The Christian Institute and the National Secular Society (NSS) are fighting a
running battle through the courts of our land at present, firing salvoes from behind whatever cover lies to hand, such as the Bideford Town Council or Peter and HazelMary Bull (the Cornwall hoteliers). At the moment, the Institute does not seem to be doing too well, decisions in both aforesaid cases having gone against it.
The Bideford case (probably because the other was an appeal) has at present elicited more attention. Mr Justice Ouseley held that s.111 of the Local Government Act 1972 did not give councils the power to hold prayers as part of a formal local authority meeting. Even though a majority of the councillors had voted to retain prayers, this did not give them the authority to do what they had no power to do. So the councillors are suggesting holding prayers but not putting them on the agenda. The atheist councillor who brought the case, Clive Bone, has said that prayers sent out the wrong message - that councils were for a group of old people who liked church, (or words to that effect). However the court did not hold that this was a breach of his human rights, nor that it amounted to discrimination.
The Institute relied apparently on the established status of the C of E (is this out of the Institute's conviction and theology or simply the use of 'any legal argument that may work'?); invocation of a tradition going back to the sixteenth century; and the apparent desires of the majority of the people of Bideford.
Nothing therefore forbids the council or any other public body from beginning meetings with prayer provided they do not do it as part of their statutory duties, unless they can show such religious activity is statutorily empowered. It amounts to a fairly narrow point, and a narrow victory for the NSS (a bit like winning on penalties); its significance is more in the symbolism. Yet again, it appears, religious, and particularly Christian, activity has been banned (for whatever reason) from an area of public and political life.
Look at the issue of conscience first - though that was not central to the ruling, it is an important issue. Should an atheist or people of other religions have to take part in prayers? Apparently they were allowed not to attend if they did not want to, but only at the price of not being part of the whole meeting - so maybe holding the prayers outside the agenda would solve that. Nonetheless, Christians should not put people in the position of taking part in a Christian religious act against their conscience. We would not want it done to us; we should not impose it on others. That pioneer of religious freedom Roger Williams, said that such an imposition was 'rape of the soul'. How would an evangelical feel if such prayers contained prayers for the soul of a recently departed councillor? I am sure we have been in those situations and it is not comfortable.
Then there is the issue of what prayer is. Only prayer offered in faith through Jesus Christ is prayer which is promised to be answered, though we should not put limits on God's sovereign mercy as to what prayers he may or may not answer. But is prayer as a public, formal act, regardless of the personal spiritual standing of the persons praying, acceptable to God? Now every one of the Bideford councillors may be a sincere Christian; but the nature of the body of which they are a part is that people of any faith or none may be members. Surely prayers in such an environment is inappropriate. Unlike attenders at a church service, they do not 'consent' to it.
If people want to pray in such a setting, it should be open to them to vote to do so and the minority either put up with it or not attend; this presumably could be done at Bideford. But prayer should not be part of a the statutory public acts of a body such as a town council.
The Christian Institute's legal argument suggests that the Bideford practice is linked to the the establishment of the Christian religion in this nation. The court cases we are seeing now is witness to the fact that Christianity is on the retreat. One problem is how to maintain the beneficial influence of Christianity in public life; the bigger issue is how to strengthen the presence and witness of vital Christianity in our land. If we are going to use the arguments of establishment, tradition, legislation or 'the will of the majority' then we must carefully think through the theology of it.
A crucial issue which recurs in this battle is the confusion of 'church and state' (which should be kept separate) with 'religion and politics' (which cannot be separated because even secularism is, deep down, religious in its commitments). Let's do some careful thinking down that route. Certainly all the crass statements one reads to the effect that 'religion should be kept out of politics' should be challenged, while I (a non-conformist) would agree that church and state should be kept separate.
Of course the irony is that Mr Bone and his atheist and secularist friends obviously do not realise, or deliberately forget, that it is only Christianity that gave them the freedom to have local councils in the first place. The peculiar balance of form and freedom we enjoy in the West is the fruit of biblical influence in our culture. The freedom to pray comes from the same root as the freedom to assemble. The NSS is slowly, blindly, but surely lopping off the branch on which it sits.