A death in Bideford

Christianity is over. Finished. Done for. Born in Bethlehem, died in Bideford. It seems strange that a belief system can survive the shocks of knowledge and philosophy over several centuries, only to choke at a small harbour town’s county council, but that is the awesome power of local government for you. Turns out, it’s not legal to formally summon councilors to prayer – and a faith that can’t be forced on someone else is no faith at all.

Sure, you might not think that way, cool-headed churchgoing reader of Paperhouse. You might think that the love of God should be offered as an open-armed embrace, not a borderline assault where you press someone into a corner and smirk, “Well, I suppose you’ll have to hug me if you want to get out!” before holding them much too tight and for much too long. Well, cool-headed churchgoing reader of Paperhouse, you would be wrong.

The Times says Christianity is “on the rack“. The entire faith is being tortured to death like some sort of dirty infidel by this minor legal development. It’s even inspired former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey – quiet, unassuming, book-promoting Lord Carey – to speak out against the “deep forces at work in Western society, hollowing out the values of Christianity and driving them to the margins”. “Christians have rights too” wails the headline over his Telegraph interview, deeply distressed that your right not to be told what to do by meddling theocratic authorities is interfering with the meddling theocratic authorities’ right to tell you what to do. (Got that? Yes, it does sound pretty contradictory, but Christian theologians are pros at this sort of thing – just remember all the practice they get resolving the Trinity into a monotheistic belief system.)

But Carey’s version of Christianity isn’t quite the frail-stemmed tree he’d have you believe. You can take away his tenuous legal ability to force you to bow your head and mumble “amen” before the discussion about fouling on the local byways begins, but by Christ, you will not take away his almighty sense of victimhood. Look into Carey’s face and see the sanguine expression of man with access to the deepest succour of self-pity. Wherever he goes, lo even among the highest when he takes his place as an unelected lawmaker in the House of Lords, Carey can always hear the still, small voice of bitterness whispering, “Those godless bastards are going to take away everything that makes you important!”

The Bideford ruling really doesn’t matter that much. It certainly isn’t “ringingly secular“, as the National Secular Society rather excitedly claimed. It doesn’t stop any elected representatives who want to from gathering to pray and reflect beforehand. The judge in the case decided that saying prayers was neither discriminatory nor a breach of human rights – it simply wasn’t the council’s business to force its members to say grace before eating all the shit of local politics. The only people who’ve got anything to gain from exaggerating its import is the cantankerous, disruptive element that looks at the US and thinks, “Wow, those culture wars look like the kind of fun thing we should have in the UK.”

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2012; photo by Federico Caboni, used under Creative Commons

10 thoughts on “A death in Bideford

  1. First visit. Very amusing and well written piece, but I’d like to pick up on your last paragraph. You imply that the NSS is wrong to claim that the ruling was “ringingly secular” (an odd choice of phrase from KPW I have to say). I’m not entirely sure why you would say that.

    Surely the win was everything the NSS wanted as it stopped prayers being conducted as part of official business of the council. So yes, prayers can be said beforehand if some councillors wanted, but this was never something that was contested. In fact the NSS suggested such a course of action to Bideford Council before going anywhere near court, as an alternative practice to their ‘forcing’ members to attend prayers.

    If this case leads to other councils to note they don’t have the legal right to hold prayers as part of their formal meetings and thus are unlikely to win a court case if they are challenged… what could be more secular? Unless I’ve misread your point? Or I might undermine my own point now by noting that of course the ruling doesn’t underline a piece of specifically secular legislation.

  2. I’d say not “ringingly secular” because I think it’s pretty moderate: prayers can be held, they just can’t be part of the obligatory council business. I think it’s quite an important win, in terms of defining what a council can and can’t properly require its members to do, but it doesn’t make councils secular – it just underlines that they can’t force participation in religious activity. Does that make sense?

  3. But Sarah, the “pretty moderate” outcome was exactly what the NSS and Clive Bone were arguing for: i.e. no prayers as part of formal council business. Councillors can pray if they want to, but they can’t make it official.

    Why do you think that’s not secular?

  4. It’s “ringingly” that overstates things. As you point out, it doesn’t remove religion from public life, it just means that religion can’t be a compulsory part of public life.

  5. Thanks Sarah, really enjoyable piece. The term “ringingly secular” might be a bit triumphalist but it is, nonetheless, a judgement in favour of secularism. Those inclined to pray can do so before the council meeting but prayers should not be part of civic process. That, to me, seems reasonable. But I’m not Bishop Carey.

  6. It makes sense to a degree, but surely that’s the point of secularism? Although as I wondered, and you pointed out to Dan, you’re frowning at “ringingly” which I can understand.

    However the fact that some members, if they wish it, can pray before a meeting is… irrelevant, I think. As you yourself acknowledge in this case “religion can’t be a compulsory part of public life”. If council members want to they can have a (non-compulsory) Christian gathering before the meeting officially starts, which would be similar to other councillors agreeing to get together for a cup of tea. They could also have a Muslim meeting beforehand. Or they could have a “Pin the Pince-nez on the Dawkins” meeting. It would all depend on the chair of the council (or similar) and the wishes of the majority if they wanted to arrange such a thing.

    I could change tack slightly and ask what kind of result would warrant the label “ringingly secular” in your opinion? If it were along the lines of “no religious activity on council property or endorsed in any way by council officials” then I imagine it could stray to far into religious freedom, so long as it does not interfere with council business. By definition secularism asks that government etc. has a neutral stance on religion – as such would it would neither enable nor restrict religious activities (within reason). Interested to hear your thoughts.

  7. You’re right – it’s only the “ringingly” that I have a beef with, and perhaps it’s of the nature of secularism that it’s moderate. I certainly don’t think it’s in anyone’s interests for secularism to be triumphalist.

  8. Secularism is not anti-religion. In fact it surprises me that more religious people are not secularists. Some Muslim MPS are of course, when you look at the things they say, but somehow people tend to assume that secular groups like the NSS are anti-religious. In fact that’s a slur put about by people like Lord Carey (to pick one at random), who see every attack on their religious privilege as an attack on their religion. It’s a pity that they leave others with the same impression.

    To reduce people’s freedom to practice their religion in their own lives (including consensual prayer before Council meetings) would be anti-secular, since secularism stands for freedom of and from religion.

  9. Agreed — though worth pointing out that in my experience, most religious people *are* pretty secular. The special pleading represented by Carey and the Times doesn’t represent anyone I know.

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