers would solve the “problem”. It all arises because of a recent ruling in the High Court that Bideford Town Council had acted unlawfully by allowing prayers to be said during meetings. I find it astonishing that, in the 21st century, we are even having this debate.
The business of a local council, or any body that exercises executive power, outside of the church itself, should not contain an act of corporate worship. I am a civil servant and if I suggested starting a meeting with christian prayers I would firstly be howled down and then, probably, subjected to disciplinary action. I also find offensive in all this the suggestion that you can only be a good councillor if you’re a christian.
We are a nation of many faiths and of none. The churches claim that 6 million attend regularly. That’s probably an over-estimate, but even if it isn’t it’s still less than ten per cent of the population and, therefore, no basis on which to incorporate religious worship into the public functions of organisations that exist to serve everyone.
Religious worship has its place, but that isn’t in the council chamber or, come to that, the chambers of the Houses of Parliament.