Praying for an end to prayers

Are council prayers discriminatory, or just local democracy in action?

Are council prayers discriminatory, or just local democracy in action?

As living standards atrophy and the collapse of the eurozone becomes every day a little less unthinkable, it may seem trivial in the extreme to be arguing about whether or not the mayor of a small town in Devon should be called upon to say a prayer before the start of council meetings. Yet for the National Secular Society (NSS) it would seem to be a big deal. As their legal challenge is heard in the High Court, the NSS believes its case against Bideford council to be an issue that "goes to the very heart of secularism in public life and, if successful, will set a key country-wide precedent."

The law, declares the NSS in a press release, "is not made in Bideford". But whichever way the decision goes, Bideford will decide the law. The NSS estimates that half of all local councils in Britain begin their proceedings with prayers, usually of a Christian character. It's a custom that they're determined to see brought to an end. A document published on the NSS website calls both for donations to a fighting fund and for a pro-active campaign to root out instances of coucil prayer. Supporters are urged to find out if their local council begins its meetings with prayers -- and, if so, to complain to the council and to the local press ("the local media are always looking for stories, particularly those with a specific community angle") and to take part in radio phone-ins.

Feelings are running equally high on the other side. Last year when the NSS's legal challenge was first announced, Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, claimed that the "centuries-long tradition of saying of prayers before council meetings" was "an acknowledgment of the important role the Christian faith plays in civic life". (This may be why the NSS finds them so objectionable, of course.) He condemned the lawsuit as "an attack on freedom and a cynical manoeuvre to drive public expressions of faith from national as well as local life." A local bishop went so far as to claim that council prayers formed "an integral part of the British system of government".

Bideford council is being represented by a firm of solicitors closely linked to the campaign group the Christian Institute. The firm has acted in a number of high profile cases -- most recently that of Adrian Smith, demoted by Trafford Housing Trust for objecting to gay marriage on his private Facebook account.

But the roots of the Bideford case are also local, particular and long-standing. At its centre is Councillor Clive Bone, who has been trying to get prayers abolished for more than three years. His attempt in 2008 to replace them with a moment of silent contemplation was defeated by nine votes to four. Bone claims that the practice is divisive, embarrassing and that he was aware of potential councillors who put off standing for election by the prospect of having to sit through prayers. According to the NSS, "prayers make him uncomfortable and he feels embarrassed and awkward as the public act of worship is practised". He objects to having to choose between "participating" or leaving the room, or else arriving late. Holding prayers "creates a feeling of exclusion for him and some other councillors," which has led him not to seek re-election.

I can well understand non-religious councillors finding prayers to be boring and unnecessary. The NSS may have a case in law. They report that the National Association of Local Councils shares their analysis that council prayers may be considered discriminatory. They certainly have a good case in logic. I would worry about any councillor who seriously believed that they required divine guidance before making decisions about some local planning application. And prayers at the start of meetings are likely to produce embarrassed shuffling of feet among non-believing councillors.

To impose prayers by majority vote upon council members who actively object to them strikes me as insensitive and less than wholly Christian. In Bideford itself, the controversy seems to have produced a poisonous atmosphere on the council that can hardly have been conducive to good local government; still less to the "cohesion" that was claimed to be the purpose of the prayers. There's more common sense on display in Gloucester, where to the NSS's delight council prayers have this week been abolished.

And yet I can't help thinking that high court judges have more pressing calls on their time, and more expertise than micromanaging how proceedings should be initiated in council chambers up and down the country. It's not as if -- as with religious school assemblies -- council prayers are compulsory, and for the National Secular Society to argue that it they represent a key front in the wider battle against religious domination of public life is as absurd as their opponents' contention that they are essential to maintaining the country's Christian foundation. In reality, the issue represents yet another opportunity for two legally-obsessed pressure groups to go head-to-head -- a depressingly recurrent feature of our modern human rights culture. Sometimes the law is best made in Bideford.

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Former Labour leader Ed Miliband tells Jeremy Corbyn: "I would have gone"

Jeremy Corbyn's predecessor broke his long silence to say the leader's position was "untenable". 

The former Labour leader Ed Miliband has swung his weight behind the campaign to oust Jeremy Corbyn after describing his position as "untenable" and declared he would have resigned already.

His intervention is seen as significant, because since losing the general election in 2015, Miliband has taken a step back and refused to publicly criticise his successor. 

But the day after Labour MPs voted they had no confidence in Corbyn, the former leader has finally spoken. 

Miliband told BBC Radio 4's World at One that his position was "untenable". 

He said:

"We are at a time of acute national crisis, a crisis I haven't known in my political lifetime, probably the biggest crisis for the country since World War II.

"At that moment we in the Labour party need to think about the country.

"I've supported Jeremy Corbyn all the way along from the moment he was elected because I thought it was absolutely the right thing to do. A lot of what he stands for is very important. But I've relcutantly reached the conclusion that his position is untenable."

 

But with Corbyn already defying the opinion of most of his parliamentary colleagues, this alone is unlikely to have much effect. It's what Miliband says next that is crucial.

Corbyn has argued the vote of no confidence against him was unconstitutional. Miliband thinks otherwise. He said: "You are the leader of the Labour Party, the leader of the party in parliament and the leader of the party in the country. Some people are saying this is unconstitional. In our constitution it says if a fifth of MPs support another candidate there is another contest."

And he implied it should not even get to a leadership contest: "No doubt that will follow if Corbyn decides to stay. but the question then for him is what is the right thing for the country and the party and the causes he stands for."

Miliband also hit out at accusations of a conspiracy to oust Corbyn:

"I've never been called a Blairite. I'm not a plotter. I'm somone who cares deeply anpout this country, deeply about my party, deeply about the causes I think Jeremy and I care about. I think the best thing on all of those criteria is that he stands down."

Asked what he would have done in the same situation, he replied: "I would have gone.

"One of the reasons I'm speaking out is because of what people are saying about this proceess. If you look at the people saying Jeremy should go, it's not people on one wing of the Labour Party.

"I had my troubles with certain people in the Labour Party. Some of them ideological, some on other issues, but this is not ideological." Some of Corbyn's ideas could continue under a new leader, he suggested. 

Miliband shared his views just minutes after his former rival, the Prime Minister David Cameron, told Corbyn it was not in the national interest for him to remain as leader. "I would say, for heaven's sake man, go," he told the Opposition leader at Prime Minister's Questions. 

Although the Brexit vote was a devastating blow for the PM, the aftermath has unleashed equal waves of turmoil for the Labour Party.

Corbyn's refusal to resign sparked a series of resignations from the shadow cabinet. Unmoved, he replaced them. Meanwhile Momentum, Corbyn's grassroots political organisation, held a rally in support outside Parliament. 

On Tuesday, Labour MPs voted 172 to 40 in favour of a no confidence motion, which paves the way for a leadership challenge.

But Corbyn described the vote as unconstitutional and pledged he "would not betray" the Labour Pary members, who gave him a sweeping mandate in 2015.