"Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind; so may your kingdom come and your name be hallowed. Amen."For his own part, Hickman doesn't really take issue with the parliamentary prayers, arguing that "the fact that it's voluntary and not conducted in sight of the public completely dissipates the need to take any possible offence that religion is still being intertwined with our state apparatus." He has a point, but I'm sure lots of people will disagree – aren't the prayers a sign that, while Britain is largely secular, an archaic situation endures where religion is indeed "intertwined with our state apparatus"? This may seem fairly harmless when prayers are being said before parliamentary sessions, but what about the 26 bishops who sit in the second chamber of our legislature? Or the fact that our (admittedly nominal) head of state is also the head of a national church? Hickman does go on in his piece to say that in a secular state the Queen shouldn't be "Supreme Governor" of the Church of England, but aren't prayers in parliament a symptom of that anachronism, rather than, as Hickman suggests, a "rather quaint bit of living history"'?
Not that I'm really being critical of the columnist's secularism – I disagree that the prayers are merely quaint and harmless, but I'm in complete agreement with everything else he says. Most of his column is devoted to a bizarre and anachronistic (yes, that word again) row currently taking place in the Cornish town of Helston, where a local resident, Pat Woodhouse, who is considering standing for the town council, has spoken out in opposition to the fact that Christian prayers are read out by a chaplain before every council meeting. Woodhouse told the local paper:
"Let's face it, we are supposed to be politically correct now. If anyone really took offence they could criticise the council. It isn't right. With respect to the reverend who opens the meeting with a prayer, is it politically correct to only have Christian prayers at the beginning of the meeting?"Perfectly reasonable, don't you think? Anyone attending a Helston council meeting, or even sitting on the council, who was of another faith, or none, might feel somewhat excluded by the Christian prayers read out before the meetings. Perhaps they might feel like they were intruding on a slightly Christians-only affair? Therefore, the council should stop the practice of prayers before meetings, in order to make itself more inclusive. Helston's former mayor Paul Phillips, however, disagreed:
"I don't know if Helston councillors have any other beliefs (than Christianity)Harsh words. And the current mayor of Helston, Niall Devenish, wasn't feeling much more reasonable: I think it (the comment) is disgraceful. This country fought two world wars on Christian principles. It is up to the mayor to choose their chaplain and if the mayor is of a Christian background then it is natural he or she will choose a Christian chaplain."
"As far as I was aware the UK is a Christian country so I was therefore surprised at this comment."The mayor's words, I think, sum up the problem – the fact that we have an established church, with the Queen as its Supreme Governor, and 26 Bishops in the Lords, and all the rest, means that whenever someone wishes to defend an archaic and exclusive practice such as Helston's pre-council prayer, they can simply state that Britain "is a Christian country". Which, strictly speaking, it is. But it isn't, really.
So, disestablishment, anyone? Of course a good way to start would be by booting the Bishops out of the Lords as part of the ongoing, if stalled, Lords reforms. If it's an issue that interests you, then you may like to go along to the debate on the issue being held by the Labour Humanists on 27 January in the Houses of Parliament – more information on that here.