A Quick Note on Prayer in Britain

A Quick Note on Prayer in Britain March 12, 2012

This past Thursday the Washington Post reported on a story that’s been causing no small amount of controversy in Britain, even sparking comment from the Prime Minister and the Queen Herself. It centers on the small English town of Bideford, and litigation over Christian prayers said as part of the official agenda during Town Council meetings. Here’s how the Washington Post leads things off.

Bideford Council Offices

“Perhaps the locals should have anticipated sparks on a town council stocked not only with a practicing pagan, a staunch atheist and an agnostic former stripper but also two evangelical Christians and a Methodist church organist. But few could have predicted that one small town’s fight over the abolition of Christian prayers at public meetings would escalate into Britain’s own culture wars.”

Wow! That’s quite a opening paragraph! A Pagan! An atheist! A stripper! What an interesting council, I’d love to hear more about the dynamic at play at meetings. Sadly, we hear no more about these councilors, and jump straight to the verdict.

“[Clive] Bone took the town to court — winning a ruling last month that appeared to set a legal precedent by saying government had no authority to compel citizens to hear prayer.”

I think the stress should be on “appeared” here. Commentators have noted that this ruling isn’t a clear win for either side, and is already being appealed. So while the National Secular Society is calling this a landmark ruling, it is not clear if this will actually change church-state interactions throughout the country. More than one commentator has pointed out that this simply prevents putting prayer on the official agenda. A local council can still have all the prayer they want before official business begins. Further, the United Kingdom, unlike the United States, has an established church, and religious freedoms are guaranteed by laws, not enshrined constitutionally. So the waters are murkier regarding how to build a “wall of separation” in England.

But let’s get back to that lede. How can you invoke a Pagan politician, or a stripper for that matter, without actually naming them? After a bit of digging I found that the former stripper is Myrna Bushell, who was essentially hounded out of office when her past came to light. However, I haven’t been able to find anything regarding a Pagan council member, past or present. You’d think the tabloids would be all over that, but my Google powers appear to not be up to the task. So, to all of my readers in the UK, if you know who this Bideford Pagan politician is, please drop me a line, or leave a comment, and let me know.

“Under the old regime I had to wait outside the room while everyone else was praying. This meant that it appeared I was being late or just plain rude to other people’s religions as I walked across the floor afterwards.” – Muslim politician Imran Khan, Conservative councillor on Reigate and Banstead Borough Council, BBC

I think the presence of religious minorities on the Town Council (and other political bodies in England) is perhaps the strongest argument against enshrined Christian prayers on the agenda, one that points to the growing religious diversity in Britain. One study claims that the UK will no longer be a majority Christian country by 2030, if so, does that mean disestablishment and a truly secular state are inevitable? I’d love to hear what some non-Christian politicians think about the questions raised, including our anonymous Pagan.

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15 responses to “A Quick Note on Prayer in Britain”

  1. I’m afraid I don’t know the councillor of whom you speak, nor had I noticed this story, despite being a UK subject and resident. The local Pagan Federation rep may be a good person to ask.

    I used to be all in favour of disestablishment, but nowadays, while I’m still in favour of it in principle, in practice I think it works rather well, and acts to safeguard a big chunk of our national heritage and some of our most important historic buildings, most of which are built on even older Pagan sites. My local cathedral, for example, was built in the 12th century, and has the Viking equivalent of “Kilroy was ‘ere” carved in runes at waist height just inside the door.

    I think having prayers at town council meetings though is just plain rude, unless everyone shares the prayers of their religious tradition, plus some secular thoughts and sayings.

  2. Hmm. I oppose attempts to lessen the Church of England’s role in government, but this certainly seems interesting.

  3. To my British friends acroos the pond , i hope the lower court ruling holds . But good luck . Even though Separation of church and state is in our constutution , we still have problems . Christianity is the majority religion here and is well entrenched in our society . We still have problems in the American South.I’m sure their are a few 10 commandment and prayer cases still in the courts . We pagan Americans still have to fight to enforce reasonable laws . Now of all things our conservative politicians are assaultings womans rights/health issues .Unfortunatly we by no means can rest , must remain vigilant to preserve our rights . Kilm aka Dennis

  4. Personally, as a British Pagan, I don’t want to see Britain become like the U.S., we may have an official Church, but, the way our system is set up means we do not get power hungry fundamentalists in politics (I mean, come on, no one will ever convince me Rowan Williams is equivalent to someone in the Tea Party or whatever other insane groups America has (and, it seems to have its fair share, of both Christian and non-Christian insane groups).


  5. Well here in the US , most if not all of our lunatics come from our extreme religious right conservatives , the religious right . As it is known here . i wished we had more level heads here , but we don’t .At this point our govt is broken . We have a democrat party president , liberal and black [negro] the congress is republican controled, raving nuts conservative . the congress blocks everything the President wants to do , broken .Such is life in these United States. Kilm

  6. “An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman, an Imam, an Rabbi and a Priest walk into a bar. ‘What is this? Some kind of JOKE?”, asks the barman.” [Rowan Atkinson]

  7. I discussed this briefly on the ‘Divine Community’ podcast a few weeks ago, and I’m hoping to have a more substantial discussion on it in a future episode. It’s part of a wider controversy in Britain that has been portrayed (mainly by the media) as being about religion vs secularism. It’s partly about that, and partly about political and legal issues. Each case and situation needs to be looked at separately – there’s a range of things happening here.

    Personally, I’m in favour of the disestablishment of the Church of England. It has its benefits – not least that, as people have said above, it seems to have the paradoxical effect of largely keeping religion out of public life. That said, we still have bishops in the House of Lords making decisions about the way our country is governed, and the church is currently attempting to derail the government’s plans for same-sex marriage. Disestablishing the C of E would solve a lot of these and related problems. In a highly multicultural society, one denomination of one religion shouldn’t have that much influence, even if it’s mainly symbolic influence. About 6% of British people go to church regularly, and most of those don’t go to a C of E church. This is far more about the power of the establishment than religion vs secularism or Christianity vs everyone else.

  8. I’m British, and personally I’m not surprised you can’t find any details about a Pagan town councilor – being Pagan really isn’t much of a big deal over here. Whenever the Daily Mail has run anti-pagan articles (which they do, from time to time), the general response was negative by most non-Pagans (“We live in a tolerant society, they’re not harming anyone!” “Christianity is JUST as irrational!”)

    In fact, I’d say you’re more likely to receive discrimination from ardent atheists who think that you’re a superstitious bumpkin than you are from Christian fundamentalists in this country. The majority of our Christian population are aging fast, and I anticipate the wholesale decline of (particularly established) Christianity by the time I am 40. With that in mind, I think having an established church and formalised prayer at secular events is completely anachronistic.

  9. 2030!? I’ve heard complaints that the UK is no longer a Christian country now. (Mostly from American conservatives, to be sure…)

  10.  So does my mother’s.  Don’t let them fool you, they really just want a fun vacation.

  11. Absolutely agree with what you say. I have had more grief from “forceful” atheists in the UK than I have had from Christians.