“Never discuss religion or politics” is the timeless advice to those who want to avoid causing offence or controversy but occasionally something happens which means you have to discuss both at the same time. Last week, in an extraordinary judgement, Justice Ouseley ruled that Bideford Council had no legal right to hold prayers before council meetings.
The government immediately made clear that the decision was flawed and that provisions contained in the New Localism Act, which comes into force within weeks, will overrule the judgement because they give councils what is called a general power of competence. Rather than having to be given permission in law before being allowed to do something, as the judge in this case insisted they must, in future councils will be free to do anything they like provided it is not forbidden in law. That includes saying prayers if they want to.
Every day, both the House of Commons and House of Lords hold prayers before debates commence. It is a practice rightly repeated in council chambers up and down the country. Regardless of how religious individual MPs or councillors might be, prayers before parliament sits are a crucial recognition that we have our own independent Church of England established as part of the state with the Queen at its head. One of the crucial things about the British constitution is that it has evolved in a way that guarantees our absolute independence as a nation and an established church is part of that.
Britain has an admirable history of religious tolerance. Having an established Church of England does not mean that we oppose other faiths. A few years ago I worked with a project that aimed to improve links between the Conservative Party and the Muslim community. That year, I received more Christmas cards from Muslims than I did from Christians. Nor does it mean that religion is used in politics. The US does not have an established church like Britain but presidential candidates will frequently play the card of religion during elections to try to garner support in religious areas. That does not happen in Britain where we maintain a dignified separation of religion and party politics even though, or perhaps because, both parliament and the church swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen.
I sometimes receive letters from practicing Christians who feel that their beliefs and rights are being undermined. Parliament frequently has to wrestle with difficult issues where there is a clash of rights. But we are a Christian country and, while I am not devout myself and, like many others, don’t go to church as often as I should, I do think we should take a stand for the right to say prayers.
George Eustice can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org or at 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall, TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.