I was obviously interested to read today that a town council has been found to have exceeded its statutory powers by putting prayers on the agenda of the full meetings of the council. The case has gone right up to the High Court and there may yet be an appeal, but substantially it has been stated by the presiding judge The Honourable Mr Justice Sir Duncan Ouseley that it is inappropriate and indeed unlawful for prayers to be held within a civic meeting. In this case they are Christian prayers but one assumes the effective ban extends across all faiths.
The law governing civic councils is changing rapidly, and one of the changes is the new Localism Act which contains the General Power of Competence, in guidance notes to the Act it explains that it will be “giving them the same capacity to act as an individual generally has, which will enable them to do anything apart from that which is specifically prohibited.” Indeed, Section 1 part 1 says “A local authority has power to do anything that individuals generally may do.” I presume, a little tongue in cheek, that until today under the Localism Act prayers would have been ok; albeit prayers would not be at all what the law was intending. I wonder if this judgement now means such prayers are henceforth specifically prohibited?
In a way, a small way, I can sympathise with Bideford Town Council. But then again, as a non-Christian although I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable I might feel a little sidelined if I was a councillor in those meetings. It’s certainly best if personal declarations of faith were not a part of a committee meeting, in order to cater for those of all faiths and none. Even in our generally Christian corner of South Gloucestershire I suspect (I’ve never actually asked) our council is equipped with wonderful folk of different Christian beliefs, and none, and at least one Druid… perhaps some other faiths. And that’s the point, isn’t it? I don’t know because it has no bearing upon the work being undertaken by the Council as a whole.
I wondered how a Druid majority Council might begin the meeting… perhaps with calls to the three realms – land, sea, sky… above, below and within… Annwm: Abred, Gwynfydd and Caugent. Calls to the four quarters – earth, air, fire, water. Invitations to the spirits of the landscape around us – of the woodlands, streams and fields, of the village itself, of the sinuously winding Severn and the Cotswold Hills that delineate our geography. And to the ancestors who did the work before us, who made the village what it was before we made it what it is. And to personal deity – that which we acknowledge, that we listen to and who listen (and you can’t get more inclusive than that, folks!). Stating our intentions, to act honourably within the meeting and outside of it, and to be mindful of the importance of the work we do on behalf of others.
Of course, I’d need far more glamorous robes… and the chairs would have to be set out in a circle…! lol. And we’d probably need to start earlier and finish later (well there’s the closing ritual too…) No, on the whole I think we’ll keep faith within ourselves and act as we find our honour demands within a secular council meeting and in keeping with the standards expected of councillors. As the law now demands.