Monday 5 March 2012

Established thought

The declaration by a court of law that holding prayers at the start of a council meeting was illegal shouldn’t really have surprised anyone.  As I understand it, the court did not actually outlaw the saying or prayers before the start of a meeting, if that’s what councillors want to do; it merely said that prayers cannot be part of the formal agenda of a meeting to which councillors are summoned and which they are expected to attend.
The judgement seemed eminently reasonable to me; if councillors want to turn up five minutes early and pray together there is absolutely nothing preventing them from doing so.  It’s a judgement which seems to have sparked quite a response from others though. 
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has vowed to reverse the decision.  I’m not quite sure that he can do that – the last time I checked, ministers in the UK couldn’t simply over-ride the judgement of a court.  What he's actually trying to do is to change the law, of course; but even after getting parliamentary consent, I suspect that they will find that it isn’t that easy in this day and age to tell councillors that prayers are compulsory, which is effectively what including them on the agenda implies.  Such an attempt is still likely to fall foul of the judges.
Baroness Warsi waded in to defend the established church, as did Her Britannic Majesty herself, in a rare direct statement on a political issue.  The queen actually referred to the “significant position of the Church of England in our national life”, with that sleight of hand which so deftly conceals the confusion over which ‘nation’ is being referred to here.
There is, of course, no established church in this nation and has not been for almost a century now.  That’s something of which I’m sure the queen is well aware, even if the baroness is not.  That lack has not, however, affected the privileged position of those English bishops who sit as Lords Spiritual in the upper house and are permitted to influence laws affecting our nation.  It’s a long-standing anomaly; a sort of reverse West Lothian question.
For all the attention it’s generated, prayers at the start of Bideford Council isn’t exactly an issue of great moment for most of us.  It has, though, highlighted an issue about the relationship between religion and politics which doesn’t often get discussed by politicians.  I suspect that’s because most of them are afraid of the question.
The line taken by those seeking to defend the special place of the Church of England in society was an interesting one.  It seems to have been based on the idea that we have a shared set of values, that those values are rooted in those of the established church, and that therefore that church should have a special place allocated to it by the state.  Whilst the third of those points certainly flows naturally from the first two, both of the first two are open to debate, to say the least.
Whilst it may have been true in the past that there was a shared set of values, and whilst many may well wish it were still so, I’m far from convinced that it actually is so today, to anything like the extent implied.  Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on perspective, but attempting to ignore the change which has happened is foolish.
And, even insofar as there is a shared set of values, can anyone really claim that they are rooted in religion at all, yet alone in a single denomination of a single religion?  They may happen to be, to some extent at least, the same values as those espoused by the church, but that doesn’t mean that all those who hold them draw those values from that perspective, and it’s rather presumptuous to claim that they do.  At the very least, there’s a suggestion that ‘if you agree with me on the values, then they must have come from the same place as mine’, and put in that form, the flaw in the argument is obvious.
Christianity has contributed much to what we are today, and it still fulfils a very important function for many.  But the days when a single monolithic denomination could be considered to be the sole font of values and morality for everyone in society have long since gone.  Attempts by prominent politicians and royals to pretend that we can go back to that look more like an attempt to impose a more conformist and deferential set of attitudes than an attempt to look to the future.

1 comment:

maen_tramgwydd said...

"..a sort of reverse West Lothian question"


It sums up Wales' standing, or lack of, in this dis-United Kingdom.